Sport

10 reasons why Darragh McElhinney is the real deal

January 3rd, 2023 12:00 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Darragh McElhinney on his way to winning the senior men's 10,000m during the 123.ie Senior and Even Age Cross County Championships at Rosapenna Golf Course in Donegal.(Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile)

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Kieran McCarthy charts the ongoing rise of serial winner DARRAGH McELHINNEY

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1. When Darragh McElhinney was just 15 years old, he lived the Olympic dream for two and a half weeks – he travelled to the 2016 Games in Rio as a training partner for Irish pentathletes, Arthur Lanigan O’Keefe and Natalya Coyle. Darragh had just sat his Junior Cert exams that June at Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí, but was hand-picked to help two Irish Olympians prepare for the Games; early evidence that there’s something special about Darragh (both he and Lanigan O’Keefe shared the same coach, Steven Macklin). The Glengarriff teen was based at their Olympics training camp in Uberlandia, saw for himself what’s needed to reach the highest level, attended a few events in Rio, and even had lunch with Thomas Barr and Mark English. That’s an incredible experience for such a young athlete. Inspiring was how he described it. He didn’t need any more motivation, but this adventure helped.

Darragh McElhinney with a Munster schools' cross-country medal won in 2014.

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2. He’s not afraid to make tough decisions. In late 2016, Darragh packed up Gaelic football. He had just helped Beara win the U16 county Premier 1 football championship final; that was the last match he played. He was a talented footballer, too, in and around Cork development squads, but even then, having turned 16 years old in November ’16, his mind-set was to not have any regrets. He had played football since he was five, and his father Tony is heavily involved with Glengarriff GAA, but Darragh’s focus was firmly on athletics. An early crossroads in his career, he ran down the path of athletics, and that speaks of his single-mindedness, commitment and determination.

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3. Darragh has always been a record-breaker – and soon we’ll feast on his latest achievements, but it’s important to remember that he has been smashing records from the very start. In schools’ athletics, Darragh was a phenom, almost untouchable. His former coach Steven Macklin told this paper before that Darragh is ‘the only athlete in Irish schools’ history to win the junior 1500m, U16 mile, intermediate 1500m and senior 1500m titles.’ That’s an incredible record. Macklin is the same coach who described Darragh as ‘one of those special talents that you only come across, perhaps, once or twice in a coaching career.’ It’s easy to see why Macklin said that. While still in school in 2019, and months before his Leaving Cert exams, Darragh became the first Irish teenager to ever run under 14 minutes for the 5000m (also an Irish junior record). Top of the class, again, again, and again.

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4. John Treacy is athletics royalty in Ireland. His Olympic silver medal in the marathon in the ’84 Games in Los Angeles is the stuff of legend, yet Darragh has made a habit of breaking Treacy’s records – and that’s a notable barometer. In early 2017 when Darragh was 16 years old, he broke Treacy’s long-standing Irish outdoor youth 3000m record that had stood since 1974. Darragh’s 8:18.18 eclipsed Treacy’s 8:20.40. Fast forward to the summer of 2022 when Darragh, again, bettered a Treacy record – he smashed the 44-year-old national U23 5000m record when he ran 13:17.17 at a meet in Belgium, taking over nine seconds off Treacy’s previous record of 13:26.5, also set in Belgium, in 1978. In the summer of 2019 Darragh also joined an exclusive club that Treacy was part of.

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5. Only two Irishmen had ever won medals at the U20 European Championships, but in July 2019 Darragh joined a VIP club that included both John Treacy (silver medal in 1975) and Mark Carroll (gold in 1991). The Beara athlete, then 18-years-old, won a bronze medal at the U20 Europeans in Sweden, but his initial reaction was disappointment, not celebration. He had set himself the target of gold, and was the form athlete ahead of the championships, but there are no guarantees in sport, and it was a lesson he learned that day. It was one of those races when it just didn’t come together. He described his bronze medal as ‘an anti-climax’, but there were positives to take, apart from the medal. In the final 100 metres he knew gold was gone, but had to push himself to stay in bronze, and bring a European medal home to Glengarriff.

Darragh with his bronze medal in the men's 5000m final at the 2019 European Athletics U20 Championships.

