Eddie Leddy relaxing in Carrick-on-Shannon on a visit home to Leitrim Picture: Willie Donnellan
Leitrim Observer Sports editor John Connolly met up with two time Olympian Eddie Leddy on a recent visit home to Leitrim and chatted about his extraordinary career and achievements in track & field
There are names that leap off the page and evoke memories of a time and place. Leitrim in the 1970s was far from a hotbed of success on the football fields but when it came to the Olympics, Leitrim punched far, far above its weight.
Mention the name Eddie Leddy to any Leitrim person old enough to remember and there is instant recognition and respect, Tommy Conlon's tweet when the Observer ran a poll to find Leitrim's great sporting moment capturing his fame: “The great Eddie Leddy. A name to be reckoned with and never to be forgotten.”
In the pantheon of Leitrim greats, Eddie Leddy is up there with the very best, the Drumreilly native competing in two Olympic Games, setting Irish records over 5,000m, 10,000m and 3,000m steeplechase and delivering a series of performances that would be world class today.
Now living south of Nashville in Tennessee, Eddie was back home on a flying visit to his brother PJ, also an accomplished international athlete, before heading over to enjoy the tennis at Wimbledon.
Going from the townland of Gubbs in Drumreilly to the Olympics in Munich and Montreal is quite a journey but Eddie, during a long and wide ranging chat that was interrupted several times by admirers coming over to catch up with the Olympian, puts it down to the influence of Padraig Griffin and his older brother PJ.
After somehow managing to play football for Aughavas, Ballinamore and Drumreilly, the arrival of Padraig Griffin changed the life of the Leddy brothers: “I credit Padraig Griffin for completely impacting my life and PJ’s life because we ended up going to America because of it.”
Reading various reports and books about that time in Irish athletics, the Leddy brothers and Padraig Griffin had a huge impact on the sport not only in Leitrim but Connacht and all over Ireland: “Leitrim was not a powerhouse in sport generally and we didn’t realise this at the time what we were getting into but Padraig knew very well.
“If you were to boil it down to one thing that impacted PJ’s life and mine in what Padraig did, his understanding of physiology and training and his understanding of how to train more scientifically. I would say his education and knowledge of training differentiated us from everybody else in Ireland.
“So when you ask why did some young lads from Drumreilly start winning national titles, without a history of running, I would say it was Padraig Griffin’s knowledge of how to train.”
It wasn’t until the Leddys went on scholarship to East Tennessee State University in America that they realised just what made Griffin such a unique coach: “The first time I realised that was when we went to East Tennessee and there were some other Irish guys there and their base of training was different to what PJ and I had experienced.
“That was obviously the first time I understood the impact Padraig had . A lot of other athletes spent a lot of time in aerobic training and we spent a much higher percentage of time in anaerobic training.”
Eddie Leddy on his way to the Irish Schools Cross-country double in 1968
Such methods allowed Eddie complete a remarkable double in 1968 when he won both the Senior and Intermediate races, with about 10 minutes rest in between, at the All-Ireland Colleges Cross-country Championships in the Phoenix Park.
It is a feat never since equalled but for Eddie, it was easy! “I would say that thanks to Padraig’s training methods, it was easy - I didn’t even run hard in either race! It is because Padraig had me in such good condition and his mix of aerobic and anaerobic training was the difference between us and a lot of other people.”
The other big factor in Eddie’s success was his older brother PJ, who led the way in athletics and who Eddie desperately wanted to beat!
“PJ and I were always competitive. I had a very competitive nature and he always beat me but I never wanted to stop trying. He started running a few years earlier than I had, we didn’t run against each other for two years. I think the very first race we had against each other, I was convinced I was going to beat him and, to my surprise, I didn’t.
“That rivalry was a big contributing factor in my life because I wanted to beat him. I wanted to beat everybody but I surely wanted to beat PJ and for a long time I couldn’t. It gave me a very specific goal!”
The success of the Leddy brothers brought attention nationally but also from across the Atlantic with more than a few scholarship offers arriving in the Leddy house.
