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An Irish Athlete's Perspective on the Scholarship System 
February 27, 2006
Eamonn O'Connor

      Reading the article by PJ Browne on the merits of the Scholarship system (click here for the original article) in America for Irish athletes I couldn't help but become angry about what I was reading. The reactions of Jim Kilty and Maurice Ahern to the experiences of the Irish in America could only highlight for me the problems that are endemic within Irish running circles; namely when something goes wrong, where can we point the finger of blame. In support of this, you only have to look at whom the article has referred to as sources.      

     While I would never call into question the impact on Irish athletics the likes of Coughlan, McDonnell, Kilty and Kiernan have had, the article is based purely on opinion, instead of having sought out the person it refers to, James Grufferty, or other current student-athletes for their own perspective on their experiences. (editor's note: PJ Browne informs us he did talk to James Grufferty, but Grufferty did not want to discuss anything on the record). Having raced regularly against James Grufferty, the article struck a chord with me as our trajectories have followed a similar path. I came to America in September of 2000, and like many of the Irish who had come to the States before me, had great ambitions of what the NCAA system would do for my running career. While my running career did not follow the path I had hoped, it was for far different reasons than Kilty or Ahern would have you believe. But I believe it is important to discuss why I had first decided on coming to America, if for nothing more than to highlight to those back in Ireland what Irish officials need to address if they are to attract Irish juniors to stay within the confines of the Emerald Isle.

      My introduction to running began at the age of eleven with Glenmore AC, a member of the NACAI, the weaker sibling of the BLE prior to their union in 1999 to form the Athletics Association of Ireland. From then until the age of 18, the only form of involvement I had with the national coaches was a total of two, yes two, training sessions at Santry stadium with about twenty other athletes of my age around the age of 15. My distinct memories of those interactions were that when the group was asked how many days a week we were running, I was the only one to raise my hand to everyday, and was promptly scorned by the coach (who shall remain nameless given his continued involvement with Irish athletics), yet there was no advice given as to how better structure my training. And that was my involvement with the ‘capable Irish coaches' to which Jim Kilty refers.

      After finishing the Leaving Cert I had the choice of attending college in Ireland, or to follow a number of Irish athletes (most notably those from St. Malachy's) to Loughborough University in England (note: these choices were based on academics, not athletics, as I still had not received/sought guidance from any coaches). Instead, on the advice of a local runner, I chose to defer entry for a year and enroll in a PLC course at North Monastery CBS in Cork (the alma mater of Mark Carroll) and begin working with Br. John Dooley as my coach. Aside from a dramatic improvement in my running, Br. Dooley also opened my eyes to the possibility of studying in the States. While Br. Dooley has often been criticized for his open support of the Scholarship system, it is unwarranted for the following reason: along with the athlete, Br. Dooley will research the school involved and assess the adequacy of the said school to help the athlete achieve his goals, both academic and athletic. This is a critical reason as to why certain athletes do not achieve success in the states. To look at the example given of James Grufferty and East Tennessee; PJ Browne refers to the Irish legacy of the Leddy Brothers, Frank Greally and Neil Cusack. Well Neil Cusack is the most recent of those graduates if memory serves me correct at circa 1974. That gives little indication as to the current state of the East Tennessee Track and Field program. Few, if any Irish athletes intent on coming to the States perform research as to the caliber of the program that they are considering. In the age of the internet, it is not hard to find out the frequency with which the school in question qualifies for the NCAA championship, or gives you the opportunity to travel to the bigger meets such as Penn Relays, Mt. Sac, etc; or the caliber of the squad you would be joining. One can find out how adequate the coach is at developing athletes by finding out high school times compared with college. In short, the problem is that too many Irish athletes are walking into these situations blind.

      Kilty and Ahern also lament the drop in numbers still competing post collegiately of those who come to the States. Not all, but the majority of these I would argue are a result of a realization by the athlete of other opportunities that are available to them in the States, not some ‘demonic' coach that forced them to run till their legs were left irreparable. Be it the African dominance of middle distance running, the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs, or the sheer difficulty in making a living out of running, but the attraction of a career in distance running lessens dramatically; and news that athletes of the caliber of Peter Coughlan and Mark Carroll have had their lottery-funding cut is hardly likely to inspire aspiring athletes to pursue these dreams. Another factor to consider is the drop in numbers of athletes aged between 18-22 not only in running, but other sports. I would willingly wager that the drop in numbers of athletes between these ages is greater in other sports than in running. The reality is that running is not the most appealing of sports to newcomers, and is not flush with participants. Kilty's claim that Ireland has donated 40-50 athletes a year for the past 12 years baffles me, as I can scarcely remember having 40-50 people to race against at the age of 17, let alone come to America. The reality is the figure is closer to anywhere between 15-20 a year counting both genders, while about an equal number stay in Ireland. Therefore, while Kilty claims Mark Carroll is all Ireland has to show for the NCAA system in the last 12 years (notably ignoring Sonia O'Sullivan, Susan Smith, Marie McMahon, Joleen Byrne, Roisin McGettigan, Mary Cullen, Martin Fagan, Vinny Mulvey and Keith Kelly among others), Catherina McKiernan, James Nolan, and David Gillick are Ireland's equivalent output. Given that the current core of Irish middle and long distance runners in both genders are a product of the NCAA system, it is hard to reason with the arguments of Kilty and Ahern.

      In conclusion, my running experience was disappointing to say the least. Injuries restricted me to competing in a handful of races over five years. If that is the only criteria for success in America, then maybe Kilty and Ahern are correct. What coaches and athletes alike need to realize is that running is not the sole objective of attending a college. If running was to be the only objective, why go to college to begin with? Coming to America was the best thing that could have happened to me. I have a degree from a renowned university, and am about to embark upon my graduate studies. Instead of criticizing and turning their backs to those who have come to America, why not embrace them and seek their input as how to improve conditions for the future crop of athletes to come through the Irish junior ranks.

Eamonn O'Connor

Brown University Class of 2005

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