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6. Darragh is learning all the time. Sometimes we forget, given his record of success, how young he is: he just turned 22 years old in November. One of his many impressive characteristics is his ability to learn from mistakes. Example 1: In 2018 Darragh travelled to the British Milers Club event in Loughborough, his parents paid for his flights and accommodation, but inside the first 300 metres of the race, somebody pushed him, and his head completely went. ‘I ended up having a stinker,’ he admitted, but vowed to learn from it, and leaned on the experience of wiser, older heads around him. He reflected: ‘As with the nature of athletics, you can’t stay with a result, good or bad, for too long.’ Example 2: In the national indoor senior 3000m final in 2020, Darragh got a rush of blood to the head in the closing laps, made his move and hit the front, but eventually finished third. Six months on, in the Irish outdoor senior 5000m men’s final, 19-year-old Darragh was in the mix for a medal, tucked in behind race favourite John Travers. With 400 metres to go, a little voice in his head said to go for it – but Darragh resisted the temptation. He waited. And waited. He had learned his lesson from before. When he kicked late in the final lap, Darragh made it count, and surged to his first senior national title and gold medal. He showed his maturity in his breakthrough senior triumph.

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7. His application and diligence to all aspects of athletics is as impressive as his medal haul. Genetically, he is gifted, but he still works incredibly hard on all those ‘one percenters’ that add up. Strength and conditioning. Sleep. Diet. Day after day after day. His coach Emmet Dunleavy shared a story with the Star: ‘Three years ago when I started coaching him first he had a pretty significant hip impingement issue. It took a lot of time, a good four to six months of very specific and diligent strength and conditioning to get that right. It was a real test. He had to go and do these very tedious exercises for hours each week, and he did that. It was a great reflection of his mentality. He is willing to put in the hard yards, not only when he has runners on his feet, but even more importantly when he is not running.’ Darragh has the talent, but crucially has the work ethic to make the most out of it.

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8. Let’s bring this all back to West Cork, for a moment. We haven’t said it yet, but Darragh is West Cork’s finest middle-distance runner. Every time he runs a national record, it’s also a West Cork record. He is also the first West Cork athlete to run a sub four-minute mile. On Wednesday evening, July 28th, 2021, Darragh clocked a 3:58.20 at a one-mile race in London, to duck under the magical four-minute barrier; the first from this part of the world to achieve it. It was also an Irish U23 record. Darragh was also just the eighth Cork runner to go under four minutes for the mile. In July 2022, he went even faster, shaving 0.05 of a second off his PB/Irish U23 record with 3:58.15 in Morton Stadium, Dublin. That’s one of many PBs in his superb 2022 that show the best is yet to come. He’s only getting started.

Darragh celebrates his first senior men's national title (5000m in 2020).

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9. Darragh hasn’t taken shortcuts on his run to the top. He could have when he was in his teens, loaded more miles on his growing body, but that wasn’t a sustainable approach to take. Instead, he is building every year, and made sure he was prepared for the transition from junior to senior – and now we are seeing the results. He explained: ‘I have always trained to a point where it’s hard and honest training, but something that I can always build on. In this winter block, for the first time ever I hit 100 miles per week whereas when I was 16 or 17 you were hitting 55 or 60 miles a week. We didn’t plan for short-term success, but the way it has worked out is that my body has become adapted to decent mileage and I am quite durable, and that allows me to be consistent, and then successful.’ Look at his success in 2022: Between indoor and outdoor Darragh set SIX new PBs in the year (outdoor – 1500m, one mile, 3000m and 5000m; indoor –1500m and 3000m). He also won THREE national senior titles in 2022 – indoor 3000m, outdoor 5000m and men’s cross-country titles. This Crystal Palace fan, like The Eagles he supports, is flying high.

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10. He was a teen prodigy, and with that came increased expectations, but he has taken it all in his stride. Even now at senior level, he is coping with the pressure. There have been ups and downs, but all the time he is maturing, learning and developing. At the recent national cross-country championships in Donegal, where he won his first senior men’s national title, it was another coming-of-age performance. He waited and waited, and when defending champion Hiko Tonosa Haso made his move with 600 metres to go, Darragh covered it, and then injected devastating speed up the final hill to pull clear and stride to gold and glory. It was a brilliant, ruthless and efficient run. Darragh is showing he can cope with the expectation – look at his brilliant silver medal in the men’s U23 at the 2021 European Cross-Country Championships when, in front of a home crowd, he pulled out one of his greatest-ever performances to also lead the Irish team to gold. Darragh is part of a golden generation for West Cork sport – and popular opinion is that the best is yet to come. It’s all building towards the future, and Darragh said ‘... then when I am in my prime – 25, 26 years of age – hopefully I can win medals.’ He’s certainly on the right path.

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