Ballineen sprinter Phil Healy will bring her record-breaking form into the European Athletics Championships in Berlin next week. KIERAN McCARTHY charts her rise by chatting to the man who knows her better than most, her coach Shane McCormack
SHANE McCormack has seen it more than anyone else.
That drive. That determination. That character. That spirit. That resilience.
It’s what’s behind those glistening brown eyes and dimpled smile that separates Phil Healy from the chasing pack.
There’s her talent – and then there’s her mentality.
‘You don’t get to the world-class level she’s now at by being mediocre with your talent and your attitude,’ explains McCormack, her coach of five years.
He sees that steel and ambition every day.
Phil is softly spoken, always a split-second away from a contagious smile, but underneath she knows exactly what she wants.
McCormack often likens his star student to Roy Keane.
‘It’s that drive she has, what’s behind the exterior,’ he says.
‘Everything she gets, she deserves because she has made some major calls along the way.’
One of those calls was to touch base with McCormack in late 2013. Phil was after finishing fourth in the 100m at the European Junior Championships, off the back of winning the senior girls’ 100m and 200m at the 2013 All-Ireland Schools’ Track and Field Championships in record times. Her stock was rising.
‘I was aware of Phil, she was an up-and-coming sprinter, but the thing with Phil is that she wasn’t a superstar when she was younger,’ he explains.
‘It was only when she hit her Leaving Cert year and she went to the European Juniors that year and came fourth.
‘I would have known her coach in Bandon at the time, Liz Coomey, who was doing very good work with her.’
When she said goodbye to her Coláiste na Toirbhirte days and entered the college world at UCC, Phil took matters into her own hands.
‘It was just the manner in how she contacted me, in the initial email she seemed like someone who was very determined to make it happen no matter what,’ explains Wexford man McCormack, who was then based in his home county.
‘She had a decision made and her mind made up.
‘I have always said that she has the backbone and the character to make a leap of faith that was, for both of us, full of risks. For someone who was 18 to make that call took a lot of spirit and drive that she has in buckets.
‘She made a big call for her career at that age and that always stuck out for me.’
McCormack saw that Phil had the raw speed, there was enough there to work with, but it was this West Cork teenager’s desire that struck a chord.
Little did he know then that the email sent in late 2013 would lead him to help mould Ireland’s fastest-ever woman.
Phil wasn’t always the fastest.
Big sister Joan was always the quickest of the two Healy sisters from Knockaneada in Ballineen. Their younger brothers Diarmuid and Padraig hadn’t a chance here.
It was Joan that made the headlines. She finished fourth in the 100m at the 2009 European Youth Olympics, competed at the world junior championships when she was 15.
Phil wasn’t long catching up.
‘She didn’t really compete as much when we were younger, she would have grown up seeing me at world and European juniors. But as she got a little older she started to take it more seriously and once she turned 17, 18 we really started to see her potential,’ explains Joan, two years older than Phil, and is part of the Ireland 4x100m relay team that will race in Berlin.
There is a sister rivalry. They bring out the best of each other. But while injuries held Joan back, Phil took flight and moved to the next level.
The roles are reversed now, and Phil’s need for speed and record-breaking form is inspiring her big sister.
‘I missed a lot over the last few years with injury and found it difficult to stay in the sport, but seeing what Phil was doing is the reason I’m back running now and hopefully over the next few years I can start running these fast times too,’ she says.
‘Phil has definitely raised the bar and shown everyone that as an Irish athlete, it is possible to run these fast times.
‘She had an amazing season this year, it’s been insane. And I think she is only scratching the surface in terms of what she is capable of.
‘There are very exciting times ahead over the next few years.’
Let’s talk times. Record times.
This year the Ballineen bullet burst into the world-class bracket.
She ran a 400m indoor personal best (PB) of 52.08. She ran an outdoor 400m PB of 52.19. In recent weeks she made the headlines her own. She broke the national 100m women’s record with a PB of 11.28, and followed it up with a second national record, 22.99 in the 200m, the first Irish woman to ever break the 23-second barrier in the latter.
Phil is Ireland’s fastest-ever woman.
No woman in this country has ever run faster than her.
Last Saturday at the national senior championships, she won the 200m title, her seventh national crown, and she’s still only 23.
‘Whether it’s this season or next season, there’s more there, a lot more,’ McCormack says. He’s the man in the know, seeing her every day at training at Waterford IT where she studies a part-time Masters’ course.
Her move to Waterford to study and train last year changed everything.
McCormack calls it as he sees it.
Among other things, he brings a sense of reality.
He is the development officer with the Waterford IT Athletics Club, this is where Phil trains under his watchful eye, and it’s where his athletes call him ‘the king behind it all’.
But he doesn’t hide from the truth either.
