• Sat. Oct 29th, 2022

You wait seven years to set a new personal best, and then six come along all at once; it’s been quite the indoor season for Limerick athlete Sarah Lavin.

Apr 25, 2021

You wait seven years to set a new personal best, and then six come along all at once; it’s been quite the indoor season for Limerick athlete Sarah Lavin.
A junior prospect on the international stage, Lavin was ranked fourth in the world, and back at the start of 2014, the teenage sensation was being tipped for the top with all roads leading to the 2016 Olympic Games.
Dreams of representing at Rio faded as a string of setbacks delayed the transition from the youth and junior ranks into senior success.
And then came Tokyo.
Yet again, Lavin looked in danger of missing out as she recovered from an injury that would severely curtail her ability to qualify for the Games that were scheduled for the summer of 2020.
A global pandemic arrived with just a sprinkling of good fortune for the genial Limerick woman as the coronavirus led to the postponement of the summer showpiece.
“I was gutted last February,” said Lavin, speaking to RTÉ Sport. “But then everything changed when the Games were postponed. It felt like when you’re playing one of those games and you get an extra life.”
“Suddenly it wasn’t over any more, and that was massive.
“Since then I have just relished the opportunity that I have been given, which I feel has come from above, because I don’t think anyone could have predicted this, and from that perspective, I am just so grateful.”
By the time the 2020-21 winter indoor season kicked in, Lavin was back to her best and has enjoyed a renaissance of form, getting great return from the trials and tribulations of travelling Europe in Covid times to compete in the green vest.
The sprint hurdler is naturally compared to the distinguished Derval O’Rourke, however, it was another from the banks of the Lee that would prove Lavin’s first role-model and inspiration on the track.
Lavin’s interest in athletics goes back to 2001 when the then seven-year-old got involved in the sport, and a year on from the Sydney Olympics, it was memories of Sonia O’Sullivan racing to Olympic silver that sparked the interest.
Lavin going head to head with European champion Nadine Visser at the European Indoors
It was not until the teenage years that Lavin made the move to the hurdles, and once she showed a proficiency for the event, the O’Rourke comparisons naturally followed.
Lavin will no doubt, be looking to emulate the achievements of O’Rourke, who won gold at the 2006 World Indoors, while she raced at three consecutive Olympics from 2004 to 2012.
However, the two styles are quite different, as O’Rourke’s explosive start made her a real threat on the indoor circuit, while Lavin appears to get stronger as the race progresses.
Five hurdles to negotiate in the 60-metre indoor event, compared to ten in the 100m outdoor, the rest remains a constant as the sprinters have only eight-odd strides to hit full tilt before encountering that first fence.
And in that regard, the indoor season appears to have been the perfect preparation for Lavin, who has had to fine-tune her style due to the fact that she can feel herself getting faster, which means the hurdles are coming that little bit quicker.
“You have eight steps into your first hurdle and to bring yourself up, and then you only have three strides between each hurdle, so it is very hard to re-accelerate,” explained Lavin. “And you have to be out strongly in those first eight strides; it requires a different type of start than a sprint start.
“My speed has improved over the last 12 months, so I have to embrace the hurdles coming at me quicker.
“It comes from a better body position over the hurdle, because I am crouching down a tiny bit too much, and my lead leg needs to be a bit bent, which is closer to running. So I’m just trying to marry the speed and the hurdle technique together.”
Just over three months to the start of the Games, Lavin will not actually confirm qualification for Tokyo until 29 June, where the top 40-ranked athletes will make the grade.
Points are tallied according to the athlete’s top-five performances, where a combination of time and race prestige will determine the allocation.
Before then, Lavin has seven chances to improve on her current offerings, and while she is just the right side of the 40 ahead of the outdoor season, she stresses that the goal is to be a lot closer to the top than just making it “by the skin of my teeth”.
For now, the training continues as Lavin looks to peak at the right moment for the Games, and she puts her progress down to the team around her, most notably, renowned coach Noelle Morrissey.
Lavin’s quickest time over the longer 100m race also goes back to the exciting days of 2014, and while she feels that she is close to one fifth of a second faster since the start of the indoor season, she hopes that logic will determine that it will translate into the longer race.
“It will be right to the wire. I’m in [the Olympics] at the moment, but hopefully during the outdoors, I can push on up the rankings, because I don’t want to be just there by the skin of my teeth.
“There’s really nothing between 20th to 60th, and I’m sitting in the middle of that. I’ve got seven races and definitely, it is possible [to qualify].
“Luckily my strength is my strength [for the longer race], it’s not necessarily being quick off the mark.
“I improved by 0.19 of a second over five hurdles, so you would hope I could do that outdoors and maybe a little bit more.
“I am a strong athlete and in the 100m sprint, I always come through in the last ten metres; the back bit of the race.”
Looking ahead to Tokyo, Lavin admits that her main objective in the sport is competing at the best events against the best athletes, and while she concedes that there is still a gap to close to get in amongst the medals, she has set herself realistic goals to aim for the Olympics semi-finals at least.
“I train with [fellow sprinter] Ciara Neville, who is also in contention for Tokyo. Every day is competitive, and we are not in direct competition. And it’s the people around you can contribute the most to you.
“When I’m out there, I want to be competitive and reach the semi-finals, but I’m staying very much in the moment.”
Sarah Lavin at the launch of the Olympic Schools Challenge, ‘Road to Tokyo’. The interactive challenge, in association with FBD, encourages school children to get more active.
At 26 years old, the UL-based athlete feels as though she is only starting the second phase of her career, and aims to remain patient over the coming years, where further opportunities will present themselves if she can maintain the improvements of the past 12 months.
“I was ranked fourth junior in the world with Jamaicans and Americans. I don’t think I realised how well that I was doing, but probably that I was filling these enormous boots that Derval had left.
“As much as I took it as a massive compliment, I probably was trying to rush the progression and came down quite hard on myself.
“If I could meet the 19-year-old Sarah again I’d say to enjoy the transition and just roll with it.
“Derval was exceptional [off the mark]. She was a very good indoor runner and an amazing outdoor runner, and she was world champion indoors.
“I’m 26 and Derval won her last medal at 33, and I don’t think I had that perspective when I was younger, but now I hope that there are a good few exciting years in front of me.
“I’m almost creating a second career, and now I’m getting a second run at it and hopefully this is the start of a senior breakthrough.
“There is still a gap between me and making the final, and I want to close that.
“At the moment, it’s progress and I have to stay patient, that’s one thing the last seven-year gap has taught me is to remain patient.”
And as for how fast she thinks she can run, once that first athletics meeting arrives to signal the start of the Olympics’ summer, she is not sure, but she is certain that her coach has a fair idea.
“I guess I don’t right now, but my coach will, because we have different markers in training. I know she’ll only send me out when I’m ready.
“I’m excited for the day that I get good conditions on a track in a good field.
“It’s a great position to know that you are in the shape of your life and that everything you are doing is working, and you just need to do it a tiny bit better.”