WHEN Sharon Foley stepped into the arena on a cloudy August Thursday in 1993, she did a double take.
The Gottlieb-Daimler Stadion in Stuttgart heaved as Foley emerged for her competition.
A high jumper from the Coneyburrow estate in Lifford, the then 21-year-old momentarily wondered if she was dreaming.
Just five years previously in that very stadium, Ray Houghton scored a famous goal when Ireland beat England 1-0 at the 1988 European Championships.
Now, a young girl from Lifford was to take her place among the world’s elite athletes.
That morning, Sharon Foley became the first Donegal-born woman to compete at the World Athletics Championships. None have followed in the intervening 27 years.
“The whole experience was just surreal,” she tells Donegal Daily/Donegal Sport Hub now.
“I was out looking around at the warm-up tracks, just going to myself: ‘Jesus, Mercy!’
“I felt so proud. I can still feel every inch of the athletes’ village and seeing all the major athletes. The whole set up was amazing.”
The qualification round was split into two groups.
Foley was drawn in Group A.
There, too, was Silvia Costa from Cuba, who would win the silver medal, and Sigrid Kirchmann from Austria, the bronze medalist two days later.
Also in the group was a Bulgarian high jumper Stefka Kostadinova, whose world record of 2.09m, set in 1987 at the World Championships in Rome, still stands to this very day.
Kostadinova was a two-time word gold and five-time world indoor gold medalist, who went on to win gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Talk about a loaded group.
“I was in with the world record holder,” Foley says now, still almost in disbelief. “I was with her first thing in the morning.
“The opening height was just a couple of centimetres below my best. Pure adrenaline got me over the height.
“I didn’t get over the next height. I wasn’t up to their standard, but what a great experience to be in that pool.”
The Irish team, managed by Fr Liam Kelleher, included Sonia O’Sullivan, who won silver in the 1500m.
Foley shared a room with Catherina McKiernan and experienced some memorable days in just over a week in Stuttgart.
She watched from the stands as Colin Jackson set a new world record (12.91 seconds) in the 110m hurdles and Sally Gunnell broke the world record to win the 400m huddles in 52.74 seconds.
Gail Devers, Liu Dong, Linford Christie, Frankie Fredericks and Michael Johnson all won gold in Stuttgart.
There in their midst was a trailblazer from Lifford.
“It was an amazing experience. I would love to go back there,” Foley says now, 27 years on.
“That was what it was all about – all the training, all the work.
“It was the biggest environment in the sport, coming out through the warm-up area into this big massive stadium, I’ll never forget that, ever.
“I was there on big nights with those great athletes all competing and winning, thinking that I was a part of it all.
“I can still see it, but can’t explain it.”
MARY Foley always packed the lunch and lit the candle – a ritual she carries out to this day, now for her grandchildren.
It was how it was in 1989 when her daughter, Sharon – aged only 17 – went off to compete in the Irish senior championships.
She had won gold in the senior high jump event at the Irish Schools Championships earlier that year and was already capped by Ireland at senior level.
After winning the schools gold, with a 1.70m best, she also took an Under-17 gold, leaping to 1.77m. Her coach and mentor, Ben O’Donnell had an idea: ‘Let’s have a go for the Irish senior title’.
Liz Comerford from West Dublin was the title holder following her win in 1988. Bridget Corrigan dominated the event in the 1980s while Laura Sharpe was coming on the scene too.
And yet, Sharon Foley’s name entered the roll of honour in 1989, clearing 1.74m to win the title.
“Winning that first Irish title, that was a scalp,” she says. “A big scalp.
“Going there, a wee girl from Donegal and beating the Dublin girl.
“I went just after winning the juvenile title. I wasn’t sure when Ben said about going for the seniors.
“Ben used to ring up the Irish coaches all the time, just urging them not to forget about me. We justified it – the country woman took over from the city ones.”
When Sharon Foley retired from athletics in 2003, she closed the book on a remarkable career. The record books show a stunning 40 – yes, FORTY! – Irish gold medals in a range of events from high jump, long jump, triple jump, combined events, heptathlon and an under-17 100m hurdles title for good measure.
Capped 25 times by Ireland, she also won four gold medals in Scottish senior championships and was the silver medallist at the 1993 AAA Championships (British Athletics Championships).
“Outrageously impressive,” was how noted Irish athletics historian and administrator Pierce O’Callaghan described her achievements.
IT all began out of ‘boredom’.
In the summer of 1983, Sharon Foley first made her way from the Coneyburrow to Lifford Athletics Club.
“There wasn’t a lot of things for all young people, not just young girls, to do,” she says.
“Ben always encouraged everyone to try everything. His big thing was to try it all so I did hurdles, long jump, high jump.
“Ben encouraged kids to be multi-skilled and not to centre too soon. That is something I still believe You can get into nitty-gritty later in life, but at 11 you don’t have to hone in specifically. You can become a thrower, a jumper, a runner or whatever later on.
