BY KIERAN McCARTHY
ANNA O’Neill just gets better with age.
In mid-January, Doheny Athletic Club’s only female adult runner won a hat-trick of titles at the Munster Senior and Masters Indoor Track and Field Championships in Nenagh.
On a super Sunday, Anna raced to victory in the O45 women’s 800m (2.45.75), 1,500m (5.33.04) and 3,000m (11.23.1) – the last time being a new Munster record.
Not bad at all for the Ballinacarriga woman who started her running career in the late 1970s with Doheny AC, and who also represented Ireland – alongside Catherina McKiernan – at the first European cross-country championships in 1994.
In many ways, and considering what this West Cork woman has achieved in athletics over the years, a Celtic Ross West Cork Sports Star of the Month award was long overdue.
Good things come to those who wait, and, recently, at the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery, Anna was the centre of attention as she received the first monthly award for 2016 in recognition of her hat-trick of Munster titles in January.
‘I always associate awards with younger people, in their 20s and 30s, and I wasn’t expecting this. I grew up in a GAA household and it was football and hurling first, so to receive an award like this for athletics leaves me delighted and overwhelmed,’ a beaming Anna told The Southern Star, as her army of family and friends packed the Celtic Ross Hotel.
As Paudie Palmer, of C103, noted, this was the biggest-ever crowd for a West Cork Sports Star monthly award ceremony, as old and young came out in force to celebrate the achievements of this popular local athlete.
Anna has dominated the Munster Masters’ scene over the last few years, and last month’s hat-trick of titles was the third time in the last four years that she has completed this feat. In 2013, ’14 and ’16, she has been in a league of her own, while last year she got injured in the 800m after winning the 3,000m.
Also last month, one week after the Munster Masters, she was part of the O35 Cork team that won bronze in the All-Ireland Masters Cross-Country Championships in Dundalk. Anna finished 13th and was the third athlete home.
With the All-Ireland Masters Championships coming up in March, there’s a chance of even more success for Anna, who joined Doheny AC when she was 11 years old.
‘Going back to the very start, myself and my sisters all started running in the field up behind our house. At the time all we had was a yard light shining up the field, but I always knew my father was around and every time I passed, he would look up. I was the only one that kept going with athletics,’ she explained.
‘I would always train at home. Being from a farming background and being seven miles out from town, my father didn’t have time to take us in for training, and my mother couldn’t drive.
‘For running events, my father would take me in to either Paudie Cronin or James Crowley, they always helped me out when I was starting. Nearly always, I’d bring back something from an event, so I was hooked from the start.’
Cross-country appealed to Anna from the very beginning. She had the stamina for it and she also had ‘the kick’ – that strong finish that pushed her to success time and again.
‘I always had a kick. No matter how dead I was, there was always a kick in me. You can’t train that – you either have it or you don’t. I can see my kids now have a kick too so it’s in the blood,’ she smiled, in reference to her four children, Cian, Conor, Aífe and Maeve, who have won numerous Munster and All-Ireland titles in both cross-country and track.
Also, Anna’s recent success at the Munster masters means she now holds provincial records at the same time as her daughter Maeve, who holds three Munster records.
Before Anna – married to Tony, who is now PRO of Doheny AC – took time out of athletics with an extended break to have her four children, she was a regular on podiums right across the country.
Success and medals were never too far away from Anna who raced for Doheny AC and Togher AC in her early days, before joining West Dublin Athletic Club for a spell after she got a job in the capital. There, she won Dublin cross-country medals, as well as Leinster inter-county medals with Dublin.
In the early 1990s, Anna transferred back to Cork to work in the CSO in Mahon, and she joined St Finbarr’s Athletic Club – this is where she really came into her own.
A familiar face on the road race circuit – she finished second in the 1994 Cork ladies mini marathon – Anna was in a different league in the cross-country world, and she won several Cork senior cross-country and Munster titles, and she led Cork and St Finbarr’s to All-Ireland success.
In one of her running highlights, in 1993 in Dungarvan, she won a bronze medal in the All-Ireland inter-county cross-country championships, which earned her automatic selection for the first European Cross-Country Championships in ’94.
‘The Europeans were fantastic, and you’d wonder how different would it have been if I had more training and coaching. Nowadays, there is such an emphasis on coaching, strength and conditioning and the right structures are in place. There wasn’t back then,’ Anne mused.
‘That was the first time Ireland sent a team to the European Championships. It was on in Northumberland. It was unfortunate that we didn’t come home with a team medal – Ireland finished eighth – but it was a great honour to be there.’
Anna finished just outside the top 50 while her teammate Catherina McKiernan took gold.
‘I competed against Catriona more than Sonia (O’Sullivan). Catriona was the number one at the time, everyone wanted to be like her – she was the best. I didn’t get the better of her, unfortunately, but I’m still running and she’s not! And Sonia’s retired, and I’m still going!’ Anna laughed, before explaining the secret to her longevity: passion.
‘If you feel passionate about something, and if you are determined and are strong enough to train, and if you have the love and bite for it, it goes a long way,’ she said.
‘I have a love for all sports. I find athletics a great way to relax and chill out. If I’m any bit stressed, I’ll put on my running shoes, and off I go. It’s a release.
‘People often ask me why I don’t run with an iPod or something like that, but I absolutely wouldn’t. That wouldn’t clear your head at all. You need the wind, to feel it, if you want to get the most out of a run.’
Now working as a clerical administrator in the Garda Station in Clonakilty, Anna missed out on selection for the 1994 world cross-country championships after the selection process was changed. The first four were selected from the national championships, as well as two pre-selected athletes. Anna finished fifth in the nationals, just outside.
Then came the break in athletics as she devoted time to her four kids, but she always knew she’d be back.
‘It was always in my mind, but the first year back I did very little. In the second year, I just ran in West Cork and the county, and it increased after that,’ she explained.
‘I seem to be getting better as I get older. There are a few more years left in me so I’ve no notion of hanging up my running shoes just yet. I don’t plan very far ahead. I take it year by year. The older you get, the harder it is to maintain where you are, so that’s a challenge in itself for me.’
A typical week for Anna will see her train three times. There’s her steady run which is always under ten miles. There will be some hill work, speed work or intervals. And then there’s her short and fast run, sometimes on her lunchtime at work.
A fabulous ambassador for Doheny AC, she hopes that receiving the Celtic Ross West Cork Sports Star of the Month Award for January will encourage more kids to join the club or more current members to keep training hard.
Anna is the ideal example of the rewards that hard work, talent and passion can bring.
She’s Master-ed Munster, and now she wants to Master the All-Irelands next month – and you wouldn’t bet against her.