Moving across the world to become a student athlete can be intimidating. For Dublin native Síofra Cléirigh Büttner, however, choosing to attend school in the United States was an unquestionable decision. She wanted to improve more as a track and field athlete, challenged by tougher competition and training in superb facilities. After graduating from Villanova University in 2018, she joined the Team New Balance Boston and is now running as a professional athlete.
Before her collegiate running career, Büttner was undefeated in secondary school where she won six straight cross-country titles while running for Colaiste Iosagain. This was the first time in all of Irish School cross country history, that an athlete had claimed six straight titles out of a possible six.
In April 2014, she visited Villanova University to decide if it was the right fit for her to continue her training. It wasn’t until June 2014 that she accepted the school’s offer, which gave her two months before she had to move to America.
“I did not have much time to think,” she said
Büttner’s choice to attend Villanova University was heavily influenced by the university’s Irish traditions. In 1842, it was founded by Irish Augustinians as a school for Irish immigrants. There have been many athletes from Ireland who have been a part of the track team, including Sonia O’Sullivan, Ron Delaney and Marcus O’Sullivan who is the head coach of the men’s track and field team. This tradition made the school jump to the top of her list.
Although it was a quick decision, Büttner arrived at the school with excitement and was impressed by the new team she would be a part of for the next four years.
“I remember when I got there, it was really cool to have such a big team, because that is not as big of a culture back in Ireland,” she said.
Training at the college was not very different from what she was used to at home. At Villanova, the team trained six days a week, sometimes with double training sessions in a day. She found she increased her mileage slowly. Regardless of the similar training philosophies, she believes she got stronger in terms of her aerobic fitness. Büttner said her greatest challenge was having to balance academics, athletics, and a social life, but she was fortunate to have had a good relationship with her teammates.
“I think a lot of athletes struggle because they think they can’t have a social life. But at Villanova, the greatest thing was that the student athletes had really good social interactions,” she said, ”All of the student athletes were very friendly.”
Becoming a professional athlete was always in the back of Büttner’s mind, but didn’t become a passion until her senior year of college. She believes she reached the professional level because of the many role models she had on Villanova’s team. The older athletes trained hard, complained little, and embodied healthy competition, she said, which inspired her to keep a positive attitude and learn how to be a better teammate.
After graduating in 2018 with a BA in Communications, Büttner decided she wanted to stay in America because she liked the athletic culture, the higher level of competition, and how challenged she felt with running. She continued to train on her own while searching for a group to join. This was not an easy task once she left the safe harbour of university athletics.
“It’s very difficult for internationals to stay in the U.S. and join a group. A lot of the U.S.-based groups want to promote, help, and sign the U.S. athletes,” she said.
Büttner spent eight months searching for a team to join. She was messaging different coaches and groups for opportunities and faced a lot of rejection. But she continued to train and pursue her dream. In 2019, she was competing in an Indoor competition in Boston when she ran into Katrina Coogan, who was a former competitor from university. Coogan told her to reach out to her dad who was the coach of Team New Balance Boston. After a few months, Büttner had a contract and began her training with the elite track team in August 2019.
“We (the team) have a really good culture and we all get along well and accept each other for who we are,” she said.
The team meets every weekday with coach Marc Coogan and trains with a mixture of running and strength work. Practice starts between 9 and 10 a.m. each morning, sometimes with a second running session later in the day. They have a few team workouts each week and usually lift after running sessions.
In the future, Büttner hopes to make it to the Olympics and break the Irish record in the 800m.
“In 2016 I missed the Olympics by less than a half second, so that was a punch in the gut, but it has always been a dream. Coming so close in 2016, I really wanted to make the 2020 games. With the hiccup this year, it is still in my plans for next year,” she said.
Since coming to America, Büttner has had nothing but good experiences. She strongly believes that athletes should try to pursue a professional career in their sport as long as it is realistic. If it does not work out, there will always be something waiting for them to do after.
“You can always be going to school and prepare for your job after, but while you are young, try to pursue it,” she says.
As an Irish athlete, the decision to continue her training in America was challenging. Büttner fought hard and took risks to make it to the professional level. Her perseverance helped her advance from Villanova University to Team New Balance Boston and she continues to impress the competition in America.
“I want to keep improving, running faster,” she said, “and leave a mark on the sport.”