Two questions, brilliantly answered, and in the space of 10 minutes two genuine medal contenders had emerged for Ireland ahead of next month’s European Indoor Championships.
Going into last night’s Athlone IT International Grand Prix, some signs were already lurking that Ciara Mageean and Mark English were on the road back to the form that took them to European medals in the past, but in truth that belief was held more in hope than expectation.
But no longer. Mageean smashed her own Irish indoor 1500m record by clocking 4:06.76, unleashing a potent kick on the final lap to seal victory to a backdrop of raucous roaring, long-time leader Claudia Bobocea of Romania having no answer to her vicious surge.
“I’m delighted to come away with the win in front of the Irish crowd – it’s all I could do to say thank you to them all,” said Mageean, who coasted in third place for much of the race before launching her decisive strike with 200m to run.
“My plan was to win, regardless of the clock.”
It was a very different Mageean to the one the Irish athletics public last witnessed stepping off the track, the dejected figure she cut in Berlin last August when finishing fourth in the European 1500m final in Berlin.
But signs are now ominous that Mageean is ready to avenge that near-miss at the European Indoors in Glasgow in early March.
“It’s very hard for athletes – people always expect us to be winning but life doesn’t go like that. I’ve moved to a new group and that’s been the difference over the last year,” said Mageean, who now trains with a professional group in Manchester under coach Steve Vernon.
For Mark English, a mercurial talent who last claimed an international medal in 2015, there was a great big question mark surrounding form as went to the line for last night’s 800m.
It took one minute, 46.92 seconds to issue his decisive answer, English coasting through the first three laps before changing gears with alacrity at the sound of the bell, leaving his rivals trailing with the kind of acceleration which has long been his trademark.
He was back, not so much with a bang as a blast, English exhibiting a level of explosive speed which will make all European half-milers take notice.
He came home a wide-margin winner over USA’s Erik Sowinki (1:47.64) and fellow Irishman Zak Curran (1:47.73). Back in fifth, Conall Kirk also dipped under the European standard with 1:48.95.
“Training has been going really well but you never really know until you post a time how things are going so I’m delighted,” said English, who said he had a renewed focus this winter under the guidance of coach Steve Magness: endurance.
“My long runs have been long and hard and that’s given me a lot more fitness this year,” he said.
“That showed after I hit 600 metres today; I could kick on with relative ease so thankfully it’s all working out. I’m excited for European Indoors; I think I can go out and fight for a place in that final.”
Thomas Barr unleashed his typical flying finish in the men’s 400m, but the line came a moment too soon for the Waterford sprinter, Barr closing with every stride on Dutch athlete Tony van Diepen but denied by inches, 47.01 to 47.05.
The consolation for Barr was that it was well inside the Athletics Ireland qualifying standard for the European Indoors (47.30), and that will be next on his agenda after this weekend’s National Championships.
“Training is going really well, I’ve wintered well, I don’t think today is very representative of where I’m at,” said Barr. “I feel like I can only get faster.”
Elsewhere China’s Su Bingtian produced the star performance on the night, hitting what was almost certainly the fastest speed achieved on Irish soil.
He broke the 60m stadium record in the heats by clocking 6.54 and found an extra gear in the final, blitzing up the track in 6.52 seconds, the second fastest time in the world this year.
In the final event Poland’s Marcin Lewandowski kicked off the front for victory in the men’s mile in 3:56.41, holding off the late charge of Australia’s Stewart McSweyn (3:56.46) and Ryan Gregson (3:56.85).
“The pace was meant to be faster through the first half, it was a really fast last 200 and I really like that,” said Lewandowski. “I’m a little guy so I’m the fastest one indoors.”
John Travers produced a strong showing to lead the Irish contingent in fourth, clocking 3:58.48, with Brian Fay next best in seventh (4:03.31).
In the field events, Greece’s Tatiana Gusin impressed with a 1.87m clearance to win the women’s high jump, Ireland’s World U20 medallist Sommer Lecky well off her best with 1.75m.