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Ballyhaunis athlete hurdles challenges


UP AND AT IT Niamh O’Neill of St Colman’s South Mayo AC is pictured competing in the under 23 women’s 60m hurdles during the National Indoor Junior and Under-23 Championships back in March. Pic: Sportsfile

Niamh O’Neill from Ballyhaunis has overcome adversity to become an All-Ireland champion

Michael Gallagher

PICTURE the scene.
It’s September 23, 2013, and there’s huge excitement in Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children as Dublin, the new All Ireland champions, arrive with Sam Maguire. The men in blue had beaten Mayo by a single point the previous day and the new champions wear the broadest of smiles as they came through the front door.
Waiting for them was Niamh O’Neill, a 13-year-old Ballyhaunis girl proudly and defiantly wearing her Mayo jersey. Niamh had a painful abscess lodged in the middle of her hip and her future movement was in question.
Last month, Niamh, now 20-years-old, raced her way to the National Under-23 100m Hurdles title in Tullamore. It was a powerful run from the Mayo woman and put the cherry on top of a very successful season. Niamh had already captured the national indoor title back in March in Athlone and established herself as a star of the sport.
“All the work, all the determination not to give up, clicked this year and I’ve had my best season. Those two gold medals took years of effort and to be able to share the success with family and friends was brilliant,” she told The Mayo News.
“The Under-23 Indoors was huge for me. It came down to me and another girl [Lara O’Byrne from Donore Harriers] for the gold and, thankfully, I had the race of my life – a huge PB and the gold medal. That was a great taste of success and to have my dad and my boyfriend and lots of friends there made it extra special. Dad would have seen the bad parts, the crying and the frustration and for him to be there when I eventually got the gold was brilliant.
“That was the end of the indoor season, and the outdoor season began with a few average-enough runs but that made me even more determined,” continued Niamh.
“I kept working on getting better and it all built up to the final race of the season, the Under-23 outdoors against the same girl I’d beaten in the indoor final.
“I’m usually meticulous about my preparation, but on that particular day I wasn’t. I ran in the sprints early in the day and then stayed out in the scorching sun watching my friends from college compete in other events.
“I felt really drained before the race but thankfully it worked out okay and I won it narrowly. We were neck and neck the whole way down and I had to really put the drive on near the end to get over the line first. It was a great way to end the season.”
The DCU student has been immersed in sport all her life. Her parents George and Stella made sure of that.
“Mum played a lot of basketball. She won an All-Ireland with Ballyhaunis Community School and then played National League with Carrick-on-Shannon. Dad was a good footballer back in Roscommon. He was said to be very fast, and Mum always says he had to be fast on his feet to have caught her back in the day.”
Niamh was a competitive Irish dancer, a footballer who played for Mayo through all the underage grades and a boxer who lost two All-Ireland finals on split decisions, but athletics was always her thing.
“When I was eight the Mayo finals were on the same day as my First Communion, and while I was excited and happy about the communion, part of me wanted to be running in the Mayos,” the speedster admitted.
Niamh was a sprinter, a high-jumper and a long-jumper, but her coach, Jim Ryan, introduced her to hurdles and a new sporting dimension began.
Over the years, the St Colman’s AC star concentrated almost entirely on her new discipline and although she won her first All-Ireland medal at high-jump, she soon dedicated herself to hurdling.
That single-mindedness paid off brilliantly in 2022 and now her dream of competing at the Under-23 Europeans in 2023 is the next challenge.
“Winning the Under-23 title here won’t be good enough to qualify, there’s also a time that has to be beaten and I’ll be working hard chasing that.
“I have three caps from my time in secondary school and it would be a dream to get in the vest again in 2023. I have an old athletics bag I use, and it’s falling apart, but I’ll hold on to it and see if I can get a new Irish one instead for the Europeans.”
Who would bet against her?

Name: Niamh O’Neill
From: Ballyhaunis
Age: 20
Club: St Colman’s AC South Mayo
Occupation? Studying PE and Maths in DCU.
Also works part-time in MacSiurtáin’s bar in Ballyhaunis.

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