Athlete Feature 09 - Ciaran O Lionaird - USA Athletics Scholarships

Athlete Feature 09 – Ciaran O Lionaird

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We continue the Irish theme of recent weeks and welcome to the trackboundUSA stage World Championship 1500m finalist Ciarán ó Lionáird. Ciarán talks about the highs and lows of his collegiate career at The University of Michigan and Florida State University. He finished the 2011 season with PBs of 3:34, 7:50. 13:33 and 28:32.

tbUSA – Congratulations on your recent achievements of making the final at the World Championships 1500m. As an athlete who has been through many ups and downs, representing Ireland and making the final must rank amongst your proudest moments in the sport?

CO’L – It is always a tremendous honour to represent one’s country, particularly at a major championship event. I was delighted to get the time given the struggles of the past few years, however I wasn’t just satisfied to be in Daegu, I wanted to get in the mix and prove I can run with the best guys in the world. I would say deciding to stick with running when I was at the very end of my wits with injury and illness serves in itself as the thing I’m most proud of, and everything else has progressed as a result of that decision.

tbUSA – What would you attribute your improvements to this season? After several years battling injury was it mainly a case of staying healthy for a sustained period?

CO’L – I would say the biggest factor has been backing off on the intensity of particular aspects of training and single workouts and focusing instead on putting week upon week of steady training in. Getting the tempo, the long run and enough recovery in, week after week. I used to smash sessions and beat myself to death and struggle to hold it together for long periods. This year I took individual days easier and as a result could string months of solid training together which has given me a big platform to operate off of.

tbUSA – Irish athletes have been heading over to the NCAA for many years, often with great success. When you were growing up was it always your plan to head to the US for university?

CO’L – As an athlete in Leevale Athletic club, the plan was always to go to the NCAA. My coach in Leevale, Der O’Donovan, took me on when I was 12 and had a 7 year plan to develop me into a good junior and then follow in the footsteps of other Leevale athletes such as Marcus O’Sullivan, Mark Carroll and Ken Nason. I definitely wasn’t forced into going to the States, but driving home from races as a teenager I’d always hear of the stories of the lads who went on scholarship and there was a certain romanticism to it given history of Leevale athletes in the US.

tbUSA – As one of the leading Irish athletes at the time you were being recruited would it be safe to say that numerous schools were competing for your signature? What made you chose Michigan?

CO’L – Yeah I had a lot of options when looking at schools.  There were the traditional schools for Irish athletes like Villanova, Providence, Iona, Arkansas but others too. I eventually had it narrowed down to Oregon, Michigan and Florida State and chose Michigan because at the time they were doing amazing things in middle-distance and I wanted to be a part of that group of lads and have a base there post-collegiately.

tbUSA – After originally starting at Michigan, you recently completed your eligibility at Florida State University. What made you decide to transfer mid way through your collegiate career?

CO’L – Yeah I moved to FSU after 3 years in Ann Arbor. Michigan just wasn’t a good fit for me. I had a bad mentality towards training where I would just hammer and having world-class runners in the group meant I could do that every single day and I just ran myself into the ground. I had numerous season-ending injuries and was constantly fatigued. I also had some family problems at home and it brought a shadow of negativity over my whole time at Michigan.

In the end Coach Ron Warhurst and I both knew I needed a change. He was great about it and he and I continue to be great friends. There was no bad blood whatsoever. He’s done some amazing things with his athletes and just because I didn’t fit in there, it shouldn’t reflect negatively on him as a coach. Coach Braman had been very classy about things when I had originally decided to go to Michigan over FSU and I knew some lads on the team and having endured three Michigan winters, I thought the climate at FSU would help keep my fragile body in one piece.

tbUSA – Transferring is strictly regulated by the NCAA. Can you give a summary of the process you went through and rules you had to abide by?

CO’L – Basically, I first had to get a release from Ron. We had talked about it and he was really good about giving me the release. You get a release to specific schools which is sent from your current school’s compliance department to that of the prospective school. So a release was faxed from Michigan compliance to FSU compliance and this allowed me to talk to Coach Braman about transferring there. From there we just had to figure out how many credits would transfer over academically and thankfully all of mine did. For me it was a smooth transition. However, I can understand one might be very apprehensive about going to their current coach asking for a release as it might just raise all hell. I was lucky in this regard but my advice to student-athletes looking to transfer is just to be honest. If you’re not happy, explain why and don’t try and cover the facts. Just lay it out there and if your coach is reasonable, they should grant your request.

tbUSA – How did transferring effect your academic situation? What qualifications have you obtained or currently working towards?

CO’L – I am just finishing up my masters at FSU now. All of my credits transferred as I said above. I had worked hard at Michigan taking full class loads so I was ahead in my studies and I needed just 28 credits from FSU to graduate with a bachelors in English Literature and Psychology. I took Fall and Spring Semesters and because I had a bad back injury my 1st year at FSU, I stayed in summer to rehab and finished up in Summer School so I could do a masters in my final year. So in 5 years I got the above undergraduate qualification plus a Masters in Sport Management. On the education side of things, it all worked out quite well.

tbUSA – Now that your eligibility is complete are you now finished with studying? What do you plan to do following graduation?

CO’L – Now that I have finished classwork for my masters, I must do 150 hours volunteer work in a Sport Related Field. I am doing that in an internship form with my agent Chris Layne and his management group Total Sports US. It will involve thinking outside the box when looking at potential sponsors for distance runners. It will in turn help me in my running career financially I hope so it’s an excellent fit. Besides that though I am now full-time as an athlete. I’m lucky to get tremendous support from Nike and also some funding from the Irish Sports Council so I can chase my goals of an Olympic medal next year without the financial stresses many athletes face.

tbUSA – How would you rate your overall US college experience?  What were the high and low points?

CO’L – I would say overall I had an amazing experience as a NCAA Student Athlete. I got to experience two massive college environments and the setup at FSU in particular was unbelievably professional when it came to facilities, staff support and resources available to athletes. It allowed me mature into an athlete that knows how the train properly and even in spite of 4 years injured, I still learned the lessons which allowed me to emerge in my last year into someone who can make a World Championship final. That I was able to compete on a global stage off collegiate training illustrates just how competitive the NCAA is and for athletes that may struggle to make the jump from talented junior to talented senior, it serves as the perfect bridge.

I couldn’t recommend Florida State University enough. I had everything I could ever ask for in terms of support for training and competing at an elite level. I had an amazing coach in Coach Braman and terrific banter with my teammates. Tallahassee is like home for me now almost. There were low points too of course, but that’s part of life. It’s how you bounce back from those that defines you. Had I had a perfect NCAA career, I may have struggled greatly in the mental sense as a professional runner had I gotten injured. Now I feel I am prepared to handle any negatives and keep it all in perspective.

tbUSA – This is a question we ask all our featured athletes: What advice would you offer to perspective student athletes considering the US collegiate system?

CO’L – I would say that think of your needs specifically as a runner and as a student. Don’t choose a college just because it has a reputation for success in either realm. Of course that is a barometer of sorts but it does not gauge everything. Find the college that is the best fit for you. Talk to the coach, and make sure you ask all the questions you need to, regardless of how you feel that might be taken. Take a visit and continue to ask questions. Then make an informed decision. When you arrive, respect the fact that in the US, the training is a step up and you will get your ass handed to you on a plate some days regardless of your talent. If you are strong enough mentally to see battles lost as experience gained for winning the war outright, then you’ll see some great success in the NCAA.

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