By this time, PJ had joined An Gardai Siochana and was stationed in Dundalk but a conflict over time off for a race led P.J. to make a big decision.
Known today as a former teacher in St Clare’s CS and the Manorhamilton correspondent for the Observer and other local media, PJ recalls how he was denied time off for a crucial race due to working regulations at the time.
“I went over to Tennessee the year before Eddie. I had been in the Guards, it was a big thing to give up but I more or less said I wasn’t going to make much progress as an athlete in the Guards,” recalls PJ, who talked of a time when a murder investigation in Dundalk before Christmas meant no day off at all until March!
Eddie takes up the story: “Pat Joe was a Guard and he had no control over his training and I remember distinctly at that time, I wouldn’t get to train in daylight and he would have to run in the dark. That made a huge impression on me because I thought if I was going to keep running, what was I going to do work wise and that kind of stuff.”
Recruitment was very different back then too - no emails, skype or WhatsApp, no cheap flights across the Atlantic but coach Dave Walker made the journey to the Connacht Championships and recruited the duo as part of what became the Irish Brigade, a group of Irish runners who included future Boston Marathon winner Neil Cusack.
Knoxville, needless to say, was quite different from Ireland, Eddie recounting how he had to change his accent so the locals could understand him when he got a job in the college cafeteria!
“It was a big change and I really had no intention of staying when I graduated in 1974. Unemployment in Ireland was very high and I majored in business but nothing was going to happen trying to find a job . I stayed at home and helped our parents rebuild a house.
“I had an offer from Clemson to do a Fellowship, basically be an Assistant Coach and do my Masters, I had no intention of taking it but when I realised the employment situation, I went back.”
Eddie made rapid progress when he went to ETSU, so rapid that he qualified for the Munich Olympics in the Steeplechase: “I went to the States in 1970 and the Olympics came on suddenly. I always say that going to the Olympics is like going up the stairs. The Olympics are the 13th step and when you’re on the first step, you’re not thinking about the 13th one.
“What happened, it came very suddenly, I qualified for the 1972 Olympics at the Drake Relays in Des Moines Iowa and I just ran a great race that day. I beat my personal best by 15 seconds in the steeplechase and at ETSU, we didn’t have steeplechase facilities but it came pretty naturally.”
Incredibly, it was the Padraig Griffin who laid the foundation for Munich: “I would say I worked more on technique with Padraig than anybody. Padraig bought hurdles in Ballinamore and we put them on the football pitch, he had me running over hurdles. He’d take me up to Santry and to Queens in Belfast to practice the water jump, there wasn’t always water in it.”
Munich was a tough experience: “Truth is I was overawed by the whole experience. You don’t always run your best time, I ran a good time but the whole experience was overawing but one of the lessons I learned that when you get to the highest level, the mental approach is everything.
“It is understood that you are physically going to be ready but to win the race and set records, the mental approach is key. In today’s world, everybody understands that but back then, we didn’t fully appreciate that.”
Eddie Leddy and his brother PJ Picture: Willie Donnellan
The Munich Games also saw the end of innocence around the Olympics with the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and officials and the Irish team were in the next building: “We were right beside the Israeli team. We didn’t really understand everything that was going on but we knew something was badly wrong when we saw a guy with a machine gun walking an Israeli guy out to the helicopter. We went back inside the report we got was all the terrorists were killed and the Israeli team escaped but the next morning, we found up that was not what happened.
“It did affect us; the Olympics was a festival, it was truly an amateur sport and truly a celebration. The Olympics were postponed and there was a big debate that they were going to be cancelled and it affected everyone.
“While it was going on, they locked down the village which is not good for distance runners, they had a chain link fence maybe 15-20 feet tall but the British guys, Irish guys, Americans and Australians all got together and we all climbed the fence.
“It was pretty scary because we climbed the fence and came down the other side with machine guns pointing at us, hoping nobody would shoot us.”
