Monday, October 31, 2011
Coghlan Outran The Black Dog, Too
Eamonn Coghlan Outran His Demons
By Ciara Dwyer
Sunday October 30 2011
Last summer, Eamonn Coghlan was coming off Mount Juliet golf course, where he'd been playing at a Special Olympics charity event, when his phone flashed with a text message. It said "phone Enda" and it was urgent. Assuming that it was Enda Fitzpatrick, his son John's athletics coach in DCU, Coghlan contacted the number and asked if everything was OK.
The voice at the other end of the phone said, "Enda Kenny here."
"An Taoiseach?" replied the respectful Coghlan.
It was then that Kenny told the former athlete that he wanted to nominate him as one of his independent senators.
"He had some very nice things to say," says Coghlan, the soul of modesty and discretion.
And why wouldn't Kenny praise him? Coghlan is a legend in world athletics, one of the greatest Irish sportsmen of this or any other generation. A three-time Olympian, he was one of the greats of middle-distance running and won the World Championships 5,000 metres in Helsinki in 1983. But it wasn't gold medals all the way. Olympic glory was not for him. Three times it evaded him -- in 1976, 1980 and 1988. His tactics let him down -- by sprinting too soon and over-training. As he says himself, "I screwed up, big time." But he is far from bitter. "I don't begrudge it or look back with any regret. I made some stupid mistakes and I learned from them."
Coghlan's life has been the embodiment of the epitaph on his late coach Gerry Farnan's gravestone: "Don't quit when you are beaten. Fight back to an even more glorious victory, not only in competition but in life." In total the Dublin-born athlete ran 78 sub-four-minute miles, the most magnificent in Boston in 1994, when at the age of 41, having packed in a bureaucratic job in Dublin in the BLE (Bord Luthchleas na hEireann -- the Irish Athletics Board), he went back to do what he did best, running. He went out on a high, having fought back to an even more glorious victory with the superb time of 3:58.15.
The sporting hero is as impressive today as he ever was as "chairman of the boards and master of the mile", to use the nicknames he was given for his running prowess. Coghlan glows good health and dynamism, and were it not for his very likeable personality, he would make most men green with envy; at the age of 58, he still has the same size waist that he had when he was 16, 20, 30 and 40 -- 30-inches.
"It's simple. I don't over-eat," he says. "I used to train a hundred miles a week but now I go out two or three times a week or I mightn't go for a week or two. I'd always be busy, busy, busy. I don't watch what I eat. It's just that the good habits of my athletic life have remained with me. I wouldn't be a mad beer drinker and I like to have my glasses of wine but when it comes to eating, I'd eat small portions as opposed to pigging out and I'd burn it off.
"It's all about what you take in and what you put out. Health and fitness is simple. You have to work on your core. It's like with anything in life. People go to pot because they don't work on their core. Most people in Ireland and in the world are generally lazy when it comes to fitness but the more you get into a routine, the easier it becomes."
As a senator, he is working on two things -- health and education. All shall be revealed in November, he tells me.
Coghlan trains young athletes (he has a bunch of promising young men), he still helps with the fundraising for Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin, -- in particular the Children's Medical Research Foundation -- including for tomorrow's marathon. One of his aims is to raise more money for this good cause by bringing a team to New York next year for the marathon, just as he did 20 years ago.
He also chairs the high-performance committee within the Irish Sports Council.
He does all that when he's not zooming around on his motorbike, which he often uses to get him in to the Seanad, where he peels off his bike gear and emerges immaculate in a suit.
But family is what matters most to Coghlan. He tells me that when he first met his wife Yvonne at a disco in O'Connell's School, he was mad about her. "She's still great," he says, "but by God ... " And then he knocks on the table. I'd say there's no messing with Yvonne, his wife of 35 years. Coghlan credits her with being the more mature one all those years ago when he wanted to drop out of Villanova, when he was on a sports scholarship. Yvonne told him in no uncertain terms that she wouldn't be responsible for him leaving his running career. If he left it, she would leave him. Coghlan tells me that Yvonne has always been part of the team and people often comment that she's like a coach to him.
But back to the nomination. On the day that the Taoiseach called, Coghlan was told that he had an hour and a half to think about it but he didn't dither. He knew it was an honour and duly accepted.
"I was gobsmacked," Senator Coghlan told me when I met him in Leinster House last week. "And I was very honoured.
"I phoned Yvonne and she said, 'Are you serious?' I said, 'I am serious.'"
Even now there are days when he looks at his reflection in the mirror and asks, is this for real?
Why does he think Kenny nominated him?
"I would be a very positive person and I try to instil self-confidence and self-belief and drive into the little kids I train even though some of them might never end up running professionally."
Add to that the fact that Coghlan has character. Just like in the Kipling poem If, he has met triumph and disaster and taken both of them on the chin. They have made him the man he is today.
"I've broken world records, I've lost the Olympics and I've won World Championships," he says. In 1983, when he won the gold medal in Helsinki, Ireland came to a virtual standstill. Coghlan's race was all the more thrilling for his famous final spurt when he passed Dmitriy Dmitriyev, as he raised his fists in the air. The victory was all the sweeter when people knew the bad patch he had had before it. His first coach Gerry Farnan and his father Bill had both died and he had failed to shine in the Olympics. All of a sudden, his time had come.
