Located in one of the largest cities in America, Georgia State University enrolls thousands of international students a year. Within that pool, only a select few are from Ireland. In 2011, long-distance runner Niamh Kearny was one of three Irish students to attend the school that year. While representing her country in America, she set out to improve at her sport and become more cultured for the four years she was to spend as a student athlete.
Among Kearney’s search for schools, a large city in the United States stood out. She wanted to experience a college that had diversity and was pleasantly surprised to find out that Georgia State University offered a program that followed her career goals. Since she was a teenager, Kearney has been interested in nutrition after taking a few dietetic classes in school. She met a dietician through the sports she was involved in and knew that was the career path she wanted to pursue. GSU offers a Bachelors of Science in Nutrition and she began the program at the start of her freshman year.
Nutrition has a large effect on an athletes performance and Kearney found her degree helped her grow in Athletics. She had basic knowledge entering college, but it wasn’t until she started to take her degree courses and modules that she began to understand nutrition on a deeper level. The program increased interests in her own nutrition plan and she noticed that it helped her performance in races and during workouts.
The food variety in America far exceeded that in Ireland when she attended college in 2011 until 2016. First year students are required to eat in campus dining halls and she thought there was a good balance of healthy and unhealthy food options. What stood out was the unfamiliar foods available and her teammates were amused by her reactions to the American cuisine. Regardless, Kearney believed that the variety helped improve her knowledge of food and its effects on her performance.
“There were some things that I was like I have no idea what this is but I’ll give it a go,” she said.
While visiting the school in March 2011, Kearney met many of her track and field teammates and kept in contact with them through Facebook and email. This made her transition much easier during the first few months of her arrival. Because of the differences in academic calendars in Ireland, she missed training camp and the first two weeks of classes but received a tremendous amount of support from her teammates.
“I arrived with just two suitcases full of clothes. I didn’t have bed sheets or towels,” she said.
The team helped her shop for necessities and made her feel welcome. She said that many of the American girls even invited her over to meet their families to make her feel at home in the new country. Kearney only felt homesick during the first semester until she was able to create a routine and get used to life on her own.
“The first Christmas home is one of the most difficult because you are home and you are back to your usual environment,” she said.
Many of the middle to long distance runners on the track and field team compete with the cross-country team as well, even though they are two separate programs. Kearney focused on 5k and 6k races for the cross-country team while also competing in the 1500-meter and 3k races for the track and field team. She was not used to running as many miles each week in Ireland, and therefore the coaches increased her mileage slowly to help her adapt to the new training style. This helped minimize injuries while still improving her abilities. The team had multiple workout sessions every week and she found that she significantly increased her strength with the programming.
Although Kearney improved slowly over the course of four years, she increased several of her personal best times and said that was all she could have hoped for. She knocked 15 seconds off of her 2500-meter time and over 30 seconds off of her 3k. Having such a supportive training group helped maximize her strengths. Alongside earning new PB’s, Kearney flourished in competitions while running for the school. She set a new school world record for her mile time when she clocked a 4:54:47 at the Indoor Track Southern Miss Cupid Classic in 2014. In 2015 during her last year on the team, she won the Sun Belt Championship in the 3,000-meter steeplechase with a time of 10:43:69.
“It was a great way to end my time there,” she said.
After graduating with a Bachelors of Science in Nutrition, Kearney decided to stay in America an additional year to pursue a masters in nutrition and dietetics. She was not a member of the track and field team at that time and realized how big the team atmosphere and programming was to her success as an athlete. When she returned home to Ireland in 2016, it was difficult to train as much as she was used to in college.
“It was hard to move from such a structured environment to trying to find a group to run with,” she said.
Kearney was self-coached while pursuing her career as a dietician and had to overcome the challenge of transferring her American degree to Ireland. She was not nearly as motivated without a team and structured programming, and wanted to focus on securing a job before jumping back into the sport. When she returned to competition, she said that she was not racing up to the quality and standards of her past. It wasn’t until a year ago that she moved from her family’s home in Greystones to Dublin and joined the Raheny Shamrock Athletic Club. With a mix of sessions with the team and training by herself, she has increased her confidence and enjoyment in running again.
“There was a time when I thought I was finished with running,” she said, “But I am happy now and am enjoying my running.”
In the next few months, Kearney hopes to build her training back up but is not focusing on placing high in competition. She wants to improve on some of her PB’s and just enjoy the process. As with many sports, there is uncertainty in the upcoming season, Kearney will compete in a few races in August if they are still on the calendar.
Moving to a large city in the United States was a bold move for Kearney, but she loved her experience at Georgia State University. For those interested in becoming an international student athlete, she suggests having a backup school in Ireland but says to try to overcome any fears of studying in a different country. She says that America has a greater amount of support and she was happy with how much she improved as an athlete during her time there.
“You are going to be pushed to the best of your ability,” she said.