“Money could mean the difference between changing shoes every six months instead of every year”
If there is one big mistake in Olympic sports, it is the belief among some casual observers that the athletes have – in financial terms – succeeded. The reality is different, with the vast majority not earning enough from their sport to live off of it, with most preparing as professionals but living on a shoestring budget.
Louise Shanahan isn’t into athletics for the money, of course, otherwise the 25-year-old from Cork would be long gone.
“The general public has no idea how little funding some Olympic athletes receive,” she says. “When people think of Irish athletes they often think of the few who are sponsored, but there is a subset below that tries to be elite but without funding.”
These athletes are the targets of the first batch of grants from the Jerry Kiernan Foundation, which was established by Kiernan’s friend, Murt Coleman, to honor the memory of the late coach. His goal is to do what Kiernan has done for so long: give Irish athletes a helping hand.
Shanahan is one of 22 athletes who will be supported this year, with over €30,000 to be shared between them.
“It will make a big difference for this sub-elite group,” Shanahan says. “Athletics Ireland are trying to do as much as they can, but the money that comes with it could mean the difference between an athlete being able to afford to go to camp over Easter and that structured training would really help them in the summer, or it could make the difference between changing shoes every six months instead of every year, which could make the difference in the event of an injury.
Shanahan knows how big breakthroughs often hinge on thin margins. As she headed towards Olympic qualification last year, she was just outside the World Athletics quota limit for the women’s 800m.
A gifted teenager, she was European Youth Olympic Games champion in 2013 and Youth Olympic Games finalist in 2014. But her dedication extended from the track to the classroom, and the intensity she brought to his studies was partly the reason why his 800m personal best topped out at 2:08 between the ages of 16 and 21.
In September 2019, she began a PhD in quantum physics at the University of Cambridge, where she has since been training under Phil O’Dell, who took the reins as a coach from her father, Ray. Given her academic commitment, Shanahan often found her race would “slump a bit” as she prepared for exams in May during her undergraduate years, but the doctorate allows her to balance her workload around of her athletic demands, while making sure she has “a roof over my head and food on the table.
In June last year, Shanahan watched other Irish athletes chasing after Olympic qualification on the European Tour and, after lowering her 800m indoor record to 2:01.44, she decided to follow suit. She told her supervisor that she had a 10% chance of making it to Tokyo, and he encouraged her to pursue it. No regrets. The next day, Shanahan boarded a plane for Prague, where she ran 2:01.99.
Victory at the national championships a few weeks later propelled her to a qualifying position, ensuring that Shanahan’s first-ever Irish senior shirt would be the most prized of them all. In Tokyo, she finished seventh in her 800m heat in 2:03.57.
“The Olympics was a dream come true, something I had been aiming for since I was nine years old,” she says. “I knew the likelihood of making a final was extremely slim, but I knew I had to make the most of this opportunity.”
As for the summer, the World University Games in Chengdu, China in late June and the Europeans in Munich in August are his priorities. She will avoid July’s world championships in Oregon even if she qualifies, believing that making a final at the other events will be “a much better experience than going to the world championships and being knocked out in the first round.”
“The long-term plan is Paris 2024, so everything I do has to be focused on making me as good an athlete as possible in two years,” she said. “To see this progress, year after year.”