Glengarriff athlete Darragh McElhinney is regarded as a ‘special talent’ with huge potential. KIERAN McCARTHY looks at what he has achieved so far and what the future has in store
WHEN Athletics Ireland National Junior Endurance Coach, Steven Macklin, describes a young athlete as one of those special talents that you only come across once or twice in your career, he has your full attention.
When he’s talking about a young Glengarriff athlete, you sit up and listen.
Darragh McElhinney turned 16 less than a month ago, yet he is already turning heads in the world of athletics.
Last week he picked up the final 2016 Celtic Ross West Cork Youth Sports Star quarterly award for his achievements this year, and there were quite a few, but what’s exciting is that the best is yet to come.
We’re talking about a talented West Cork athlete who during the summer and after his Junior Cert exams, and when he was still 15 years old, was hand-picked to travel to Brazil for two weeks ahead of the Olympic Games as a training partner for Irish Olympic pentathletes, Arthur Lanigan O’Keefe and Natalya Coyle.
There’s something special about Darragh.
‘Darragh is one of those special talents that you only come across, perhaps, once or twice in a coaching career,’ Steven Macklin told The Southern Star.
‘He has the huge and rare advantage of having great endurance and great speed. When you combine these you have an endurance athlete that can be competitive internationally over every distance, from 1500m to cross-country. He also brings a superb attitude to his running along with a strong work ethic, drive and competiveness that you don’t often see in young athletes.’
Darragh is ranked the fourth best U17 1500m runner in Europe and he is the reigning Schools’ International 1500m champion.
It got even better last Sunday when Darragh won the U18 boys’ race during the National Cross-Country Championships at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown. The Glengarriff teenager (16) also placed third overall in the combined U18/U20 race to gain selection on the Irish U20 team for the European Cross-Country Championships in Italy on December 11th.
Considering he was 15 years old less than 30 days ago, Darragh speaks with a drive and maturity that you wouldn’t normally associate with teenagers his age. It’s impressive.
We’re sitting down in the library room at the Celtic Ross Hotel where the Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí fourth-year student is after picking up a West Cork Youth Sports Star quarterly award. He’s getting used to these occasions, he won a similar award last year – but this year he has kicked on again and the results show that. Here’s what he has won in 2016.
Bronze medal in U17 Cross-Country at the Celtic International in Scotland.
Gold medal in the U16 mile at the South Munster Schools (broke record).
Gold medal in the U16 mile at Munster Schools (broke record).
Gold medal in the U16 mile at All-Ireland Schools.
Gold medal in 1500m at the Tailteann Interprovincial Schools Championships.
Gold medal in 1500m at SIAB Schools’ International in Kent.
Gold medal in U17 1500m at All-Ireland Clubs Championships.
Achieved 1500m qualifying standard for the European Youth (U18) T&F Championships.
Gold medal in U18 boys’ race at National Cross-Country Championships
Darragh’s highlight from the past year, other than travelling to Uberlandia outside Rio for an Olympics training camp, was winning the schools’ international in Kent – where his father Tony is from – and the Bantry AC athlete is already targeting 2017, with the World Youth Championships in Kenya in July on his to-do list, if he can qualify.
‘That’s my aim at the moment, to get to Kenya. The qualifying standards aren’t out yet but two years ago for the same competition, they were 8.20 for 3k and 3.50 for 1500m. I ran 3.54 in the 1500m over the summer and I arguably could have gone one or two seconds faster. I think that’s achievable, getting the 3k qualifying time,’ Darragh explained.
‘There are loads of competitions next year, you have the European U20 Championships, the European Youth Olympic Festival and there will be the schools’ internationals as well. Hopefully I’ll get to the World Youths but I won’t let it be a dampner if I don’t get it.’
This winter, his training is focussed on working on his weaknesses, explains Steven Macklin, and building a big speed, endurance and strength base before he tries to qualify for either the World Youth Championships in Kenya or the European Junior Championships in Italy – both are on in July.
It wasn’t an easy decision but Darragh – son of Tony and Breda – has decided to pack up Gaelic football.
He bowed out on a high note in October, lining out on the Beara team that won the U16 county Premier 1 football championship final.
Football’s loss will be athletics’ gain, it seems.
‘I don’t want to have any regrets,’ Darragh explained.
‘I had to make a choice so I’ve given up football. I have been playing football since I was five but I knew it was on the cards that I had to make a decision.
‘I played my last game in October when we won the county title with Beara. That was a great way to go out. I know I’ll miss it but if I do get the rewards in running, it will be so worth it.’
For such a young age he’s very focussed. Nothing fazes him, which Steven Macklin feels is one of his strongest characteristics.
‘He looks forward to racing and putting on a show. Some athletes dread racing but he seems to live for it, it’s his stage and he loves to perform on the biggest stages. He is highly driven and listens and learns, that’s a huge factor in his continuous improvement,’ Macklin explained.
Darragh has committed to being the best he can be and he’s giving himself every chance of realising his potential.
It’s not every teenager that gets to have lunch with Thomas Barr and Mark English in Brazil ahead of the Olympics or trains with pentathletes, Arthur Lanigan O’Keefe and Natalya Coyle, but by now you realise that Darragh is not like most other teenagers.
Those two weeks he spent in Uberlandia at the Olympics training camp opened his eyes and allowed him access to an exclusive world where the world’s top athletes exist.
Darragh liked what he saw.
‘The experience in Brazil was so inspiring To see the O’Donovan brothers and what their achievements mean to everyone here at home, I’d love to do something like that.
‘It was an unbelievable experience. At my age you dream about competing in an Olympics, you don’t expect to come home after your Junior Cert and be told that you’re going to Brazil. Even when I was on the plane, it didn’t feel real. I was there for two weeks but it felt like three days.’
The road from where Darragh is now to becoming an Olympian is long and windy – but Steven Macklin has backed him to go all the way to the top.
‘Rio was an incredible opportunity for a guy his age, to be able to hang out and train with Olympic athletes is something very few if any get the opportunity to do,’ he explained.
‘He lived the Olympic dream for two and a half weeks, attended some events at the Olympics and hopefully it motivated him to want to be there someday himself.
‘It’s important young guys have dreams of competing on the biggest stage and in athletics the Olympics is the pinnacle. I would love to see him get to that level in the future and I believe he can with a lot of hard work and dedication.’