Olive Loughnane is the deserved toast of Loughrea, County Galway, and Ireland this week after becoming only the fourth Irish athlete to stand on the podium at a world athletic championship.
Winning silver in the 20km walk at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin has been a long and sometimes exhausting road for the 33-years-old product of Carrabane Athletic Club.
With three Olympics and four world cups behind her, Loughnane has continued her steady rise in a discipline that is frequently in the shadows of the more illustrious track and field events.
But on Saturday she certainly made the breakthrough. Striding under the famed Brandenburg Gates, she claimed her place in Irish athletic history. Only Eamonn Coghlan, Sonia O’Sullivan (twice ), and Gillian O’Sullivan (in the same event ) have won world medals.
Loughnane’s athletic career dates back 20 years when she joined Loughrea’s Carrabane AC in Loughrea for crosscountry running. However six years later when at NUIG (then UCG ) and studying commerce, her coach asked her to compete in the walk. Loughnane, the oldest of seven children, has never looked back, and sister Ann has followed in her footsteps.
Married to Martin Corkery, with a three-years-old daughter Eimear and living in Cork, Loughnane’s rise has not been meteoric, but measured, during which time she has survived a potentially career-threatening medical complaint. The 2000 Sydney Olympics proved pivotal. Although she finished 35th, she held her own with the elite athletes of the world. The following year she moved up to 13th at the World Championships, and in the intervening seasons she was consistently in the top 13, but for the Olympics in Greece where she failed to complete the course due to illness.
Her hard graft started to pay rich dividends at the Beijing Olympics last year. Her seventh-place finish was Ireland’s best result in the track and field arena, and in doing so she joined an elite group of Irish athletes - though once again her achievement was overlooked by many.
This year she was the impressive winner of the Dublin Grand Prix of Race Walking, producing a commanding display over the Olympic bronze medallist Elisa Rigaudo to win in a season’s best of 1.30.57. In a field in which athletes from 20 nations competed, Loughnane led from the gun, boosting her confidence ahead of this week’s World Championships.
“The Dublin Grand Prix of Race Walking at the end of June was a huge boost for me. I had a really good race and was able to post a season's best and finish ahead of Olympic bronze medallist Elisa Riguado.”
Loughnane also attributes her improvement this year to Spanish coach Montse Pastor Martinez, and of course her family.
“Ever since I’ve had Eimer three years ago, I’ve also been a little bit calmer coming into events like this. I have such a great back-up from my own family, and my husband’s family - it keeps you focused. It’s really my family that keep me going. I’m lucky I was born in Galway and live in Cork and have the support of two communities.”
Those communities were out in force in Berlin on Sunday to cheer her on as she strode her way to the winners' podium. In clocking a season's best of 1hr 28mins 58secs, she finished just 49 seconds behind defending champion and Beijing gold medallist Olga Kaniskina of Russia.
President McAleese, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, and Loughrea Athletic Club are among the many to congratulate her achievement. "It takes immense talent, dedication and courage to win a silver medal at such a prestigious event," President McAleese said. "This is such a proud moment for Olive, her family, teammates, and friends - and one in which all of us can share."