Sean Tobin of Clonmel A.C returned home from a scholarship at the University of Mississippi in the summer of 2018. While he was hungry and motivated to run, he found the transition to reality in Ireland more challenging than expected.
“It is quite common in Ireland to blame the American route, that the coaches run us too hard or you’re gone off on the drink, people disappear, but people forget that it is easy to get lost, especially coming back from the States.”
Most of his teammates joined professional teams in America upon graduating, Craig Engels for example having joined the now defunct Nike Oregon Project. Others joined the likes of Hoka Northern Arizona Elite, Reebok Track Club, Saucony Track Club and Hoka One One New York New Jersey.
Tobin, however, found himself back in Clonmel, lost, lonely and unsure what he was going to do. He was certain he was going to run. That is his chosen profession. What was not so certain was who he would run with, and how he would fund it.
The next steps after coming home
Coming home from the States people would ask him what was next. If you ask any recently graduated student, you are often met with evasive answers while the student grapples with big life choices and situational changes. This is particularly pertinent for students who don’t have a city base, whose family homes are in rural places with little to no access to people to train with at their level.
For athletes exiting the American collegiate system this transition is particularly challenging. In America, saying you are a full time runner is met with enthusiasm, people back you and are excited for you to join a team and chase your dreams.
In Ireland though, the same culture does not exist, and so outside of immediate friends, family and other athletes, Sean found it quite difficult to explain a career choice that involved making no money. He would tell someone that he was trying to qualify for the Olympics and they would ask “but what do you really do?” Sometimes he would rather just say he was a student.
“You come home after a good percentage of your life, and everything was looked after for you in college, and you’re trying to figure out your own rent and to adjust to running outside of college.” It is common for non-athletes to take their time figuring out their professional career, taking a year after college to do so.
But it seems athletes can be held to a higher standard and if someone is not performing straight off the bat, people can be quick to criticise. If one thing is clear from talking to Sean, it is that life is not straightforward and it is not as easy as just coming home and transitioning smoothly. “You meet other guys who have been through the system and they’re completely lost still”.
On a road to nowhere
In summer 2018 he was racing and hoping for some performance but nothing was clicking. “It all fell to pieces” and he ultimately found himself with his parents in Clonmel, at his wits end, no professional set up, and running out of options. All his friends had moved on and that was difficult.
“Socially it was very tough, it got to the point where going down to the coffee shop was a big deal, just very nervous, very lost. You’d be afraid to go out as people would be asking you what you were doing and you don’t really have answers you know.”
Then, a chance presented itself. “It was like something out of a movie, I remember sitting in bed saying please just give me some bloody sign, and then I got a message from Feidhlim, and there was the opportunity.”
They agreed he would join the Dublin Track Club. “Feidhlim has been wonderful to me and he has been around for years. He is the one coach that put himself out there in positions, he has travelled and linked in with guys like Nic Bideau, and lived in London trying to make it as an athlete, he has done a lot. He is willing to learn and listen, he is so hungry.”
The group has developed and expanded since then, and “it has a lot more meaning for me now, it’s about developing the Irish system.”
The importance of the right environment
Tobin mentions when he was training in Falls Creek, Australia, there was literally “nothing to do.
The house didn’t have wifi or anything.” Sonia O’Sullivan told him that during her time there they just read books, and one thing she said that stood out to him most was that “you almost have to re-adjust to civilisation when you come down off the mountain, and it’s true.”
“You’re so used to it being so quiet and silent, and everything is so loud and noisy. That is the lifestyle you want for running.” Dublin is not quite the same, but that is not to bash Dublin, “we obviously will make things work here.”
In the Dublin training group, few are full time, most are studying or working with flexible arrangements. “We have to create something ourselves, we can’t just expect the same model as Kenya or the US. As athletes we need to be educated in terms of how can you be a full time athlete and create an income, what job opportunities for someone who is in college and can make money online say.
“There are a lot of opportunities to make things work.” He refers to the Melbourne Track Club who also built themselves up, and when they need money the race. “They work hard and they don’t complain.”
Keep it simple
The life of an athlete is relatively simple. But the simple things are the hardest to secure: housing and food. It’s fine in college, but once you graduate into adulthood you need independence from your parents. If you’re from Dublin it is much easier, of course, the cost of living in Dublin is just so high if you are renting.
It is also hard to hold down a full time job and then ask for 6-8 weeks off to go to Australia to train. Sean has held odd jobs on and off, for example in his local coffee shop, Coffee Works, while he was injured, but as the miles crept up again this was not sustainable either. He considers himself very lucky to be supported with Richard Donovan, he couldn’t be in Dublin without that support.
