Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

What Holywood athlete Katie Kirk did next

She carried the Olympic torch at London 2012, but now Holywood athlete Katie Kirk's burning ambition is to make the women's 800m final in this month's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She talks about training, love and killer heels to Audrey Watson

Holywood athlete Katie Kirk
Katie takes time with dad Mark Kirk at the Mary Peters Track
Final preparations: Katie at the Mary Peters track before leaving for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow

When Co Down athlete Katie Kirk hits the running track in Glasgow later this month to compete in her second Commonwealth Games, she will be following a family tradition.

Dad Mark is an accomplished athlete himself, who competed for Northern Ireland in the 1986 games in Edinburgh, as well as Auckland in 1990.

He is also coach to his talented daughter as she prepares to represent the province in the women's 800 metres race on July 30, at Hampden Park Stadium.

And while some might think that having your dad as your 'boss' might lead to fights round the dinner table, Queen's University student Katie (20) reveals that the only thing they really argue about these days are high heels.

"I've had my moments as a grumpy teenager," she laughs. "And, of course, we still have disagreements, but it's usually nothing to do with athletics," laughs the former Sullivan Upper pupil.

"We have arguments about shoes – he gives off if I wear high heels in case I damage my feet.

"But it's great having him as a coach and I really enjoy working with him. It's good to have someone who has your best interests at heart and whom you trust completely.

"I feel I can challenge dad about the training that we do. I guess other athletes just go along with whatever their coach says, but because it's dad I feel comfortable asking him why we are doing this, or that.

"At the moment we are both on the same page, training-wise, and we get along really well. Though I do cause he's my dad. "And because I live at home, it also means I don't ever get a break, as we are always talking about athletics. But it's our passion and it's what we like to do, so it's not a problem.

"My whole family and my boyfriend are all going over to the games and we've rented an apartment in Glasgow. I'll have a lot of support and it will also be a lot of fun."

As a young girl, Katie wasn't aware of her dad's achievements on the track, but sport was in the blood and she quickly fell in love with running, as did her younger brother Conall (18), who has just won an athletics scholarship to Oklahoma University in the USA.

Says Katie: "When I was growing up, I wasn't really aware of dad's running career. He was very modest and didn't talk about it much. Now, I love watching the old footage of him racing.

"I first started competing when I was 10, but had been going up to the track with him since I was eight or nine. When we were children, dad would race us up and down the garden or the hallway for fun.

"He used to put on his running gear and time us – and sometimes the neighbours as well.

"I remember it being great fun, but dad never put any pressure on Conall or I to compete, or anything like that – we just naturally fell in love with the sport.

"Both my parents are dentists and, while my mum, Fiona, isn't super-sporty, she used to do a bit of running and Irish dancing, but nothing competitive."

Katie was part of Northern Ireland's 4x400m relay team at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi four years ago, which she remembers as a great learning experience.

"I was only 16 and, although I found the whole thing unbelievable and very exciting, gaining experience competing in an event of that scale was an invaluable lesson and I learnt a lot," she says.

She is modest when asked about her chances of a medal this time around.

"There are heats, then the semi-finals and then the final, so hopefully, I'll be in all three races.

"The women's 800m this year will have one of the strongest fields at the Commonwealth Games and, to be honest, I don't know if a medal is a realistic ambition. If I make the finals, I'll be absolutely delighted."

As well as her athletics career, Katie is also studying food science and nutrition at Queen's University and has just passed her first-year exams with flying colours.

But it hasn't been easy and she has had to sacrifice one of the great joys of being a student – a social life.

"I don't really have a social life," she laughs. "I'd like to say I do, but I don't. It's a bit of a shame, but that's the way it has to be. You have to make sacrifices and I'm happy to do that because, for me, it's worth it.

"I'm very lucky to be part of Queen's University Elite Athlete Programme, which supports athletes by contributing towards fees and living expenses. They also provide a top-class gym coach.

"It's a great scheme and a great help and it allows me to study at university and pursue my running career at the same time. But it is very, very difficult to fit in training around my studies.

"I do a run and go to the gym before classes and then, afterwards, I head straight back to the gym, or the track. It's pretty constant, with no time off."

Surely, at only 20 years old, there must be times when she begrudges missing out on the fun side of university life?

"When I'm injured, or not running well, I do sometimes question why I'm devoting myself so entirely to sport, but I've been performing well this year, so I'm very happy," she says.

Performing well is an understatement. Katie is in blistering form at the minute.

She booked her place in the NI Commonwealth Games team in May with a superb personal best time in her 800 metres race at the BMC Grand Prix meeting at Watford.