When she was studying nursing in UCC, she trained on her own, away from McCormack in Waterford. They might have seen one another once every two weeks, sometimes once a month.
It wasn’t ideal. And she wasn’t reaching her potential.
‘There were tough years and her athletics took a hit during that time. I always said she was an athlete that was trapped in somebody else’s body during that time,’ McCormack says.
The reality was that nursing didn’t help Phil. When she was on the ward she worked 30-hour shifts, back-to-back 13 hour days followed by a half day. Athletics suffered.
When she ran at the European Athletics Championships in 2014, Phil was coming off the back of a six-week placement on the wards.
Something had to give. She made another ballsy call.
‘Athletics made me decide which do I want,’ she says, leaving UCC with a health science degree, after spending her fourth year studying a post grad in applied computer technology.
‘She ran 11.49 in 2015, she won the national 100m that year, so she definitely had raw speed. It took a hit because of nursing so it disappeared for a bit; she was on the ward and she was tired, that was a bad year for her by her standards,’ McCormack explains.
‘In 2016 when we changed the model and the approach and started looking more towards the 400m programme, she got fitter and stronger.’
These days Phil is faster, fitter and stronger than ever before.
Her bodyweight is down. Her muscle mass is up. Her BMI statistics are through the roof. In 2015 she had 24 per cent body fat. These days it’s down to 12.5%.
Training with McCormack every day in Waterford and with a team has unlocked her potential. Phyios, nutrionists, psychologists, physiologists, whatever she wants is there.
She can focus full time on athletics.
‘The world-class levels of speed she has now have come by default from her 400m training, she’s lighter and she’s stronger,’ McCormack says.
‘She definitely had international level speed. World-class speed wasn’t there then but we’ve got there now. It takes time, work and effort.’
It’s like baking a cake, he says. It’s taken a lot of different ingredients to get Phil to the position she’s in now. An important one was the decision to switch focus from the shorter sprints where she made her name to the longer 400m.
That process started a few years back. This was her first proper 400m season, she raced at the world indoor championships in Birmingham in March, and it’s the long-term plan.
But the 400m training has had a positive side effect.
‘What you are seeing with the 100m is a by-product, she is getting that for free. We haven’t done a lot of work with the 100m this year, she has done a lot more lactic and aerobic then she would have done block sessions,’ he explains.
But in Berlin at the European Athletics Championships, Phil is going to focus on the 200m, and use the 100m to stretch the legs. She qualified in the 400m too, but she has parked it for now.
‘We decided not to chase the 400 because her speed is very good at the moment, she is probably a natural 200m runner – that’s the sweet spot for her,’ McCormack explains.
‘The 100 will help open up the legs, we will take it round by round, it’s about getting there and having fun, getting used to the arena, and she has two days to recover and tackle the main event, the 200m.
‘We would like to get to a final or get close to a final. Some of the world’s best athletes are in Europe at the moment – Dafne Schippers from Holland, Mujinga Kambundji of Switzerland, the British athletes.
‘There is a bigger picture at play here, let Phil explore her speed and it’s not to be looking past this championship but we are looking at the European indoors next year. She is a phenomenal indoor runner and anything we are doing now is playing into a bigger picture.’
Beyond next year there are the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Keep up her current form, and Phil is there. It’s not just rowers that West Cork has reared.
She’s a seasoned athlete. She’s run at major championships every year from 2013 – European seniors and juniors, world student games, world relays.
‘Her focus has changed from trying to qualify for championships to trying to be the best at these championships,’ McCormack says, and he’s excited about her future in the 400m, not to mention the speed she is taking into her winter block of training.
‘Within the 400 she has buckets of potential because she is quite a rookie in the event. She doesn’t have a lot of miles on the clock. Really, this is her first proper year at 400m. We are talking about someone with only one proper year behind her. Touch wood, if she stays injury free, she will break records and she will hold records across all three events.’
Here is an athlete with world class speed, world-class strength levels and is consistently running world-class times, and she is here now because of big decisions she made. Like sending McCormack that email in 2013.
It was the right move at the right time.
‘I got injured quite young, when I was in my first year in college at UL, and I went on the coaching path earlier,’ he says.
‘This happened at the right time. I have 18 years experience. I have done all the wrong things. I have figured out what works.
‘With Phil we have had five years to figure out what does and doesn’t work, and we have a very good relationship. We are at the stage where we know what will happen before it happens, and what works best for Phil.
‘The next time she runs a PB it will be a national record because her PBs are national records. We have to keep on moving. The day it stops being a challenge for either of us, it will be over.’
There’s no sign of that yet. Instead, expect more records. She’s only getting started.
Behind that smile and those brown eyes is a woman who knows what she wants: to run faster.
‘She is a consummate professional and she was ready for this well before her time. She will not leave a stone unturned and some days I am just a fan looking at her, not her coach.’