LAST WORD COLUMN - by Kieran McCarthy
PHIL Healy has arrived on the world stage.
She doesn’t have to second guess herself any more or wonder whether she is good enough to mix it with the best in the world – because she proved in Vienna last Saturday that she can be classed with the top women’s 400m sprinters in the world.
After she clocked 52.08 indoors, knocking 1.1 of a second off her previous PB (53.15 set at the North West Games in Athlone before Christmas), her coach Shane McCormack told her, ‘That’s it, you’ve arrived, you’ve landed.’
This was Phil’s breakthrough moment. She proved her class.
It’s early days in the season but the 23-year-old Ballineen bullet is now the fastest European woman in the world over 400m this year and ranked fifth fastest in the world overall, with four Americans ahead of her.
To put her 52.08 into context, if she ran the same time next year then she would qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
It’s not just Olympic rowers and hockey players bred in West Cork.
Her latest time is inside the Olympic qualifying standard of 52.20, so we’re talking about a West Cork athlete fast enough to run for Ireland at the next Games.
‘The 52.08 is below the Olympic standard but I can’t run it until 2019 for it to count for 2020 – but it’s a good sign all the same,’ Healy explained.
RTÉ athletics commentator Greg Allen tweeted on Sunday that Phil’s run was a ‘senior world class performance’. He’s right, and what’s exciting is that there is more to come.
Phil – whose older sister Joan is also in top form this year, setting two new 60m PBs – has been racing at a very high level over the past few years, setting national records and winning national titles, and representing Ireland at international level. Last season alone she set five new PBs, finished seventh in the 200m final at the World University Games and competed in the European Indoor Championships.
The talent is there, and four years ago her coach, Shane McCormack, told her she would be world class. He saw something in Phil and her journey has taken four years for her to deliver a world-class performance like last Saturday’s – but now we’re talking about a genuine future Olympian if she stays on this path.
Key to all this are the decisions, some very tough, that Phil has made, including choosing athletics over nursing; the two didn’t compliment each other and something had to give.
And her decision to relocate to Waterford IT (WIT) – she’s studying a Masters’ in enterprise computer software over two years – last Autumn is paying off. For years she trained remotely, away from her trainer Shane McCormack who saw her once maybe every two weeks apart from blocks she spent in Waterford or Wexford, but now she is training with him in WIT, availing of the superb WIT Arena facilities and with a training group that is pushing her on.
‘It has everything I need,’ Phil told us before Christmas.
‘There’s a high performance gym, an indoor strip of track right next to gym, a nutritionist, a physiologist, a support team around me and now Shane can see all my sessions; being around a coach is what is essential to improve.’
Her new environment and professional set-up has seen her make more big leaps already this year, and McCormack says there’s more to come.
‘Phil was coming off the back of a good season last year where she got to new levels of speed and she brought that into the winter,’ he explained.
‘She has only been in Waterford since September, we have only 20 weeks of training done and the time she ran in Vienna was an Olympic qualifying time. If she ran that next year, she would have ran her qualifying time for the Olympics already; that’s the level she is at now.’
Getting the chance to work day-in day-out with McCormack in Waterford is reaping huge benefits already.
For example, Phil was better known for her exploits at 60m, 100m and 200m before, less than two years ago, she started to switch her focus to the 400m, and that transition takes time. She had the speed but not the endurance. A few issues were identified and then rectified, McCormack explains.
‘Before she didn’t have the endurance to finish races, she might have tightened up in the last stretch, but she can finish now,’ he said.
‘We have worked on a few things over the winter, identified a few areas, like aerobic capabilities for example, and add that to her speed, and you have a world-class 400m runner now.
‘She has world-class speed but she also has world-class endurance. She is only tapping into the endurance side now and we’re only 20 weeks into that.’
And there’s more to come.
‘I do think I can get faster,’ Healy said, ‘I definitely feel there’s a lot more in me.’
McCormack predicts more fireworks: ‘I think the sky is the limit with her. I think over the next few weeks she’ll do something special, I don’t know what that is, but there is something big coming.’
This Saturday Phil has been invited to race at the IAAF World Indoor Tour event in Karlsruhe, Germany. She has the varsities on February 9th where she’ll run the 200m and she’ll jump back up to the 400m for the national indoor championships on February 18th-19th.
‘The 400 is her distance for the foreseeable future – but she will still be very, very competitive in the 200m,’ McCormack added.
She’s already qualified for the 400m at World Indoor Championships in Birmingham in early March, and when she lines up for her heats then, she’ll no longer have to wonder is she good enough to win, now she has the confidence to know she has the speed and the talent to rival the best out there.