Brendan O’Neill had a big influence on Sean’s decision to stay in Ireland. He noticed that athletes struggle with visas in the USA, then they’re home, and back and forth. It can be all over the place and “suddenly it turns into a three year cycle of trying to find your feet. He said I have to find a rhythm, he was the one that convinced me to stay home and make it work, get settled for a year at home and then the second year is not as bad.
So this is really the second year home, having my own place and being a little bit settled. It has been huge, having my own room.” Having stability, rather than living between places and out of suitcases has been a very positive development.
Funding athlete lifestyles
The funding system here is strange. He lives beside the National Sports Campus and sees the boxers going in, always together for training, “a proper national squad, where as the runners are scattered everywhere. I don’t want cash or whatever, I just want a house and food, as an athlete all you need is your food and your housing.”
“Imagine if Athletics Ireland had invested in houses over the years.” It would be very helpful for someone coming home too, if they could offer a base for six months while they find their feet and figure things out. “Sometimes the simple things go over people’s heads.” It seems that private sponsorship is a better model, evidenced by teams around the world, but it is missing in Ireland.
“As a group, anything that is stressful is always financial, thats a big thing that is stopping athletes going after it. If you look at the people deciding to have a real go of it, they decided to go abroad.” For example, Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner has joined the New Balance team based in Boston which is coached by Mark Coogan.
Clearly not a lack of motivation
What is clear in the transition from college to professional running is not a lack of motivation or ambition, but the very basics. People can be very quick to say that athletes are burnt out “but really it is just that life hits you, do I get a job, what do I do, et cetera. You can be pulled a lot of ways. And the more you go through the running ranks the tougher it gets.”
The Irish funding system is rewards based, if you compete well on a world stage you will get funding, but “if I finish top 8 in the world I don’t need that then, I needed it to get there. And even this year trying to qualify for the Olympics, if I qualify then suddenly I will be given more funding.”
This is not actually conducive to promoting and supporting Irish athletes development. Sean notes that he is in a very good position, probably better than most in the country because of Richard Donovan’s support and is keen to express that he does not take that for granted.
What can athletes do to help themselves?
“It is something that as athletes we can be very ‘take take take’, we need this we need that, and it is figuring out how can we actually give back to a community or a sport, what can we do to benefit others.” Coaching is the obvious first option of course, Sean coaches the DCU endurance group.
Other athletes have successful coaching businesses. The coaching also gives him a bit of perspective with the variety of levels involved, “we can forget how we got here too.”
Athletes need to look for opportunities to earn money doing online work. In terms of options to do things like grinds, Sean says that he did “an athlete’s degree” at Ole Miss, he wasn’t really study focused.
“I neglected academics and that was a hard lesson for me. As an athlete it is a great opportunity to self educate, read, learn new skills, it is a wonderful opportunity.” He realised a bit too late that he liked studying economics, so now a lot has changed in his mindset and approach to academics.
If he were to go back to University he wouldn’t choose a place purely based on its name, more so on the courses available and professors teaching. He regrets it, “I was given a wonderful opportunity that I tossed away, school is expensive.” But one can only learn the hard way, and if he returns to education he has made it more difficult for himself to get into a programme, but “I understand to make the most of that time now.”
Nothing is guaranteed
This sport is hard and cruel, “Feidhlim reminds us of that every day. This is not easy. You can do everything right and not be rewarded. Look at me this summer, I learned that the hard way. I put in one of the best years of training I ever put in, thought suddenly I was going to go out on the track and have this outstanding season, and bang, leg just gone.”
He raced two 5kms on the track with his leg hanging off, and ran personal bests but they were “nowhere near what I could have done.”
After John Travers running 13.28, “I buzz off the idea of the Irish doing well, if I can run 13 and twenty something that’s great now we have two irish guys doing it.” Look at Scullion and Pollock going 2.10 and 2.12. And not to forget the people behind the scenes, “I don’t think anyone is safe”.
When people assume someone is off to Tokyo “that boils my blood because no-one is guaranteed anything. I am not guaranteed anything.” This was the caption of Sean’s strava during the week, it points to an athlete working hard to make it work, and grateful for what he has.
Bláithín is a middle distance and cross country athlete who has been known to accidentally run into trees. She is in total denial about having to work for a living – you can follow her attempts at run-commuting to work on Strava.