Athlete Feature 20 - Mary Cullen - USA Athletics Scholarships

Athlete Feature 20 – Mary Cullen

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Mary Cullen is the Irish 3000m Indoor record holder (8:43). She studied at Providence College from 2001-2006 and during that stint claimed 6 All American honours including a 5000m NCAA title in her senior year. She spoke to us about her NCAA career, as well as a look ahead to London.

tbUSA – You attended Providence College from 2001 – 2006 and there you were under the tutelage of Ray Treacy. Can you describe what you were doing prior to becoming a Friar?

MC – I finished up High School in 2000 and because I really wanted to go to Providence I took a year out and worked in a sports store in Sligo. It was probably better to wait the year to go out to America because I finished school a bit younger at home and it give me a chance to mature a little before going heading to the US.

tbUSA – How did the recruitment process transpire? How much of a selling point was Ray Treacy and his record in developing Irish athletes? Did you do much research prior to committing to Providence, and were any other schools being considered?

MC – Myself, Deirdre Byrne and Roisin Quinn (also went to Providence) were kind of at the top level of our age group in Ireland at the time with a few other girls, and Ray would keep a close eye on results back home. I think he saw the three of us and decided to have a chat with us. I remember getting a few other offers from schools that I certainly would not have been as familiar with at the time, but when Ray called from Providence I remember I got excited about the prospect. As you said, Providence has such a rich tradition of developing Irish athletes, but not just Irish athletes. Ray has a great method of developing athletes full stop. He has coached numerous Olympians. With him the coach at Providence, it was a massive selling point, if not the main reason I went there. I didn’t really research the school a lot before I went. I guess I would have to admit I wasn’t the most academically driven person in the world but I knew from researching the athletics at Providence it was the place I wanted to be. I hadn’t really considered any other schools seriously. I guess being Irish, you know about schools like Villanova, Iona, and Arkansas because of the Irish coaching connection. I did talk to Joe Franklin who was at Butler at the time and is now at New Mexico. He was such a nice man and I remember feeling bad having to say no to him.

tbUSA – You had eight different seasons at Providence, and you graduated with quite a few All American honours in that period? Out of those 3 years, what would you highlight as your greatest achievement?

MC – Believe or not, I’m not actually 100% certain but I think I graduated with 6 All-American honours. To get an All-American honour means a lot because the depth of the NCAA competition is so vast. I remember my first one, in my sophomore XC year, meaning a lot because by placing 28th, it was Ray’s 100th All-American.  But I guess if I am completely honest winning my NCAA title in 2006 was the highlight. It was my last race for Providence College. I had messed up a little during the indoor season and missed out on winning one indoors so the excitement I felt in Sacramento that year was unreal and probably still one of my favourite memories in my running career to date.

tbUSA – Did you find the collegiate system easy to adapt to? Were there issues with settling in and adaptation to different training from what you were used to?

MC - The great thing about going to Providence College was having Irish girls on team. They were able to help us settle in; they had gone through the process ahead of us so we could rely on their experiences to settle in pretty quickly. I think the great thing is you have 4 years to really learn the system. In your freshmen year you’re really just getting your feet wet with everything (classes, college life, races, etc.) and then you have the next few years to perfect it. I think it’s a great system. The training took a little to get used to in my freshmen year, because of my low mileage before going to America. Adapting to the bigger mileage took a little while but Ray does it in such a way you get used to it pretty fast with no ill effects.

tbUSA – Since graduating, you have gone on to compete in the World Championships and Europeans both on the track and over the country. You also hold the Irish National record for 3000m indoors at 8:43. How much do you feel Providence College set you up for what you have since achieved?

MC – I really wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Providence College. The opportunity to compete in the NCAA system keeps you driven each year to raise your game. Having a team of girls/friends and with such talent in the group like Kim Smith (4 time NCAA champ, Olympian, multiple NZ record holder), Roisin McGettigan (Irish record holder in the steeple, World and Olympic finalist) to train with everyday makes running so much fun, and with everyone bringing something different to training it just makes you become a better athlete.

I ran my 8:43.74 at Boston University in 2009 since graduating from Providence and I won my European medal that same season. Providence undoubtedly played a large role in those performances.

tbUSA – What did you study at Providence? How did you feel the academic workload and athletic workload balanced simultaneously?

MC – I studied social science at Providence but you might have to ask Ray how I balanced the academic and athletic workload! The great thing about the American academic system is its continuous assessment so you don’t really fall behind. You have to keep up with the workload as you go along the semester and if you do fall behind they have a great athlete/academic support system in place with tutors, groups you can meet, and study hall for 2 hours every evening. Everything’s in place.

tbUSA – Where are you based now? Obviously missing Beijing due to injury, you must be fully focused for London this year?

MC – I am based in Dublin right now, but because the weather maybe always isn’t the best in Ireland you have to plan for stints away. Missing out on Beijing was especially tough when, at the last minute, B standards were accepted by Ireland. Having ran the B standard in 2007, it was disappointing not to be given the opportunity to prove my fitness. It worked out OK in the end as I trained away in Providence that summer (2008) and targeted the European XC in Belgium that winter.  London is the focus for this year. 2012 is such a big year and I would love nothing more to run there. It would be a dream come true.

tbUSA  – Have you any advice to give to prospective student-athletes considering the NCAA?

MC – I would advise any athlete to go to America. That might come across a little biased but I had such a great experience in the NCAA system and was very fortunate to have a coach like Ray who really develops you as an athlete. As an Irish athlete, you leave school at 17 or 18, you have just left the junior ranks and have to step into senior level which initially can be difficult to do, so to have 4 years to work on becoming a stronger runner is invaluable.

The level of competition is second to none. You also have a ready-made group to train with every day, a support network in itself when you move from home. You can balance study and running really well and at the end of the 4 years you’ll emerge with a great degree and hopefully as a better and stronger athlete. It’s just my opinion but I think the facilities and opportunities in the NCAA system far outweigh what Ireland has to offer at this given time.

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