WHAT precisely is the difference between an amateur and a professional?
Sometimes it’s a lot more complicated than the terms you’ll find flicking through a dictionary.
Around the hours of the day job as Co-ordinator with Lifford Youthreach Programme, Letterkenny 24/7 Triathlon Club’s Aidan Callaghan trains, at peak season, 18 hours – over seven days – a week.
In many ways, the 32-year-old is both an amateur and a professional.
“Time is the real difference, with the professionals getting far more rest,” Callaghan says of the amateur-professional debate. “Say if a pro needs six or seven hours on the bike, then they can get it. I would always be thinking that I would be tired the next day. Recovery is the big thing and that’s what I’ve learned most.
“Maybe if I won the lotto and had no work, I suppose then I could call myself a professional.”
Three years ago, in 2012, Callaghan enjoyed a good year on the triathlon circuit and qualified for the World Championships in London.
“My goal was to go to London and to perform well in my age group,” he says. “I trained flat out all year but I was racing flat out as well.
“I was doing 5ks and things but by the time London came I was useless. I even raced a couple of days before the main race. I tried to race it out of myself but I hadn’t been letting myself recover. There was no time to adapt. But it was something I feel I learned from. When your body is telling you it’s tired then it’s tired.”
This year, whilst training with Adam Speer, Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland winning Strength and Conditioning coach and the proprietor of ‘Speer Performance’ in Newmills, Letterkenny, Callaghan is coached by Tommy Evans of Triathlon Ireland, who also trains Team Sky’s Philip Deignan, who is also from Letterkenny.
Letterkenny 24/7’s Aidan Callaghan at the National Half Ironman Championships in Athlone in July. Photo: Ken Murphy
Almost every day begins with an early morning rise at 6am and Callaghan will have his core session with Speer and his swimming at the Aura Centre done before scooting to Lifford for 8:45am and the day’s work. Then, having been at home for 5pm, Callaghan will spend two hours every evening training, either running, on the bike or both.
With a plan to be adhered to, most of his training is done alone.
On Monday and Wednesday evenings he takes Letterkenny 24/7’s young members for swimming classes, either in the Aura Centre or at Gartan Lake.
“It’s all go but I really do enjoy it,” Callaghan adds. “You’d have to really. You have to like it and be committed. There’s no point in being half-assed. It consumes everything you do – your diet, your holidays, your social life, your budget – when you’re competing there’s race entry fees, food, maybe a hotel and diesel. When you break it down, you’re trying to be the professional.”
Callaghan, who lives with his girlfriend Catherine in Whitethorn Grove in Letterkenny, grew up as the eldest of three sons of Christy and Maeve in Hawthorn Heights. He spent his childhood playing soccer and Gaelic football, whilst swimming in the mornings at the old Letterkenny Leisure Centre with Swilly Seals.
“You’d always see the Jennings girls – Sinead, Caitriona and Deirdre – cycling around with their father Mick and I wondered would I be any good at that,” he says of his childhood neighbours.
Sinead, a talented athlete in a number of disciplines, is a world champion rower having won the Lightweight Women’s Single Sculls in the World Rowing Championships in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 2001 and Caitriona was a 2012 Olympian in the women’s marathon.
A part of the St Eunan’s College MacLarnon Cup winning side of 2000 along with All-Ireland winners Rory Kavanagh, Colm McFadden and Neil Gallagher, Callaghan studied Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Bolton and went onto complete the PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education).
Having began in Lifford in 2007, he made a handful of appearances for St Eunan’s seniors and helped the O’Donnell Park club to the 2009 Senior Reserve Championship, while playing for Lagan Harps in the Donegal League.
“After two years I was picking up little injuries like the groin and that and it was then the triathlon club started in town,” he adds.
“Triathlon was something I was always interested in – since I was a youngster – but never had the opportunity. I had heard that the likes of Sinead Jennings for years going away doing triathlons and I thought I might be good at it. I was a good enough swimmer, did plenty of cross-countries and things like that.
“So when the triathlon club started in Letterkenny, I decided to take a year off football and let my groin heal – it was 2009/10 – and haven’t gone back to football. Gavin Crawford, Sean McFadden, Margaret and Pauric Kelly, Paul McIntyre and Adam Speer set up the club and they’re all at a pretty decent standard. It’s just developed since then; we’ve nearly 140 members now.”
Callaghan is indebted to his current sponsors – Anna Good’s Wholegreen Juice Company, Ramelton, for his juices and gels; Adam Speer, for gym facilities and strength and conditioning work at Speer Performance in Newmills; Graham Parker from Probike fit, bike fittings; Michael Murphy Sports for trainers and gear; LK Bikes for a specialised time-trial bike.
Aidan Callaghan. Photo: Martin Jancek
These sponsors have helped Callaghan make a whirlwind start to 2015.
