At just 18-years-old, Sarah Healy is already amongst an elite group of Irish athletes. Only four Irish women in history have broken both 4:10 in the 1500m and 2:03 in the 800m. Sonia O’Sullivan, Ciara Mageean, Mary Purcell and most recently, Sarah Healy. (Updated in June 2021: five athletes - now includes Síofra Cléirigh Büttner)
In spite of her tender age, Healy is one of the country’s top middle distance runners and has ambitions to make her mark on the world stage. Not just blessed athletically, the former Holy Child Killiney pupil is remarkably mature, articulate and level-headed.
Already a two-time European U18 gold medalist and European U20 silver medalist, Healy has produced the type of utterly dominant front-running displays that is fast becoming her trademark.
Ironically, athletics proved to be an acquired taste for Healy, who at first admits it wasn’t her favourite hobby. As in many families, when her older sister joined the local athletics team, she followed suit.
“I didn’t like it much back then but I love it now! Athletics got a bit more serious as I got older but I was always just doing it for fun, alongside doing other sports”.
Healy first started running at the age of nine, at Blackrock Athletics Club, under the watchful eye of coach Eoghan Marnell. The pair have remained together since and Healy acknowledges his work as a key component of her success.
“The main thing for me is my coach Eoghan Marnell. I know he can get me where I want to be and I wouldn’t want to be coached by anyone else.”
The Monkstown native is a keen lover of sports and tried a wide range of sports when she was younger. This included tennis, GAA and hockey, which she is particularly fond of. Healy played hockey for both her school Holy Child Killiney and her hockey club Avoca.
Hockey has proven to be a welcomed distraction from the pressurised competitive environment of athletics. Despite this, she has decided to take a break from hockey and focus on athletics for the time being. Whilst hockey is close to her heart, she understands she can return to the sport at a later date.
“Athletics is important to me and I put a lot of time into it but I don’t think you can let it be everything. Hockey was a great distraction but I can always go back to it and I’m still involved with a lot of coaching which is good.”
Having secured her first choice preference to study law at University College Dublin, as well as being accepted on the Ad Astra Academic scholarship programme, Healy is transitioning to university life adapt her training schedule to suit.
“I’m finding a new routine in UCD, finding what’s going to work best for me this year. Obviously I had a set routine in school and it’s a bit different now. I will train with Eoghan but I will be part of the UCD Athletics team.”
2017 was Healy’s breakthrough year, when she first started making major headlines. In the summer of 2017, Healy secured Team Ireland’s first gold medal at the 2017 European Youth Olympics Festival in Hungary, running a personal best at the time, 4.19.85.
A year later, Healy returned to Hungary to compete at the U18 European Championships, where she secured arguably the hardest track double, winning gold in the 1500m and 3000m. Extraordinarily, it was only a last minute decision to compete in the 3000m yet Healy ran with ease and composure to take gold and prove unbeatable.
“Winning the 1500m and 3000m in 2018, was obviously a huge moment. I wasn’t always planning on doing the 3000m but I decided: why not? I’m really happy it paid off.”
In 2019, Healy had the small matter of sitting her Leaving Cert, which was her main target and focus. For many students life can revolve around the books with the constant pressure of doing well can be stressful. For Healy it’s all about routine. The results speak for themselves as she scored 601 points, just shy of the maximum 625.
“Of course it can be difficult at times, but honestly, once you get into a routine it isn’t too bad. Looking back at it now, I didn’t do much else other than run and go to school. It was challenging but I have always ran and it would probably have been harder to just cut it out and stop running. I made some adjustments and had to start my season a lot later which meant I rushed some races together, I didn’t mind, it’s a once off, I don’t have to do the Leaving Cert again!”
Another important aspect of her life are her friends. Healy makes sure she finds time to socialise and her friends are very understanding of her schedule and commitments. While most students were celebrating their Leaving Cert results till all hours of the morning, she had to leave early after being invited to the IAAF Diamond League in Birmingham. In her debut at the competition, Healy went on to clock a new personal best of 4:40.72 for the mile.