Given the commercialism that dominates sport now, it was a very different time as Eddie recalls the historic marathon victory of friend and training partner Frank Shorter that prompted the running boom in America and soon all over the world.
Eddie recounts the differences in preparation nowadays to how he and his running buddies helped Shorter succeed: “There was no way he was going to win, we thought so the night before the race, we got cans of coca cola and unpop them and shook them so that they were his drinks on the course. His drinks on the course were coca cola.
“This was also the beginning of commercialism and all of us were running with Asics or Tiger at the time. Nike was just starting and Nike could not make a pair of shoes good enough for Shorter to run in. So you know what we did? We took a pair of Asics and cut off the stripes and sewed on a swoosh and that’s what he ran the marathon in.”
Graduation saw Eddie return to the States where a mentorship programme allowed him to work for a company while continuing to train to a high level, an arrangement that kept his Olympic dream alive. An innovative coach in Stan Huntsman saw Eddie in the shape of his life.
“In the Fall, we’d go out and do 3 x 2 miles with a five or six minute jog in between and that same workout by Spring had translated into, the most famous workout I had done in my entire life, we did 6 x 1 mile, jog a quarter mile and we ran every mile under four minutes.
“The way we did it, there were eight of us, everybody did 200m and there was a big clock at the end of each straightaway and you had to hit the clock at zero, 30, 60. You only have one job to run your 200m in 30 secs.”
It meant that Eddie travelled to the 1976 Montreal Olympics confident of making a big impact in both the 5,000m and 10,000m but the experience proved the Ballinamore AC athlete’s biggest disappointment: “I would say the biggest disappointment by far was my unpreparedness for the 76 Olympics, there is no reason I shouldn’t have been in the hunt for a medal.
“I was so prepared for the 76 Olympics in every way except one. I won the US National title 10,000m in early June and I could have made the US team in the steeplechase, the 5K and 10K, easily but I didn’t run a race until the Olympics because my emigration status meant I couldn’t leave the country.
“So I didn’t run a race from the European championships until the Olympics. I was so physically ready and I had two miles in 8.20 in training. I was in way better condition than I performed but I just wasn’t sharp for the race, just not mentally ready. I should have been in the hunt, I didn’t even qualify. I wasn’t sharp.”
After 1976, running changed drastically with road racing taking off and a full time job that meant new responsibilities: “After 76, road races took off and also became a money maker for me so I ran a lot of road races, a lot of certified 10Km courses in around 27.50.
“There was a whole circuit, the whole thing was exploding and I was becoming a race director so I would actually set up the race and then go run it, it was an interesting time. Then I was working in a very responsible, full time job and once the Olympics were over, I was promoted to a corporate marketing position, running was the side thing.
“There was a lot of soft money in road races, you might get your expenses paid but nobody was making significant money. But by then I had kids and once you have kids, that’s a different level of responsibility.”
Eddie hung up his spikes in the early 80s but still continued to run for health and well-being: ”I never really stopped running, I still run today. I run about three miles, I’m trying to get back to more because in a stressful job, it is therapeutic.”
He still follows athletics avidly, confiding “I do follow athletics, my fantasy is to coach when I retire. I retired five or six years ago but I’m doing a rotten job of being retired.”
On the current state of Irish athletics and long distance running in particular, Eddie’s advice is simple - nothing beats hard work: “If you have God given talent, it doesn’t matter how much talent God gives you unless you go out and use it and work hard. We didn’t have many distractions and we had a fairly singular goal.
“We ran always 120 to 140 miles a week, you listened to your body, if you found an injury coming, you’d back off and then you just work very, very hard and the rest of it is luck to some degree.
“To be really, really good, it is a delicate balance. I have this principle in all of life, which is, you gotta work hard, you don’t get to where you are without working hard. Then you have to be smart, God gave us all a certain amount of talent and you have to figure out best where the talent is used.
“I figured probably the 10,000m is my best event but it took me a long time to figure that out. But I had fun getting there.”
Certainly Eddie Leddy made the very best of his God given talent!