“I was down at the track three or four night a week training so between that and my school work i had no time for anything else. Athletics was my attention and I worked hard at it.”
Within six years, she rose to prominence and a place at the 1989 European Junior Championships in Yugoslavia.
A silver medal at the 1984 juvenile championships were an indication of what was possible. In 1985, she was the under-13 long jump champion – her 5.00m attempt was a new national U13 record at the time – and a year later she won indoor and outdoor under-14 long jump titles.
In the early days, she found it difficult to master the high jump.
”I had nearly given up hope that she was ever going to learn it,” O’Donnell recalled in an interview in later years. “But when she did, she made very swift progress.”
The progress was such that she was called up to represent Ireland at senior level in 1988. A quadrangular multi-international competition was her first taste.
“Getting an Irish vest was massive,” she says.
“The coverage was a bit overwhelming at the time. It was big stuff. Nowadays that wouldn’t probably be thought of as much because it’s done more often, but back then I was probably one of the first field athletes to go in a high jump event. There was a lot of coverage at home about it.
“My first time on the senior team was different and it was overwhelming. It gave me a taste of where I wanted to go.
“I might have been odd…but I was driven. I wanted to be the best I could be. I didn’t always follow the flow with friends, going out, going to discos.”
Before the question can be posed, she answers.
“It wasn’t hard at all. It wasn’t. It didn’t interest me. I’m not a drinker, anyway.
“I was competing at the weekend. I trained, I went to bed early and I competed. That instilled in me a discipline. I just did this, this and this. It has disciplined me in life.
“I wouldn’t change it at all.”
FOLEY was competing at the 1989 Europa Cup in Santry when she cleared the bar at 1.82m.
The gasps were audible around Morton Stadium.
A new Donegal record, breaking her previous mark of 1.77m, it was the best leap by an Irish high jumper in nine years and placed her third in that day’s competition, behind Niki Bakoyianni of Greece and Marjon Wijnsma of Netherlands.
More significantly, though, it secured qualification for the 1989 European Junior Championships – which took place just three weeks later in Varaždin.
“I had an injury when it came to competition,” Foley says of her experience in Yugoslavia.
“I hurt a muscle in the back of my leg and I just couldn’t jump properly. It was a good experience and a bad experience. I was patched up when I went to compete, but the experience of being at a major championship was brilliant.”
The gold medallist was Yelena Yelsina, later the gold medallist at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
Foley says: “Just being there, in the stadium, in the call room: That was a real kick start for me. I was just there thinking: ‘This is the life’.”
Raphoe Vocational School – now known as Deele College – wasn’t a breeding ground for elite athletes in the late 80s, but Foley broke a mould. In those days, the highlights were featured on RTÉ and the package in 1989 included an interview with the Lifford teenager.
“Dad (Alan, who also worked as a caretaker in the school) took me to schools competitions and I was the only one going.
“Now, schools are taking a bus load and teachers are promoting schools competitions much more.
“People say that the best competition in Ireland is the Irish Schools Championships and they’re right. The cream of the crop take part and you could have someone talented coming there who doesn’t compete week-to-week. The schools competition is definitely among the best.
“I remember going back as an All-Ireland schools champion and getting an Irish vest, it was big for the school.
“I got a lovely presentation when I was leaving… They maybe saw me as having opened a door.”
A few months after Yugoslavia, she lined up at the 1990 European Indoor Championships at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.
Foley was surrounded again by some future stars. Take the medalists: Heike Redetzky won gold and did likewise at the 1992 Olympic Games; silver medallist Britta Vörös was the 1994 European champion; and Galina Astafei, the bronze medal winner, won silver behind Redetzky in Barcelona at the ’92 Olympics.
She says: “In Glasgow, I remember the opening height was nearly the same as my PB. ‘Sweet Devine, I’ll never do this’, I thought.
“In that moment, there was a panic that I would be a failure. I cleared the opening height and didn’t the next, but that was me on the European stage.”
IN the late 1980s, just as Foley was emerging, a new venture was rolled out among up and coming athletes.
Bord Bainne, under their Kerrygold brand, sponsored a three-year specialised testing and training programme for a squad of 12, including Foley.
The athletes – one of whom was Victor Costello, later an Olympic shot-putter and Irish rugby international – were dubbed ‘the Butter babies’.
“We went to South Africa for six weeks of training and stayed just outside Cape Town,” Foley says. She can still see the images of the shanty towns and feel the piercing heat.
She says: “We were taken and tested in Trinity College on a regular basis and were sent away for warm weather training. That was like the start of elite squads, the beginning of Ireland getting elite athletics squads together.
“You have more time when you’re away from work or study life. The weather was a big factor and we did that in March, April time.
“Clubs now do those trips all the time, but in those years that just didn’t happen. You went away for a week or two to work in the sun and you were back ready to achieve.”
THE headline of the Evening screamed: ‘wonder woman!’.
