McNeese State's David Rooney

Athlete Feature 32 – David Rooney

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In this Athlete Feature we talk to McNeese State University’s David Rooney, whose seventh-place finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Louisville, Ky., cemented his name amongst the greatest Irish performances in the history of the event. We discuss his experiences and progression within the US collegiate system, as well as his build-up to this weekend’s SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Budapest, Hungary. 

First of all, belated congratulations on such a tremendous performance at NCAAs – have you had time to reflect on your run?

Yes, I celebrated over the Thanksgiving week with friends from college. I went to New Orleans for a few days and had a great time. I had some exams to do before I left to come home to Ireland. However, one professor who is not an athletics fan refused to let me take the exam early, so that awaits me after Christmas.

To give it some perspective, since 1990, only 10 other Irish athletes have finished in the top-10, with you now becoming the 11th. How does it feel to have your name compared to the likes of Mark Carroll (2nd; 3rd), Niall Bruton (2nd; 3rd), and Keith Kelly (9th; 1st)?

It is a tremendous honour to be compared to these high-quality athletes. Keith Kelly’s win in the NCAAs, back in 2000, was a huge achievement and to be mentioned in the same league as him and Mark Carroll, a former Irish record holder in the 5k, is very flattering.

Going into the race, what were your expectations and how did that impact your race strategy?

I had very high expectations going into the race. My season had been going very well and I felt going into the NCAAs that I could sneak a top-10 position. I had a race plan in mind and it worked out brilliantly. To many, including myself, nationals this year was very predictable. The African championship was going to be competed for at the front, but I knew the top non-African spot was up for grabs. My plan was to sit in with the chasing group and to finish in a strong position. The last mile of the race I felt really good and waited until the last 2k to make a move. Once I made it, I didn’t look back.

With most of the pre-race coverage dominating the battle to see who would win the team championships, this year’s competition was actually one for the individual representatives. With the first four finishers, as well as seven of the top-10 all not contributing directly to a team’s points, how has attending McNeese benefitted you in comparison to some of the other, bigger athletic programmes?

Vinny Mulvey, a former Iona College athlete and great friend, told me that it doesn’t matter what college you go to in the States, it’s what you make of it. I kept this in mind my entire college career and I think it is the most valuable advice I have ever been given. In leaving Ireland to go to America I left behind the best club in the world – Raheny Shamrocks. I couldn’t have asked for a better coach, who is a three-time Olympic marathon runner, in Dick Hooper. It was a very difficult decision to go to McNeese and leave a tremendous club, but at the end of day, running doesn’t pay the bills. I needed to get a degree and the States was a perfect opportunity.

I made a promise to myself that I was going to make the best of my time in Louisiana. McNeese has good facilities and a good athletic program. It’s not a big school but it is Division 1 and I have been given a chance to compete with the best athletes in America. A big school is not always the best way to go: the main thing for me was to have a coach that I could trust and would take me to the next level in my running career. Some bigger schools in the northern states have miserable winters, and training on a treadmill to avoid the cold is something I am glad I don’t have to experience.

With that in mind, what was it about McNeese that enticed you to opt for Louisiana? Did you have any alternative offers?

McNeese was the only real offer I got in the States. I had many coaches from different colleges around the US give me a call and show interest, but never any real offers. The only other college to come close to an offer was a college in Indiana, but a mix-up with an email ended that interest. The reality, though, for me, was I couldn’t accept any offers because I hadn’t passed the S.A.T – the entry exam into American universities. It took a painful four times for me to get the required score. During the third time I walked out of the exam room early and gave the American scholarship route the middle finger, but thankfully with the help of close friends and family, I went back the fourth time.

Brendon (McNeese coach) and I had been talking for a year before I came over. One thing I liked about him was there was no B.S. in terms of actually offering me a scholarship. However, everything was very rushed in the end. Once I got the S.A.T exam in July 2008, I made the decision to go to Louisiana, and after sending all my paperwork by priority mail, I was a McNeese athlete in August.

Coming from Dublin, how have you found the more laid-back, small city lifestyle in Lake Charles, La.?

Lake Charles is definitely very different to Dublin in terms of lifestyle. As a city of 90,000 people, it does feel like a small town with many of the local “Lake Chucks” all looking the same: baseball cap, Polo shirt, and boat shoes seems to be popular fashion trend. However, I was fortunate enough my first year to have many Irish people on the team and this made it a lot easier to adapt to the different lifestyle and culture.

