42.ie talk to Breege Connolly ahead of Rio Olympics 2016:

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After years of dedicated training, a number of athletes from Northern Ireland will represent Ireland on the world’s biggest sporting stage, the Olympic Games; which on this occasion, will take place in Rio, Brazil.

In total, there are five runners from Northern Ireland Ireland squad, who are all now in Rio awaiting the Opening Ceremony this week (Friday 5th August 2016).  This week, respected Irish website www.the42.ie featured an interview with Breege Connolly (North Belfast Harriers).

On reading this interesting, informative and inspiring piece… we felt that is was perfect to use it as our Monthly Feature for August, the Olympic month!  So, please read and enjoy…

At 38, 4 years after her first competitive Marathon, Breege Connolly is set for the Olympics:

What make the Olympic Games special, arguably more so than the superstars, are the stories of everyday people who improbably manage to find themselves on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

Over 10,000 athletes will compete in Rio this summer, and the vast majority aren’t global icons and multi-millionaires like Usain Bolt.  Northern Ireland’s Breege Connolly, for instance, when she’s not competing, works as a software tester for the global eCommerce and logistics management company eShopworld.  Unlike many competing at the Games, she hasn’t had the luxury of training and competing full time, although she has at least been given the past two months off to focus on Rio.

For the most part though, Connolly has practiced her running at lunchtime and during weekends as she bids to accommodate training into her normal working life.  It hasn’t always been easy, particularly when it means missing out on family time with her sisters, nieces and nephews.  You can’t ever get time with people back,” she reflects. “It’s a state of consciousness. Those three-hour runs, you’re missing that time with your family. But I suppose it’s a short window, so it’ll be worth it at the end of the day.”

Certainly, her dedication seems to have been worth it of late. Last May, her place in the Rio 2016 Olympics was confirmed. Alongside fellow Irish athletes Lizzie Lee and Fionnuala McCormack, it was officially announced that she would represent Team Ireland in the marathon.  Until recently, Connolly — who will become the fifth Leitrim-born athlete to represent Ireland at the Olympics — barely knew Lee or McCormack.

“A few weeks ago, one of the girls set up a (WhatsApp) group,” she tells The42. “So there’s been a bit of chat on that, a few text messages back and forth.  I haven’t been on an international team with any of these girls before, so it’ll be my first time having that experience, but everyone is lovely. If you go with that attitude, you’ll be fine. There’ll be a team spirit there.”

And while McCormack in particular has a host of accolades to her name amid a distinguished career in athletics, including three golds at the European Cross Country Championships (two individual and one team from 2011 and 2012), a 3000m bronze from the European Indoor Championships and two Olympic Games appearances already (Beijing 2008 and London 2012), it is not the case with Connolly.  Whereas McCormack started with Kilcoole Athletics Club as a seven-year-old and began her international junior career in cross country running in 2001 while still a teenager, Connolly ran her first-ever marathon — the 2003 Dublin City Marathon — at the age of 25, finishing with a time of four hours and one minute.  It would be another nine years, she says, until she ran her first competitive marathon.  “I had joined with my coaches and we had hit a training programme (by then),” she explains.

Before then, running was essentially a hobby and it only became even that after she left the National University in Maynooth and moved to Australia.  “When we were away it was just a method of getting from A to B faster when we didn’t have a car.  That was how I started into the jogging as such.”

After returning to Ireland and moving to Belfast for a job, she joined an athletics club for the first time.  “It was to broaden my circles,” she recalls. “And I would always encourage anybody who goes to a new city to go running.  It’s the best way to meet new people and you’ll click with somebody.  And doing something that I love doing was just the logical option. I suppose I went to races and things came together.  “It just happened and I met the right people at the right time, and things fell into place.”

In addition to Connolly, Fionnuala McCormack and Lizzie Lee will also represent Ireland in the marathon at the Rio Olympics later this month.  But did Connolly ever think she would end up representing Ireland at the Olympics?  It almost felt to me like an unattainable thing. But at a marathon a few years ago, reality struck home, because the standards were set and the Irish girls were getting better.

“They kind of got the domestic marathon scene up and running.  And I love the distance — that was one of the things that probably kept me going with the marathon running.  I do enjoy the training and I enjoy what comes with it.” And while the 38-year-old North Belfast Harriers AC athlete’s overwhelming success may have been somewhat unexpected, she certainly had plenty of time to contemplate at least the possibility that she might be going to the Olympic Games.

Ultimately securing her spot in Rio as the third-fastest qualifier, Connolly’s qualifying time of 2:37:29 was set over a year ago in the London Marathon.  Since then, she has waited patiently as others have tried and failed to eclipse her achievement.  Every time there was another (Irish) girl in a marathon, it was: ‘Will it happen, won’t it happen?’  There was a couple of girls I was heavily focusing on to (potentially) beat my time,” she explains.  “When they ran their marathons and it wasn’t happening, I guess I was getting more hopeful. But until you get the phone call, you never feel like you’re there anyway.  I try not to allow things like anxiety to come into it. You’re dying for it to happen, absolutely, but I made my decision that London was going to be the race that I had picked to target a time. I had to take everything else that comes with it — if a girl beats my time, I had to suck that up.”

Whereas qualifying for the Olympics is special for most athletes, for the people of Kinlough in Leitrim, news of Connolly’s success was a particularly big deal, with a public event arranged to commemorate her achievement.  Those are the sort of things that have given me most of the goosebumps.  I know the Olympics is huge, but they had a night (in Leitrim) a while ago, and the reception I received was really incredible.  “That’s when I thought ‘oh my god, this is absolutely huge’. The kindness and how those people have behaved towards me really epitomised the Olympic spirit. Hopefully, I can return the favour in Rio.”

In addition, several family members, including Connolly’s 79-year-old mother, will travel to Brazil to support her.  The last few weeks have been especially intense. Connolly explains how she has acquired a stark insight into the level of dedication and sacrifice that the likes of McCormack have been adhering to for much longer than she has.  I have a whole new appreciation for what it is to be a full-time athlete for the past two months. It is an amazing commitment, which (Fionnuala McCormack) has done all her life really. I’m looking forward to all of it, yeah.

“I’m getting on grand (with training). I try not to over-analyse it. I approach it every day at a time and try to make every day the best day and just get out as much as I can for a session or a long run.”  And although Connolly admits that part of her is looking forward to emerging from a “bubble” and getting back to normal life once the Rio dream comes to an end, her immense, unrelenting passion for running will continue to remain undimmed thereafter.

“What I most love is the feeling of fitness. You know when you’re on a long run on a Saturday morning? When you get to 20 or 21 miles, it’s just a lovely feeling where you’ve got this kind of lethargy in you but you just know you can keep going. Nothing can really beat that feeling.”