Where Your Dreams Become Reality
The Student-Athlete in America: Should the Irish Even Bother
Four years ago, James Grufferty,
a young runner from Cork (Leevale) headed to America on an athletic
scholarship. A talented middle-distance runner, and under the guidance
of Der Donovan, he was making significant improvement. In his first
semester at East Tennessee State University – a University with a
mediocre track history until the arrival of the Leddy brothers, Frank
Greally, and most notably Neil Cusack – Grufferty won the Southern
Conference Championships. That was achieved on the back of the training
he had done with Donovan.
Three years on and the Cork
youngster is no longer associated with the athletics team or Coach Doug
Johnson. After enduring two years of injury and humiliation, the youngster
gave up his scholarship, confused and totally disillusioned with the
American set up.
His parents paid for him to
complete his tuition, and he is back in training with a schedule mapped
out by his first coach, Der Donovan . In hindsight it is easy to say
that he should never have went to America. His performances showed a
marked drop off and a once promising athlete was all but lost to the
sport. Grufferty is just the latest in a long list of athletes who have
followed their athletic dream to the States only to find themselves
enmeshed in a hellish and impersonal existence. It's a cautionary
tale and a compelling argument for Irish athletes to stay in Ireland.
JP (Jim) Reardon was the first
Irishman to take up an athletic scholarship at Villanova after the 1948
London Olympics. Since those pioneering days, the debate about athletic
scholarships has surfaced at various times. However, there is no end
state to this debate; only the names and the social climate have changed.
Eamonn Coghlan, argues in favour of young Irish athletes going to America:
"America," he says, "provides
them with an opportunity to pursue their athletics career, get an education
and establish business connections out there which they might not have
had at home. Granted, some of them, very few, might not have improved
athletically because they have went to the wrong college and they were
run into the ground. But generally speaking, I would encourage any youngster
to avail of the opportunity."
Tom Gregan went to Villanova
with Coghlan. He was heavily recruited (28 offers of full scholarships)
following a series of outstanding schoolboy races. Gregan's performances
indicated a world- class career. At 16, he was the fastest miler in
Europe for that age. He was the "Golden Boy," the schoolboy prodigy
with outlandish talent. When he graduated from Villanova in 1975, Gregan
had quit running and disappeared from the world of track and field.
He never did get under four minutes for the mile.
Gregan's early success can
be attributed to the coaching and influence of Maurice Ahern,
Clonliffe Harriers. "His best year in America was his first year,"
Ahern recalls, "and that was the influence of the training here. As
he became more influenced by the American training he went downhill."
" That he didn't
break four minutes for the mile is scandalous when you consider that
he was running 3:50.00 for the 1500m as a schoolboy. He could have done
better if he had stayed at home. I've been very opposed to lads going
to America since. It has destroyed many promising runners. Tommy would
run up a wall if I asked him, but by the time the 1976 Olympics came
around he was shot –a major talent squandered."
Jim Kilty, national coaching
director 1988-1999, is convinced that the American system has failed
Irish athletes. "Presently, you'd nearly win a national championship
with a team of 40 year olds because all the 20s and 35s are either gone
to America or have given up. The American system gives you four years
and then you're out. Irish kids are often over-raced and there is
no fallback. We are not getting them back in this country. Mark Carroll
went to America more than 12 years ago. Some 40 to 50 athletes have
gone over each year since then. That's over 600 athletes and all we
get out of it is one?"
"Irish coaches have always
been more than capable. True we don't have the facilities and the
competition, but when all is said and done, if you have a coach who
can nurture an athlete instead of killing him between 18 and 22, your
chances are so much better. Many of the athletes who go through the
four years are simply burned out. It's always going to be difficult
for the American coach because he has new arrivals each year, and their
system is results orientated. After four years it's simply a case
of good luck lads, and not many are able to come back to Ireland."
John McDonnell, the legendary
track coach at Arkansas University (and the mastermind behind
Alistair Cragg) offers a different perspective: "The Irish kids that
come over today are a different breed," he says. "They're not
as tough; they want it easy just like the American kids, the reward
without the effort. There was a time when it was a great honour to get
an athletics scholarship to America. Those days and that attitude are
long gone." McDonnell is only partially correct. There is no lack
of motivation among the vast majority of Irish athletes who take up
an athletics scholarship stateside.
" Every Tom, Dick, and Harry
comes over here to schools nowadays. I hate to be overly critical, but
it has degraded what an American scholarship means. You don't have
to be all that good anymore to get one. In the past when kids came over
here they were kind of ambassadors. They were proud to be here and doing
something special because they were from Ireland." McDonnell is overly
harsh here, and if a few mediocre individuals took advantage, then one
has to question the quality of the scouting arrangements.
Jerry Kiernan, is uniquely
qualified to comment on this subject. His casual demeanour belies
a needle sharp, insightful, and fearless advocate for Irish athletics.
"To be honest," he says,
"I don't lie awake at night thinking what's good and bad about
going to America on an athletics scholarship. Even so, there is no disputing
the fact that our very best and most successful athletes all went to
there. Des McCormack (one of the earlier scholarship athletes at Villanova)
maintains I'd have been an Olympic Champion if I'd gone there. He
believes that's what the American system would have done for me. I've
never gone along with it myself, although he's right when saying that
the athletes are well looked after in the States"
Kiernan bemoans the inadequate
club system in Ireland. "We have a club system, after a fashion, in
places like Tralee, Wexford, Tullamore, Galway and so on. But they are
certainly not vibrant. These clubs are kept going by committed individuals
who love the sport, and without whom we would not have any organised
training . There has been a tremendous fall off in numbers, fellas have
loads of money, and greater choices."
" If it's in a person to
run in Ireland, and there's nobody around to nurture that talent,
it can very easily wither, whereas if a youngster wants to pursue Gaelic
Games, soccer or rugby, and he/she shows any ability, there are clubs
within a four or five mile radius willing to help."
In that respect I would say
that the athletics system has failed kids in Ireland. I certainly wouldn't
knock the American system. I know there are individuals totally against
it. The fact is our greatest athletes went over there. Yet one must
acknowledge the huge number of failures as well, failures in that they
were never again heard of in athletics."
"We will always have this
debate on the merits or otherwise of the Irish athlete going to the
States," Kiernan concludes. "What we need at home is harmony
between the top athletes and top officials, so that when it comes to
major championships we can get our best teams out there."
Grufferty, meanwhile, is beginning
the slow road to recovery under Der Donovan. He is physically getting
stronger and fitter. However, the emotional and psychological scars
- the breakdown of self-esteem and the loss of self- confidence will
take a lot longer to heal.
PJ Browne, an Irishman, has written for publications such as Irish Runner, but wrote this article as a freelance writer.
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