And just last month, she produced a spectacular performance to take the England Athletics U23 800m title in Bedford.

She may have no social life, but Katie does have a loyal and supportive boyfriend. She has been dating Donaghadee man Johnny Foster for two years and he will also be cheering her on in Glasgow. "I met Johnny through his cousin, Amy Foster, who is also a runner and who is also going to the games," reveals Katie. "We are very happy and he is very supportive.

"Johnny was always more into playing football, but when he started going out with me, he had no choice but to start running. He trains with me all the time now."

Katie also enjoys a spot of baking during her very rare time off.

"Sadly, because I'm lactose-intolerant, I don't get to eat the things I make. But I really enjoy cooking and baking and recently achieved a patisserie qualification.

"Of course, I would really love a career as a professional athlete, but by doing a degree in food science and nutrition I am giving myself another option, in another area that I'm passionate about, if things don't work out sports-wise."

As well as representing Northern Ireland on the running track, two years ago Katie represented the province at the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

She was one of seven young up-and-coming UK athletes chosen to light the Olympic cauldron to mark the start of the games.

She was nominated for the role in the £27m ceremony by Northern Ireland gold medalist and Olympic ambassador, Dame Mary Peters who passed Katie a torch, in a symbolic gesture as part of the "inspire a generation" motto.

Dame Mary has represented Northern Ireland at every Commonwealth Games between 1958 and 1974, during which she won two gold medals for the pentathlon, plus a gold and silver medal for the shot put.

"I feel honoured to have even been considered. To be there with Mary Peters, one of my heroes, was a dream come true," says Katie. "My legs were shaking, but it was absolutely amazing and the atmosphere was just incredible. Even when I watch it back, it still doesn't seem real.

"Mary has helped and inspired me a great deal over the years and we have always kept in touch. She doesn't offer me running advice, as such, but she has lots of words of wisdom.

"She's been brilliant. She always tells me to keep in contact with all the various people that I meet and she has made me realise that young people really do look up to athletes who represent their country and do well.

"I never would have thought that anyone would be shy about approaching me and asking me questions, but she has made me aware that quite often they are and has encouraged me to be proactive in starting conversations and offering encouragement to young people.

"The London Olympics as a whole were completely inspiring. I got to watch the athletics events and was just in awe of everything.

"The experience really opened my eyes to the possibility that, one day, I might take part myself, but, for now, I'm completely focused on running the race of my life in Glasgow."

Going for gold in Glasgow

  • Northern Ireland has a total of 117 local athletes competing across 14 sports in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which take place in Glasgow from July 23-August 3.
  • The team will be aiming to improve on its haul of 10 medals from the 2010 event in Delhi, India.
  • Across boxing, cycling and shooting, Paddy Barnes , Steven Ward, Wendy Houvenaghel, Martyn Irvine, Sean Downey, Philip Lavery and David Calvert will all be seeking to repeat their medal-winning exploits of four years ago.
  • Three paralympians are also in the team, with James Brown being piloted by Dave Readle in the track cycling, while sprint runner Jason Smyth and swimmer Bethany Firth will both compete in the mainstream competition, as their preferred disciplines are not available within the para-sport events.
  • A Northern Ireland netball squad makes its debut at the games, while both judo and triathlon make a return, having not been included in the program for Delhi 2010.
  • With coaches, medical personnel, support staff and team management included, the total NI team travelling to Glasgow will number approximately 160.

All hail the ‘friendly games’

  • Often referred to as the ‘Friendly Games’, the first Commonwealth Games were held in 1930 in Hamilton, Canada, where 11 countries sent 400 athletes to take part in six sports and 59 events.
  • Since then, the Games have been conducted every four years. From 1930 to 1950, the Games were known as the British Empire Games, from 1954 until 1966 the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and from 1970 to 1974 they took on the title of British Commonwealth Games.
  • It was the 1978 Games in Edmonton that saw this unique, world-class, multi-sports event change its name to the Commonwealth Games.
  • Northern Ireland has competed in 16 of the 18 Commonwealth Games, beginning with the second Games, held in 1934. The team did not compete in 1930 (when there was a single team from Ireland) and in 1950.
  • Athlete Thelma Hopkins and lawn bowls team Percy Watson and William Rosbotham provided the first gold medals for the province in the 1954 Vancouver games.
  • As one of the home countries in the UK, Northern Ireland is not able to be a member of the Olympic movement, so the Commonwealth Games provides the only opportunity for its athletes to compete representing Northern Ireland at the international level in a multi-sport event.

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