No Irish athlete had ever before won a heptathlon medal at a major championships. In July, at the European U20 Athletics Championships in Boras, Sweden, everything changed. Kate O’Connor engraved her name into the history books, claiming silver in emphatic style.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” she tells HerSport. ” Going into the Championships I was ranked third and knew that if I gave my best I could do well. It was one of the first competitions I went into with a relaxed mind-set and I just tried to enjoy myself.”
The heptathlon is a sport which essentially involves being world-class in seven different disciplines. On day one of the competition, athletes compete in the hurdles, high-jump, shot put and then the 200m. The next day the long-jump, javelin and the gruelling 800m follow.
“I remember I didn’t have the best opening race in the hurdles,” said the modest 18-year old. O’Connor clocked a decent time of 14.61 seconds but felt she could have done better. In the high-jump, the Dundalk St. Gerard’s athlete cleared the bar with a new lifetime best of 1.81m.
“Going into the high-jump, I wasn’t all that confident because my high-jumping this year wasn’t going great. I managed to pull it out of the bag and get a PB. I surprised myself to be honest and then went on to the shot put and 200 meters where I managed to finish the day off in third-place. This was definitely higher than where I thought I would be at the end of day one”
The European U20 silver medallist has undoubted self-belief and confidence. Throughout the Championships she displayed a perfect distillation of pure athleticism and absolute willpower. Despite her undisputed talent, it is fascinating to see that O’Connor is even stunned by some of her own performances.
“On day two, my long-jump wasn’t anything special but then my javelin was probably something I will never forget – it was just amazing. I’ve actually watched it back quite a few times and I’m still in shock. That was a really special moment.”
It is remarkable to note that O’Connor, who doesn’t specialise in one event, would have actually made it to the final of both the high-jump and javelin in the single events following her performances – putting her amongst the best in her age in Europe. A supremely talented athlete.
Leading up to the Championships, O’Connor broke the Irish Junior U20 javelin record with a throw of 48.98m at the National Junior and U23 Championships. She then followed this up with a new Irish Senior record at the Multistars Event in Italy. A throw of 49.31m was enough to claim the new Irish record and end her coach, Laura Kerr’s, long standing 16-year old record.
“Going into the javelin I was confident because I was throwing around 49 meters quite consistently all year. But then while I was in the waiting room I heard that the event leader, Maria Vincente, had just thrown a new 4 meter PB and I was just thinking to myself, oh goodness this is where I was supposed to make back a few points on her. So I was trying to keep the pressure off myself but knew at the same time I needed to do something special.”
It needed to be special, and it was. The Dundalk teenager threw a new Irish record of 52.92m, which left everyone in the stadium stunned.
“When I threw it I knew it was a good throw. I thought it would be around 49 maybe 50 meters but when it came up that it was almost 53 I wasn’t sure if it was my throw! I was just delighted!”
O’Connor closed out the competition with a gutsy 800m where she clocked 2:16.29 to come home second in the race and second overall. Her point’s tally of 6,093 was a new Irish Senior record, making her the first ever Irish athlete to surpass the illustrious 6,000-point barrier. O’Connor made history.
“To be the first Irish heptathlete to get over 6000 points was another really special moment. The European Championships was definitely the highlight of my career so far.”
Listening to O’Connor speak, you’d be excused for thinking she was a decade older than she actually is. The multi-talented athlete exudes an aura of calm and is very level headed for someone so young. An important influence for this, is the relationship she has with her parents, whom she shares a unique bond.
When O’Connor was just seven years-old, her parents brought her down to the St. Gerard’s Athletics Club where she ran around the field. O’Connor’s father took training where he coached herself and Gina Akpe-Moses. Twelve years on, O’Connor is still being coached by her Dad, now with the help of Laura Kerr, Tom Reynolds and by their side.
“Without my Dad I really wouldn’t be where I am today. He brings me to training and gym sessions and honestly my events wouldn’t be at the level they are at without him.”
The pair share a great bond and their relationship gives them a unique edge over their competition. “He definitely doesn’t go easy on me and maybe because he’s my Dad he can push me harder than someone else. It’s great having him in my corner, he knows when I am physically or mentally tired and when to ease off or increase different loads.”
Alongside her extraordinary sporting achievements in 2019, O’Connor had the daunting task of balancing her training with sitting the Leaving Cert. Competing internationally at such an elite level could have had damaging effects on her studies, but O’Connor made it work. As difficult as that was, O’Connor was prepared to make the sacrifices demanded by greatness – or demanded by her own unwavering pursuit of her goals and dreams.
“In fifth-year I found it quite challenging especially with the Commonwealth Games in Australia. I also missed a lot of school in sixth-year and found it quite difficult but we ran a tight ship. I managed to stay strict and disciplined getting into a routing where I would have two hour training sessions followed by homework and studying. In the end all the hard-work paid off as I did a good Leaving Cert and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
O’Connor, as naturally gifted as she is, doesn’t shy away from hard-work. Her endeavours at the European Championships were reward for her relentless work-ethic behind closed doors. Training five times a week, combining strength and conditioning work with technique drills for multiple events can be difficult but O’Connor is driven by her dream to reach the highest level.
The former St. Vincent’s Secondary School student had initially agreed to take up a scholarship with the University of Texas but has decided to stay closer to home, where she will train in Sheffield with Toni Minichiello. Minichiello worked with Jessica Ennis from the age of 13 years-old and was by her side as she became an Olympic gold medallist. This is an exciting opportunity for O’Connor who was inspired by Ennis when she won gold in London.
After a well-earned break, training for the new season begins with new goals and targets. “Over the next year I’d love to go the European Senior Championships. I want to keep improving and get onto the podium more. In terms of the Olympics I think there is a slight chance for Tokyo 2020 but I think 2024 is more realistic.”
“The Olympics is on every athletes mind. It’s always been my dream, ever since Jess Ennis won the Olympics in 2012. I want to get there and hopefully medal. I know it’s quite ambitious but if you don’t believe you can you won’t. So I have every belief that if I keep working hard it can happen.”