“I think I’m good at making time for my friends which is very important. They’re all active but not quite as seriously as me. I like that. It keeps it more balanced and it’s nice to have people that don’t care so much about running. If there’s something on, they know I might have to leave early or arrive later but everyone’s cool about it. I don’t just sit at home, I like to go out and be social, I think I would go crazy otherwise.”
Wedged in between the Leaving Cert was a sixth consecutive Irish Schools Cross Country title. Healy brought the curtain down on six years of dominance by sauntering to victory in the senior girls’ race. Her name is etched in Irish schools’ athletics history as she became only the second athlete, after Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner, to win six consecutive titles.
Healy followed this up with a National senior indoor bronze medal and closed out her school's career with a 3000m gold. After sitting her exams in June, Healy won 1500m silver for Ireland at the European U20 Championships in Sweden. She followed this up with her maiden senior title at the National Championships in Santry after taking home gold in the 1500m.
“This year I then moved up to U20 and I had a good season. There was a bit more expectation on me, especially going into the Europeans. I won silver. At the time I was a little disappointed, I would have loved to have the gold but looking back I’m really proud of that medal.”
Healy has become a recognisable figure in Ireland after her recent success and is appreciative of the support she’s received. That said, the two time European gold medalist is happy that nothing has changed too significantly.
“I don’t really feel like my life has changed. After winning the European medals I was stunned by the amount of support I received in person and online. Whenever I come home from a competition I’m overwhelmed with support, people I didn’t know had any interest in athletics are always congratulating me. It’s really nice and you feel like everyone is behind you.”
Sports are full of superstitions, from athletes who perform a specific routine before every game or race, to ones who consider certain items to be lucky or unlucky. When she was younger, Healy was no different however as she has got older, she is more focused on herself and her preparation.
“I used to be pretty superstitious when I was younger. I would wear the same things over and over again, but I kind of got rid of all those things now and try not to be pedantic. They started to get too small and difficult to maintain. There are a few things I always do, but I do them for a good reason. I’ve raced in a lot of different countries and you have to become flexible. It’s not possible to do the same thing all the time. I’m not going to be at home with my mum and be able to have the same dinner all the time. The most important thing for me is the preparation and process, eating and sleeping well..”
Irish athletics has been developing rapidly in the last number of years. Athletes such as Ciara Mageen, Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner, Claire Mooney and Nadia Power are leading the way for Irish middle-distance running and have made their mark on both the European and World stage. Healy is delighted to see her Irish teammates doing well and thinks its the perfect environment to spur on more success for the country.
“I love it. It’s a great team to be part of at the moment, with everyone doing so well. There is such a good atmosphere right now with everyone aiming and dreaming really high. We don’t just want to be there, we want to be winning medals. Athletics is obviously an individual sport but I do think we all want to see each other do well and everyone is so happy when they see someone put in a good performance” .
Despite the competition being fierce on the track, friendships are also made. Healy who joined Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner in the Irish Schools Cross Country record books have become close thanks to running.
“Siofra is a really good friend of mine, I met her at the European Cross Country and she actually lives really close to me. When she’s back in Dublin, we train together. I remember when I started running I was always hearing stories about her. She is a really great athlete, has a really good attitude and I really like her approach to everything. We haven’t raced that many times but when we do, it’s really cool to get to race a friend like that - she is so supportive. She is super funny and light hearted, always great company to have at a competition.”
The future is bright for Healy but she has no ultimate goals or targets. She is happy to fully commit to her passion and see where that takes her. She is in no rush and believes if she continues to put out her best, the results and success will follow
“I just want to take each year as it comes. I’m sure if you ask any athlete my age they will tell you the dream is the World Championships and the Olympics, and I am no different. I want to represent Ireland as a senior and be competitive. I want to work as hard as I can and see where that takes me. It’s hard to know where you will be in four years time but my main focus is to keep working hard and keep improving. I want to enjoy what I’m doing and make the most of it.”
In 2018 it was announced that the venue for the 2020 European Cross Country Championships will be held at the National Sports Centre Campus in Blanchardstown. The last time this was held in Ireland was back in 2009.
Healy will be eligible to compete in the U20 category and has her eyes set on this competition. In the build up, there is no doubt one of the most talented athletes in the country will look to secure more medals on the European and World stage. Watch this space.