Having returned from a career-threatening injury, steeplechaser Eilish McColgan goes into the London Olympics in the form of her life
On August 6 2011, Eilish McColgan lay trackside at Crystal Palace in physical and mental pain, knowing that her dreams of competing in the steeplechase at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu were over and that her London 2012 ambitions were in doubt.
In that race at last year’s London Diamond League, McColgan broke her foot with 500 metres to go in 3000m steeplechase but battled through the pain to finish less than a second outside the Olympic qualifying time – and, even more surprisingly, still managed to set a PB of 9:44.80.
The Olympic final in McColgan’s event will take place exactly one year to the day of her injury, and after booking her place on the team with her victory at the UK Trials, McColgan is now hopeful of being on that start line.
“At the second-last water jump in Crystal Palace last year I completely fractured the left navicular bone in my foot but I continued racing through the severe pain. As I kept racing, the bone was displaced and I had damaged a few of the bones around it.
“The surgeon said some of the bones looked like ‘mush’ – which I am assuming bones are not meant to look like!” she added. “I was admitted in for surgery the following day to get five screws and a metal plate put in place in order to fix the injury.
“It was horrible but to be honest, finishing that race in a World Championships qualifying time of 9:44 opened a lot of doors for me and put me in the running for a place at London 2012.
“I never would have believed that I could return to competition so quickly after such a serious injury. I have completely shocked myself – as well as my doctors – as to how quickly things have progressed with my fitness this year. At one point, we weren’t sure that I would be able to return to steeplechase again – but I made the decision to swap my landing foot over in order to be able to compete again.”
Daughter of Olympic 10,000m silver medallist Liz McColgan and Northern Irish 3000m steeplechase record-holder Peter McColgan, the 21-year-old is a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Far from being overawed by her parents’ success, instead you get the sense that both her parents add an unbelievably important and supportive weapon to her artillery.
“Both my parents inspire me a great deal,” says McColgan. “Seeing how hard they trained in order to be successful shows me how hard I have to work in order to achieve my ambitions and dreams.
“My mum has been my coach since I took up athletics as a child, so she probably influences me the most. She is the one who plans my day-to-day training and my whole racing schedule. But my dad can obviously give me more specific steeplechase advice as that was his event.”
Such guidance from both parents has this year assisted McColgan in setting a lifetime best of 9:38.45 at the Oslo Diamond League, breaking the British under-23 best. The performance was of course a major boost for McColgan, although she is keeping Olympic expectations at a realistic level.
“A few people keep asking me, ‘are you going to win a medal?’ I’m always quick to reply with ‘of course not!’ Don’t get me wrong, I love a positive mental attitude and God loves a trier, but there is absolutely no point in me having an unrealistic one. I am nowhere near the standard of those athletes… yet. Ask me the same question in four years’ time and I may have a different answer.
“At the Games, I would love to run a personal best and to possibly squeeze into the final. I think I am definitely capable of running close to 9:30-9:32 and I believe that would be enough to make the final.
“It’s still a bit surreal to be honest,” adds McColgan of her achievements to date. “I can’t quite believe that I’ve actually made an Olympic team at the age of 21. This is definitely the biggest achievement of my career so far – and if someone had told me two years ago that this would be possible, I would have laughed at them, as I was nowhere near hitting the qualifying targets.”
On the eve of London 2012, Olympic fever is sweeping the nation and McColgan is all too aware how big a difference a home Games can make to the athletes.
“Being a home Olympics definitely makes it more special,” she says. “Every single British spectator will know the name of every single British athlete competing in the stadium. It will make a huge difference having a home crowd supporting you. It also allows the public to witness a truly amazing event right on their doorstep and opens athletics to hundreds of people that might not have even bothered watching before.”
McColgan hopes the Games will inspire young children to take up athletics like she did at an early age.
“From a young age I was always surrounded by both my parents being full-time athletes and so growing up was maybe a little bit different for me,” she recalls. “I thought being an athlete was a completely typical job – but as I got to primary school I realised not everybody’s parents ran twice a day every day! I absolutely loved running though from an early age but more importantly I liked competing and pushing myself as far as I could.”
The dogged determination and bulldog spirit has always been a part of McColgan’s make up, but there were also tough times.
“I lost focus in my first two years of university but only due to injury. I had been to see hundreds of physiotherapists but I wasn’t getting any better. I cross trained for a full year and a half before eventually getting back to running, but then I found out I was extremely anaemic.
“At the start of 2010, something inside me knew that if I wanted to get better and achieve my goals, I needed to change my lifestyle drastically. I was living like a student instead of an athlete. Nowadays, I make sure I cook everything fresh. I don’t drink tea, coffee, fizzy drinks or alcohol; only water. I make sure I’m getting to bed early and have enough time to recover after all my training sessions.
“All of these factors combined have made a huge difference – you wouldn’t believe these small things matter but they truly do.”
For someone who has overcome several metaphorical barriers, it’s only fitting that the steeplechase became her specialist event.
“I really enjoy the event,” says McColgan. “I like the fact that the barriers break up the running. I get less distracted and can push myself a lot harder over that event.”
Looking beyond 2012, McColgan is extremely excited about the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
“It’s pretty exciting to have another major Games on our doorstep so soon after London and it would be a great experience with it being even closer to home and having all my family and friends watching. By the time 2014 comes round, I would hope to keep lowering my steeple time and would definitely be aiming to be on that podium.”
By Myles Edwards