Ivan Smyth speaks to Alex O’Neill about the Community Games, the importance of coaching and her ambitions for the coming season
ALEX O’Neill may have been taking a winter break from her studies in the US but has continued to put in the hard yards back home in Quin as she aims to maintain her form in 2022.
O’Neill, who moved Stateside in August 2019 on a scholarship to Providence College in Rhode Island has had to endure regular pandemic-related interruptions to the racing calendar.
At the end of last year, however, the daughter of Conor and Carol O’Neill secured a notable win when she finished first in the 1,000m race at the Boston University Multi-Team Meet.
O’Neill normally competes in 800m events but she moved outside her comfort zone last year as she was part of the Providence team that travelled to Florida to compete at the 2021 NCAA Women’s Cross Country Championship.
She competed against the best middle distance runners in the US. The Rhode Island college finished 26th overall with O’Neill admitting that it was challenging to adjust to running 6k against the best athletes in colleges across the US.
“Making the cross country team is unusual for an 800m runner. Initially I ran a 5k race for the fun of it but then when I made the team I kept racing and we went to nationals. The 6k distance was tough but it was a big thing to be able to compete at that level. I am more of a track runner and for the most part I focus on the 800m but I feel I’ve now built good endurance which will only benefit me.”
The third year student’s love of athletics is evident throughout the interview. After returning home from Rhode Island for the Christmas holidays, O’Neill made sure that after flying in to Dublin Airport, that she stayed in the capital to watch the European Cross Country Championships.
It was a hugely successful event for Ireland with the U23 men’s team securing gold while the U20 outfit scooped a team silver. The former St. Cronan’s AC and Ennis Track runner watched on as fellow Providence College students and Irish athletes Laura Mooney and Aabdel Laadjel competed.
“I flew back on December 11th and I stayed in Dublin to watch the races. I watched the races before I saw my family but it was a great day. There was a huge crowd there and it shows that people will get behind athletics which is great to see.”
There is a strong Irish connection in Providence which is highlighted by the fact that O’Neill is trained by Waterford man Ray Treacy. He is the brother of 1984 Olympic silver medallist John Treacy. Ray also trained out of Providence College during his running career while he is a highly regarded coach that has worked with Olympic athletes in the past.
O’Neill believes that Treacy is the ideal mentor to help her reach her potential while racing in the US.
“Ray is great. He’s very cool. If you broke a world record it wouldn’t faze him. His training really suits me. He’s well renowned and there are a lot of recruits who sign up with Providence just so they can be coached by Ray. He’s very understanding and he knows how to get the best out of us.”
She comes from a sporting family with her brother Jack lining out at midfield for the Clare minor hurling team in this year’s Championship. Meanwhile, she was coached by her father Conor growing up while she also received guidance from Steven Macklin, who has worked as Athletics Ireland National Endurance Coach.
“It is hugely important to have the right coaching growing up. The culture I’m in, I’m always aiming to be the best. My mindset is that there is no reason why I shouldn’t be the best. Myself and my brother are always pushing each other on. I’m lucky that I’ve got great support at home and in America.”
O’Neill racked up over 30 All Ireland medals in a hugely successful underage career before making the move to Rhode Island in 2019. The former Rice College student was only 16 years old when she was chosen to represent her country at the European U20 Athletics Championships in 2017.
She believes the Community Games played an important role in her choosing to pursue an athletics career.
“The Community Games was huge for me. It gave me a chance to play other sports such as tag rugby but running was always my favourite. I started running at six and I remember coming second in the county finals and I was devastated.
“I was determined to win next year and I managed to win an All Ireland then so I’ve always been competitive. The Community Games provided a great atmosphere and helped me to enjoy running.”
O’Neill has been training hard at home as she prepares to fly to the US next week. The college racing season will resume quickly after the semester begins as she will return to her training routine.
The 21-year-old gets a day off from training once every 13 days as three workouts a week, midweek training sessions and a long run on Sundays ensure that she is ready to race when necessary.
The talented athlete hopes that she can build on a strong end to 2021 as she tries to get out of the traps quickly once racing resumes.
“I’m focusing on reaching nationals and I feel I’m due a new PB (personal best). I just want to get back in to the rhythm of racing. My main focus will be the 800m and I want to do well in the distance medley relay. My running last season was good but with COVID, it has been tough at times to find my rhythm as there has not been as many races. Hopefully I can keep improving.”