My Olympic dream is on track now after switch to Ireland
Big read: Katie Kirk
It's Wednesday evening in the beautiful Portuguese resort of Vilamoura and the rain is tumbling down. Katie Kirk is in the Algarve, but she's not there for a holiday.
The talented 21-year-old middle distance runner from Holywood is with her dad Mark, who is also her coach, and other athletes working for the season ahead at a warm weather training camp.
Katie's the only girl in the group. It doesn't unduly bother her. "I'm used to the crude jokes of the boys," she says.
This is no ordinary training camp for Kirk though because after running and fitness sessions in the day, she turns to the books at night to revise for upcoming University exams.
Katie is in her second year at Queen's doing a Food Science degree. She is one busy lady. An incredibly open and honest one too. Throw in bright and bubbly as well.
It wasn't just for her athletics promise that the legendary Dame Mary Peters chose her to be Northern Ireland's representative to run around the Olympic Stadium, holding the Olympic torch during a memorable London 2012 opening ceremony.
Back then Katie had raced in youth events for Team GB. Intent on making a long-held Olympic dream come true, last year the former Sullivan Upper pupil made the decision to opt to run for Ireland.
It was a big call. But the right one for her knowing that in the 800m, Team GB is a lot stronger than Ireland, therefore she has a better chance of being the number one for the latter and their choice for the Games, be that in Rio next year or in Tokyo 2020.
Earlier this week the Belfast Telegraph revealed Kirk had received official clearance to swap the red, white and blue vest for green. She took the news in her stride.
"When I made the decision to run for Ireland that was the big moment for me rather than the news coming through that I'd been cleared to do so," said Katie, speaking from Portugal.
"We did a little happy dance, though apart from that there wasn't much celebration because I had already accepted what was going to happen."
Asked why she made the switch, the answer was clear.
"My dream is to run in the Olympics and I felt if I wanted to make that dream a reality the best chance of doing that would be to run for Ireland."
She quickly added: "I also want to run for Ireland. I believe I will get more opportunities, it is a more supportive environment, I know more people and it's always where I've felt most comfortable. I've been competing in Ireland since I was nine-years-old running cross country so it is a personal decision too."
Katie had talked it over with her family including dad Mark, an accomplished athlete himself who competed for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games, but ultimately the decision was down to her.
Now she is looking to the future in what is a big year for the sport with the World Championships taking place in Beijing in August.
"My main goal is the European under-23 Championships coming up in Tallinn in Estonia in July," says Katie.
"I raced there before and won a gold medal with GB. It is a good track and hopefully I can get back there.
"If I made the World Championships I'd be delighted but if I don't I won't kick myself. Qualifying for that would be an end of season bonus."
An even bigger bonus would be to race in Rio next year at the Olympics.
"For me in 2016 I'll still be pretty young in athletics terms. 800m runners can go beyond 30 and compete at the highest level so I have a lot of years in front of me.
"If I did make it to Rio though it would be a great experience," she says with excitement in her voice.
Kirk, who when competing for Northern Ireland only just missed out on last year's 800m final at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow where she ran a new personal best of 2 minutes 02:63 seconds, continued: "This year for me is a breakthrough year. I'd like to run as close to the two minute barrier which is a big thing in 800m. No one has ever done it in Ireland. I feel I am capable of running below two minutes, whenever that will be."
Kirk, who will test her endurance levels with 1500m races this year, admits that her sporting schedule can play havoc with her education.
"The last term at University, the work was really tough and I was struggling to fit everything in. Sometimes you have to make compromises and just because the grades slip a little it doesn't mean it is the end of the world. I tend to do quite well in my exams which can make up for coursework during the year."
Katie's athletics career means she lives a different life to her student mates.
"My friends at University know I run and that I don't drink or party so they know not to ask about going out as I'll say no," she reveals.
"Some days I am up at 6am and don't get home to 10pm when I'm training between training and Uni. Some of my friends may be saying they are tired after a night out, but I'm like come on... 'try getting up at 6am to go training'...
"A few close friends do understand and find it all very exciting. They want to see me in the Olympics and on TV."
So there's the training, the competition, the books... and then there's the buns, another key element in Katie's life. This girl could give Mary Berry a run for her money, though unfortunately she is lactose intolerant, so can't eat all her tasty creations.
"I enjoy a good bun and do dairy free baking and bake healthy treats, but usually I don't eat what I bake," she says.
"I went to Tech on my year out and did a professional qualification in pasterie and ran my own cake and cupcake business," she says.
"I baked cakes and cupcakes to make some money. With Uni I don't have as much time, so I just bake for my family, friends and good customers. I make cakes, I make buns, I make bread.
"It's something I would really like to do more of when I finish running."
Before then there is an Olympic ambition to achieve.