Saying that, there is no shortage of fun in Louisiana. It is famous for many festivals, including Mardi Gras, which is celebrated every February. The local nightlife is a good distraction from the academics and athletics and the local club, Cowboys, is just outside city limits, which means it’s allowed to stay open until 6:00 a.m. Although it looks like a barn from the outside, it can be a very fun place when you’re with your buddies. Dancing away to tunes like, “Teach Me How to Dougie” or lyrics like, “Wobble baby, wobble baby, get in there yeah, yeah,” the excitement never ends.  Tunes like these are so popular that a local clubber may find themselves dancing to these songs more than once on a Saturday night.

McNeese has a tradition of Irish and British runners who have attended and competed for the university over the past 50 years, with some still assisting directly or indirectly as coaches. How has this helped you settle when being so far away from home?

McNeese has a long list of Irish athletes since the 1970s. Fanahan McSweeney, who held many records at McNeese from the 400m to the mile, started this long list. There is a story that he was supposed to go to a college in Texas but got lost on the way from Ireland and ended up in Lake Charles. Subsequently, he then went on to have a successful athletic career at McNeese and left a legend.

The Foolkes brothers – Trevor, Jason, and Alan – are past McNeese athletes from Cork. Trevor came out in the 1990s, followed by Jason and Alan some years after. They all now live in Lake Charles and have made a life for themselves in Louisiana, with Alan acting as the assistant cross country coach for the past 5 years. These guys have been a major influence on my success. They made settling into Lake Charles so much easier and I am deeply grateful for their help. Jason, an English teacher, has helped me with a lot of English papers and when I graduate I will be buying him a lot of beer.

You are now one of the biggest contenders for All-American honours on the track; can you give a brief synopsis of the progression that you’ve undergone since you decided to go to the States?

I went to the States as a cross country runner and had my achievements at international level as a junior. My track credentials were average in terms of where I am now, arriving with a 5k time that was 15 minutes flat. My first 10k was in California last year, where I ran 28:54 and that still remains my PB. Since going to McNeese, I have progressed to senior level in cross country and on the track, culminating with a win in the team event at the U23 European Cross Country Championships two years ago. My track range has also improved, with a 3:44 1500m and 13:53 5k. I put my track progression down to avoiding injury, having had many injuries during my time in Ireland before I left for the States, which, inevitably, prevented me achieving some credible times.

This week sees a strong Irish team head to Hungary for the European Cross Country Championships. Traditionally, predicting performances for athletes returning to compete at the Europeans has always been difficult due to the obvious paradox of the two races being so close to together, yet so geographically far apart. Have you got a placing in mind, and how has competing at the NCAAs affected this?  

I am delighted to be selected for the Europeans this year. It is a huge honour to be pre-selected for your country. It is incredibly difficult, mentally and physically, to run after the NCCAs. My entire season had been gearing up towards the NCAAs, but I am ready for the challenge in Hungary. I have no idea how nationals in America compares to Europeans at senior level, so it’s hard for me to predict a place at Euros. I would like to try and compete for a top ten placing, though.

Now that you’re into your final year of university, and with more British and Irish athletes deciding to opt for professional, US-based running groups, do you see yourself staying to pursue a running career or will you be looking to come home?

I will be looking to stay in the US – I have ambitions to make the Olympics in 2016 in Rio. The main priority for me is to get into the right situation to make this possible. There are many US post-collegiate running groups, but it is getting increasingly harder to get accepted into these groups as a foreigner. I will be working hard this track season to get my name out there and give myself the best chance possible to be in the right situation on the road to Rio 2016.

Finally, if you could give one piece of advice for prospective athletes from the British Isles looking to go the States, what would it be?

For any athlete coming from Britain or Ireland, my best advice would be to find the right coach and college that are best for you as an individual. Don’t expect everything just to happen for you. You get a lot free stuff but to get success you must work hard. America is highly competitive and shows no mercy for cry-offs.

 …also, stay away from anyone who wears Crocs. They’re some type of sandal/flip-flop that people wear in the South and look like they’re made out of crocodile skin. They have no style and make a person look like a lazy bum.  If you see anyone wearing Crocs, don’t talk to them as it is embarrassing.

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