We talk about Leitrim punching above its weight when it comes to sport and while the recent struggles of the county senior football team is tough, there is no doubt when it comes to the Olympics that Leitrim really have put in an Olympic effort down through the years.
Starting with Jimmy Duffy who represented Canada in the marathon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, eight Leitrim people have competed and officiated in the Olympic arena with Gerard O’Donnell from Carrick-on-Shannon the latest in an illustrious list.
To put it into context, our neighbours in Sligo are celebrating their first ever Olympian in the sport of athletics with Grange’s Chris O’Donnell competing in the Mixed 4 x 400m in Tokyo yet five Leitrim people have competed in sports biggest stage.
Jimmy Duffy was the first, born James McNiff in Liscoghill near Drumkeerin in May 1890 before moving to Scotland and then Canada where he earned the right to compete in the marathon in Stockholm where he finished fifth, in incredibly warm conditions that actually claimed the life of a competitor, in a time of 2h 42m 18.8 secs.
Leitrim had to wait 60 years for the county’s next involvement in the Olympic Games but when it arrived, it did so on the double as Eddie Leddy and coach Padraig Griffin, both of Ballinamore AC, flew the Irish flag at the 1972 Games in Munich.
Those Games were marred by the awful terrorist incident involving the Israeli team but Drumreilly’s Eddie competed in the steeplechase before going on to compete at the 1976 Games in Montreal in the 5,000m and 10,000m events.
Padraig Griffin served as the Irish team coach in Munich and repeated this dose 1980 in Moscow; the Griffin family has a pretty unique feat with Padraig’s son twice competing in the Olympic Games in the 50Km walk, in Beijing 2008 and London 2012. In fact, Colin even doubled up as he coached Eslin’s Laura Reynolds to an incredible 20th place finish in the Women’s 20Km walk at the same London games where he was competing!
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1980 remains the high point for Leitrim and the Olympics as it was the year that saw Carrick-on-Shannon’s Frances Cryan finishing seventh overall in the women’s sculls in the rowing. Her coach Aiden Nangle was also an accredited official to extend Leitrim’s representation at the Games.
Frances, who was voted Leitrim’s Greatest Sporting Moment of 1968 to 2018, missed out on reaching the final by a fraction of a second and, but for an absolutely crazy decision, she should have competed at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
Moscow must also have felt like a Leitrim reunion as Drumshanbo’s Paschal Mooney was in the Russian city to cover the Games for RTE while Tom Clancy of Glenfarne supplied the boat that David Wilkins and James Wilkinson used to win silver in sailing's Flying Dutchman class.
Joe Doonan was next to join the Leitrim list of Olympians - the Carrigallen school teacher and Ballinamore AC member gained worldwide fame as coach to European Cross-country champion, Irish marathon record holder and four time World Cross-country silver medalist and Olympian Catherina McKiernan, he served as the Irish Athletics team coach in Barcelona in 1992.
Colin Griffin was next up as we mentioned before in 2008 and 2012, joined by Laura Reynolds of Mohill & District AC in London.
Kinlough’s Breege Connolly provided one of the most inspirational stories of the 2016 Games in Rio De Janeiro when she qualified for the Olympic Marathon, having only taken up the sport as a way of keeping fit and making new friends in Belfast when she moved back there from Australia.
Her story, as a first time Olympian at the age of 38, was incredibly inspiring for runners of all abilities and she went on to compete in the European Championships in 2018.
Gerard O’Donnell completes the list in a rather unique way - the current Irish 110m and 60m indoor hurdles champion, the Carrick AC athlete is going to Tokyo as an official, appointed as a member of Team Ireland’s Media team for the games. But the same as Colin Griffin, Gerard will also be double jobbing as he is part of the coaching team that looks after Galway’s Cillian Greene and Wexford’s Sophie Becker who are both members of the Mixed 4 x 400m relay team.
So remember when you marvel at all those incredible feats of skill, endurance and spirit over the next few weeks that coming from Leitrim is no barrier to reaching the pinnacle of world sport - in fact, it may just help it!
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