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Ciara puts best foot forward

Portaferry ace is dreaming of Olympic success after her Euro bronze joy but knows she could come up against drug cheats in wake of Russia controversy

By Declan Bogue

A few things have happened in the last fortnight that have caught Ciara Mageean by surprise, since she powered through to clinch a bronze medal in the 1,500m at the European Championships in Amsterdam.

Most frivolous has been the extra several hundred followers on Twitter and the precious blue tick now on her account.

Another was when she was sitting at the front of the plane home with her physio Emma Gallivan when an air hostess approached and said: "It is you, isn't it?" before passing her copies of two newspapers, both of which featured her on their front pages - after the weekend of football's European Championship final.

The last, most notable one was the reaction of the drug tester when she approached Mageean after the race, saying: 'Oh I am really sorry, you have been selected for doping control'.

Ciara recalls: "I said to her, 'don't apologise to an athlete because they are being tested. I am glad to be tested'."

Her attitude is an interesting change from the athletes who feel that ensuring the sport is kept drugs-free is such a chore.

The Portaferry 24-year-old is on the Athlete Whereabouts System.

"They come to my door on a regular basis to get an out-of-competition test sample from me. I am happy about that. It has proved that I am clean. It's the clean athletes who don't mind being tested," she says.

"It's the people who are making things difficult, running away from things…"

A fortnight ago, she was an athlete of potential. But the race in Amsterdam required a serious level of maturity to make her an overnight sensation.

Although slipping down to sixth at one stage, she had to pick a path carefully.

"I was trying to assess the legs around me, to see if I was going to be tripped as well if I stepped out. It's quite difficult and whenever I dropped back I saw that all the girls were surging and there were girls trying to move out the whole time," she recalls, before describing it as "quite a messy race".

In the build-up to next month's Rio Olympics, Mageean has emerged as a genuine medal hope for Ireland. Although there was a clear gap to winner Angelika Gichocka in the Euros, she came extremely close to nabbing second from Sifan Hassan, the Ethiopian who took Dutch nationality to qualify for Amsterdam.

The now Dublin-based athlete, who has support from the Mary Peters Trust, has been through a long journey to represent Ireland on track.

You don't have to look hard for her sporting pedigree. Her father Christopher was an extremely fit midfielder in Down's hurling team, known as 'The Hunter' for his willingness to chase all day.

Her mother Catherine played camogie. Older sister Máire is now a doctor and won a camogie Ulster Colleges All-Star in 2008, two years before Ciara did likewise for her former school, Assumption Grammar, in Ballynahinch.

She maintains her younger sister Nuala is "probably the most talented in the house" as a camog. She actually won an Ulster Schools cross-country event herself, but passed up the opportunity to do more of it.

"No matter where I am, I have three hurls in the back of my car and they are there everywhere I go," Ciara reveals.

"If I left them in Portaferry, they would probably be robbed by my sisters. If I am at the track early and waiting for the boys to come out, I might mess about with them.

"When we moved into this house in Rathfarnham, one of the first things I noticed was that there is a good wall at the back which I can puck about with. It's got a high enough wall that I won't be sending any balls into the neighbours' gardens."

The reason she is in Rathfarnham is due to her physiotherapy studies at University College Dublin. As part of their Ad Astra Elite Athlete Programme, she has been able to delay her studies in order to allow her to compete and train under the coaching guidance of former Irish Olympian Jerry Kiernan.

With two more blocks of study to complete, she hopes to graduate by Christmas.

With so many dissertations and training sessions, she indulges herself with the odd nap. And a rather unusual hobby.

"The funny thing is that I enjoy doing a bit of cross-stitching," she laughs.

At the minute, she is making a piece for her younger brother Brendan, who is into Performing Arts and preparing to attend drama school in London.

"It's something for him to put on his wall," she says.

"Probably not a wee cottage scene, something more sarcastic that he might find funny. It might be a bit of a granny hobby, but it means I am sitting on my backside and resting!"

Within the UCD athletic circuit, she met her boyfriend Thomas Ward. At the Belfield track in UCD, she runs with a huge group of friends of all abilities, from the 30-something trying to achieve a sub-50 minute 10k to fellow Olympic hopefuls.

"My other friends in Portaferry, the ones I went to school with in Assumption, are not so much into the sport," she adds.

There has been help along the way. The local primary school, St Mary's in Portaferry, the local Credit Union and all the hurling and camogie clubs on the Ards Peninsula have been there every step of the way.

As have her sponsors New Balance, who stood by her when she had a year out after injuring her ankle. "A shoe company that didn't just kick me to the side," she says.

But first she has Rio to think about. Not her puppy, named Rio, but the Olympics and the threat of the Zika virus.

She says: "I wouldn't just dismiss it and say I haven't thought about it. In my preparation for heading out to Rio, I have a whole medical checklist that Athletics Ireland have given us. I have made sure to tick all the boxes and have all the vaccinations.

"I am not concerned about Zika in terms of how it might affect me. I am doing everything in my power to make sure I am staying fit and healthy and that I am not going to get ill.

"We are not going to be drinking the tap water, we will be drinking bottled water, we will be wearing mosquito repellent. All simple things that any traveller going to a foreign country would do."

Where she excels and really grabs your attention is her willingness to open up on the performance-enhancing drugs conversation, with Russian athletes banned from Rio after the latest revelations.

"It's something you find disheartening. I love my sport and I would love every sport in the world to be clean. You want to step out onto the track and for it to be a level playing field for everybody," she says.

"Sadly, I am not naive enough to believe it is a clean sport, and not everyone I go to the line against is going to be 100% clean. It's whenever you have athletes like Maria Sharapova testing positive for a substance because of a heart condition. I wonder. This is a healthy athlete. It's a very unusual thing for a healthy athlete to have.

"Whenever things come out, people ask me if I am saddened by it. I am happy that people are being found out."

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