"The fact that I came back is even better and the fact that I can relay [how to cope with] disappointment to the young kids that I coach is even better again."
Coghlan doesn't so much walk, as run. His energetic gait is a great sight to behold. As the newly appointed senator bounds down the steps of Leinster House to greet me, I can't help sitting up straighter, then smiling. Before he appears in front of me, I listen to him chatting to an usher. He has time for everyone and lovely manners. But this isn't just surface charm, there's a decent core to Coghlan. Twice a week, he visits his mother Kathleen, who, thanks to the Fair Deal scheme, is in a TLC nursing home. And his eyes fill as he tells me about the joys of fatherhood. He and Yvonne have four children -- Suzanne, Eamonn, Michael and John.
"It's been fantastic and it still is. And being a grandfather is even the same. We have two grandchildren. You're making me emotional now, but I am more proud about my family than running. We've a great relationship. My kids still come on summer holiday with Mam and Dad, even at 30 years of age. We're pals. I never talked down to the kids. We respected them and we got that respect back."
Respect is one of the main things about Coghlan. He gives it and it gets it back, and not just in his family.
Growing up on Cooley Road, Drimnagh, Coghlan was always running to the shops to get messages for the women on the road. Because he was fast, he got an extra few pence. It wasn't long before he was running races in the Phoenix Park, winning and loving it. Coghlan was mildly dyslexic (he still is) and he was bullied in school, yet the running saved him.
He learned great life lessons about resilience from his first coach Gerry Farnan, who kept his eye on the big picture. Later, coach Jumbo Elliot at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, was equally influential. In many ways, Coghlan's years in America formed him. It gave him a self-belief and a self-confidence. In Ireland, he knew that confidence was perceived as cockiness -- he doesn't blame Ireland, saying instead that this is an islanders' mentality. But America's can-do attitude was the making of him; along with the endless miles of hard training.
"It was a gradual transformation," he says, "but I realised that I was just as good as these guys in Villanova. If they were that confident, why couldn't I be too? It was a combination of growing self -belief, natural talent and the work. Those three things started to merge and then I became really confident about everything I was doing on the track.
"I still feel like a runner and think like a runner, even though I can't run like a runner anymore in terms of the competitive side because I'm too old [but] you have that in you."
Coghlan isn't a depressive but he understands depression; he suffered from it for a spell when he came back from the States, having retired from athletics the first time.
"I was seriously depressed, frighteningly depressed from the point of view that I didn't enjoy anything. When I'd wake up in the morning, I wanted to sleep all day long.
"I'd left America, where I had a life of adulation, limousines here, limousines there, whatever you wanted you got."
He came home to a very different scene, where he found the job in sports administration a difficult environment to cope with. "The political life in the Seanad is an awful lot better than that political life in sport and you can quote that," he said.
In his autobiography, Chairman of the Boards -- Master of the Mile (which was written with George Kimball) Coghlan recalls how he even felt suicidal.
"I was totally swamped with depression. It was a horrible, black feeling that induced an almost chemical-like low and despondency. It was like nothing I had ever previously experienced."
Weeks later, while driving to a BLE meeting, he found himself having to fight an urge to drive into the Liffey.
"I fought the impulse and pulled the car over to the side of the road and felt myself hyperventilating with the shock of what I had just thought. I saw no way out. I used to be the happy-go-lucky full of energy guy but I was feeling weak and miserable and felt a pathetic sight in Dublin's Docklands resisting an impulse to commit suicide."
Coghlan made an appointment with a doctor in Blackrock Clinic who told him that he was exhibiting classic signs of a form of depression.
"He [ the doctor] explained that there were understandable anxieties prompted by the end of my running career and the move back to Ireland."
He was prescribed an anti-depressant drug and took two weeks off work but he didn't feel any better. Finally, Eamonn wrote a letter of resignation saying that he was leaving because the chief executive of BLE had no executive powers. When he posted the letter it was as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. He resigned for himself and his family and never looked back.
As we all know, he then left the BLE and went back to do what he did best -- running. Nor does he dwell on the disappointments of the Olympics. He is grateful for having lived that dream and then eventually bouncing back to glory.
"I'd visualise myself winning a race. Before I'd leave my room, the last thing I'd do was look in the mirror and whisper, 'come on you little f**ker. You better win this race.' But this isn't just about sport, it's about life. It's all about vision and dream and belief. But you can't sit on your ass and do nothing. You've got to have the discipline to go with it."
Coghlan is happy with his life. That's because he has worked on it. He is even a good loser. "I'm captain of Luttrellstown Castle Golf and Country Club but I'm so bloody bad at golf, people don't believe it. They think this former athlete should be a great sportsman. I play with guys who might be 20 stone in weight, who have cigars hanging out of their mouths but they're able to play great golf. It's embarrassing, but I'm a good loser. I enjoy the banter and the challenge of trying to bloody well get a par."
That's the key to Eamonn Coghlan. He enjoys his life and as a result people enjoy his company. I know I certainly did.
Eamonn has been working with Our Lady's Children's Hospital Crumlin as their ambassador for this year's National Lottery Dublin Marathon. 'Team Eamonn Coghlan' has helped raise money for the Children's Medical & Research Foundation (CMRF) at Our Lady's Children's Hospital Crumlin as part of its Kilometres for Kids Campaign. To find out more about how to support the CMRF, visit www.kilo metresforkids.ie
- Ciara Dwyer