Last season too, was commendable, although there were a couple of lingering regrets. Going into the final race of the Vodafone National Series in September at Blacksod in Belmullet, Co Mayo, Callaghan knew winning the race would mean a top three finish to the campaign overall.
He came second on the day behind Chris Mintern and missed out on the podium having ended up in fourth place for the year.
“ I was annoyed as I put in a big effort,” Callaghan says. “It’s a complicated points system where it’s calculated not only on where you come but also on the distance you finish compared to first place.
“It’s not really that fair as sometimes coming third in a race with a lot of people was more important than winning a race of better standard but with less in it. I missed out on third in the country by two or three points, which wasn’t much.”
After a couple of weeks break in autumn, Callaghan began his preparations on the dark mornings and short evenings. The Super Series, in its first year in existence, is a more flat-lined competition, exclusively for the top 50 in Ireland.
The only bonus points on offer are for the National Olympic and National Sprint Championship, which form the climax of the season. From the six races – three over Sprint Distance (750m swim, 20km cycle, 5km run) and three over Olympic Distance (1,500m swim, 40km cycle, 10km run) – competitors count their best four, two from each category.
Callaghan toed the line of the opening event of the series, the TriAthy Sprint in Athy, Co Kildare, in late May.
“It was my first race of the season and I wasn’t expecting a lot,” he says.
The nature of triathlons means that as the entrants wait, wet-suitted, on the gun to start their swim, they draw a line in their mind – like a golfer might do as he stands over a putt – as to plot the most suitable way to the markers out in the water.
“I’d a bad start,” Callaghan says. “I got pushed under the water. Last year, I could’ve gone to a race where I knew, for example, that nobody else would’ve been able to keep with me in the water. I could be out in front on my own. This year, with the top 50 of the same standard there’s a big dog fight at the start.
“There’s loads of elbows and heads and arms. At the start of the race I wasn’t prepared for that and got dragged under. It does take your breath away. You do stop and have to settle yourself a bit and choke or cough. Then you’re thinking about it for the next 10 or 20 seconds because your heart-rate goes up.
“Even when you come up there’s people all over the place. There’s people coming from behind and they’re just trying to get on so will pull your leg or you’ll get it in the head. It’s just to get you out of the way.
“The melee came as everyone wanted the same space and you can only really fit five or six at a time. So when there’s five or six spaces with 30 or 40 boys then it’s not going to work out!”
For Callaghan, though, it did work out. He finished third to get his season off to the right start.
Callaghan sat out the second event of the season – Hell of the West in Kilkee, Co Clare – in June to concentrate on the the National Half Ironman Championships in Athlone, the TriAthlone. Ironman is something that has been tickling his fancy but for this year, it was a once off.
“That’s it shelved now,” Callaghan adds. “But it was my best race since I started and everything just came together.”
Third overall, second Irishman and top amateur. Callaghan joined Kevin Thorton from Galway, last year’s European amateur champion before turning professional, and Scotland’s Fraser Cartmell on the podium after the 19km swim, 90km cycle and half-marathon.
Back at the bread and butter of the Super Series, Callaghan then won the Sligo Tri Club Triathlon in July.
“It was great to get the first Super Series win under my belt,” he says. “I’d done a lot of hard work in training and it was good to see the rewards; breaking two hours on a hard and technical course was rewarding.”
Aidan Callaghan, centre, following his victory in the Sligo Tri Club Triathlon in July
Then, last Saturday, the Lough Neagh Sprint Triathlon in Ballyronan, Co Derry. It wasn’t Callaghan’s best race of the season but he finished fourth. It was one of those should’ve done better, could’ve done worse sort of days.
He was in fifth place following the swim and made inroads on the cycle, moving up to third before coming off the bicycle five kilometres from the finish. Having lost just under a minute and with a few scratches with no major injury, Callaghan recovered to see out the cycle and produce a good run.
“Ballyronan was different affair to Sligo as I felt tired and larthargic all week,” he adds. “So was going in the hope of racing that out of system. I’d a poor swim, started to get going on the bike then had the fall and had a very good run. Overall, I was happy-ish with fourth but I should have done better.”
This Sunday, the Vodafone Dublin City Triathlon, which doubles as the Olympic Length National Championships, takes place in the capital. It’s a huge event in general, just as it’s a huge event for Callaghan. In terms of the Super Series, there’s bonus points on offer, just as there will be at the seasonal climax at the Pulse Port Beach Triathlon – the National Championships over Sprint Length – which take place in Clougherhead, Co Louth, on September 26.
“This weekend will be totally new,” Callaghan says. “There’s going to be a lot of Irish and English internationals on the start line so it’ll be good to mix it with them and see how I perform. It will be all about getting onto a good group on the bike after the swim and then the run will be the key.”
Aidan Callaghan is certainly an amateur and indeed professional in certain aspects of the words. He has a lot coming up but he can approach the coming weeks in confidence knowing that he’s put a lot in.