Last laugh for the girl who walked funny

Up ahead lay the Brandenburg gate, with its two sections of six Doric columns. With the heat scorching, she can no longer hear her quick footsteps on the hot road on this Sunday morning in Germany. Atop the gate lies the Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses and driven by Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory. How appropriate that she should stare down on this day of achievement from the girl from Loughrea.

When the quadriga was first built, only the royal family were permitted to break the shadow and pass through its central archway, but on this Sunday, the girl from Loughrea has done it, the girl who walks funny, the girl who many had written off and whose athletics career now has a silver lining.

Competitive race walking is as nerve wracking for the observers as it is for the participants. Like showjumping, disqualification is just one trailing leg away, one foot out of place. Its awkward movements seem impossible, graceless, funny to the uninitiated.

The concentration required is intense. Her face gritted as she drove herself on, the streets of Berlin just a substitute for the country roads of Galway and Cork which she had often pounded with this day in mind.

And as she walked those final few kilometres, making her way up the tree-lined Unter den Linden, a great calmness came over her, a serenity acquired through motherhood, and of a promise to her daughter Eimear to bring home a medal.

It was in those rain-filled days back in Ireland that she convinced herself that she could do this. That she had within her the ability to deliver a performance such as this. She would think of Olga Kaninkska, the Russian World and Olympic champion who is out of her own in this sport. And how she may never be toppled, especially as the Russian is nine years younger. But if gold wasn’t an option as long as the Russian continues to compete, then the other medals were.

And as she made her way through the network of streets in that great historic city, just two decades after it became undivided, her attention remained the same. This was not a time for taking in the sights, sounds and smells as Sunday morning Germans made their way to the coffee shops, newspapers under their arms, walked their dogs, or as others threw open their windows to alleviate the stifling 31 degree heat and to watch the girl in green go by.

To her, they were an invisible distraction. The photographed reflection from her sunglasses showing what she could see, her feet, her sweatband-wrapped wrists working like pistons, her heart racing in a consistent rhythm, up and down the repeated route, until the Pariser Platz came into view and at the head of it, the gates, the Quadriga and the place that once led into West Berlin.

Now the serenity was even more pronounced. She knew the silver was in the bag.

And as she focused to try to make out faces in the sunshine, she saw her husband Martin, her dad Matt and her brother Brendan. And for the first time in hours, both her feet left the ground, as they hugged her and held her, their undoubted eternal confidence in their wife, daughter, sister, having borne fruit for all the world to see.

Less than half a dozen Irish athletes have taken home a medal from a World Championships, and no matter what happens now, Olive’s can never be taken away. On that sunny German Sunday morning she brought joy to her country, her county and her home place, and a smile to herself.



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