The 13-year-old Irish high jump record (1.84m) of Bridget Corrigan, set in 1980, was broken on a sodden Sunday at Tullamore in 1993.
Having been a contender for the 1992 Olympic Games, she didn’t make it to Barcelona, but she remained among the leading athletes in the country.
At the BLE Open Sports, Foley jumped 1.85m, just days before her 21st birthday.
“I knew I was in good form that day,” she says.
“But I was kind of thrown off. The competition was called off for a while due to the heavy rain. It was hard to get back up again, that was very hard to do when you were in the zone.”
In the excitement, Sharon was hurried down a corridor. The people of Donegal were about to hear a big bulletin.
“There were no mobile phones, but Patsy McGonagle got a phone box and says: ‘We’ll go live to Highland Radio’,” Foley remembers.
“He rang his report back to Charlie Collins saying: ‘We have great breaking news’ and he told everyone back home about the record. Mammy taped it and she still has it now!
“Patsy was so thrilled and couldn’t wait to get the news back to Donegal. This was the big story and he was telling Charlie how all these people were coming shaking my hand in Tullamore – we were in a corridor in the arena, just me, him, Ben and Daddy!”
At Rotterdam in June 1993, Foley went better again, scaling a 1.88m height at the Europa Cup – bettered only that day by Moldovan Olga Bolşova, who cleared 1.94m.
BEN O’Donnell was, as she says now, ‘everything in one’.
“Ben was a man before his time,” she recalls of the Lifford AC founder.
“I still follow the techniques I used myself when working with Ben.
“I had no strength and conditioning coach, no dietician….You wonder, maybe, had you been more prepared….”
You wonder if, perhaps, that list could have had more.
She says: “Would it have made a difference for me or would training have made me better? I don’t know if I could have jumped higher.
“Things have come on leaps and bounds now and standards have lifted so much.”
O’Donnell could scarcely believe the heights to which she soared, remembering those formative days when the high jump seemed such a chore.
He had a gem, though, that sparkled.
“I just got on with it,” Foley says.
“I never thought much about being a girl competing at those levels. I never got big headed and in sport you don’t know what will happen the next day out. It can be up one day and down the next.
“That’s why staying level-headed is so important. If you win something, you have to close the book and get back to training. That served me well.
“I would win an Irish title on a Sunday and be back at Lifford the next night. You’re only as good as you’re next jump or next race, so you should always stay grounded.
“I gave it 110 per cent all year round and I always held by own.”
Facilities were a world away from what they are now when she was wandering down to The Roughan, but she made the most of it and then some.
“We were weather beaten and hardy,” she says.
“We trained hard. We basically made hay when the sun shone.
“We planned training around the weather. If it was too wet out, we did weights. If the sun was out or it was a good night, we did some work out jumping. The plan was set and dictated by the weather.”
COMING out of the comfort zone served her well.
Foley regularly competed – and medalled in British Championships, while O’Donnell took his troops abroad often.
There were memorable trips to places like Finland, where Foley along with the likes of Michelle Given, Jacqueline Rooney, Isobele Kelly, Maria Burns, John O’Donnell and Roy McGettigan competed.
“Going away, especially to the British Championships was huge as I was mixing with the cream of the crop,” Foley says.
“I got a silver medal at the British Championships, when you could go and compete as an Irish person.
“I would always encourage people to mix with the best. Getting away to competitions in England, Scotland or wherever, that was key.
“Dad and me, we traveled everywhere. That was a key in me stepping up the ladder and taking the chance.
“Ben did that too with John Barry, his son. Not a lot of people did that back then.
“I do it now with the people I coach. Adrienne (her daughter) threw a 54m hammer against the English record holder. Competing at that level pulled the best out of Adrienne and she won an English medal.
“Times are changed now and people are more ‘out there’ to try that. Back then, it wasn’t as available for everyone. I was fortunate that mum and dad did that for me. Competing in all those competitions really set me off.
LAST June, Adrienne Gallen shattered the Irish Schools Championship hammer throw record.
The previous mark, of 54m, set by Jade Williams in 2015, was broken in style as Gallen reached out to 57.24m.
It was the one day Mary Foley ventured to competition. That afternoon in Tullamore, the memories came flooding back.
Liam Moggan knew the mother of the hammer gold medallist and asked her to make the presentation.
“It was a really proud day and a great moment for all of us,” she says.
Adrienne Gallen, a student at St Columba’s College in Stranorlar, is itching to get her own moment in an Irish vest and emulate her mother, now a coach at Lifford-Strabane AC.
She was taken aback as Moggan recognised her, 16 years after her retirement.
Ben O’Donnell’s passing in 1999 hit hard, but she came back – aided by Martin Gallen, who is now her husband – to add further to the medal collection before a hip injury forced her retirement.
The medals are stored in a biscuit box, but they’re treasured deeply – just like all her Irish vests and tracksuits.
“I even have a souvenir t-shirt from the Worlds,” she adds.
“They’ll never go.”
Nor will the memories.Tags: