Shaun Gallagher on the Diamond in Donegal town. Pic: Thomas Gallagher
On Wednesday, Drimarone man, Shaun Gallagher, left home for Delhi in India where he will, this weekend, judge at the Indian Walking Championships.
A short hop from Dublin Airport to London Heathrow and then an 8-hour flight with Air India to Delhi. And once he touches down, he will be into business-mode right away, conducting a seminar and exam for local race walking judges.
It will be his first assignment as a race walk judge outside of the continent of Europe, but it is all in a weekend's work for the much travelled official, who has risen in the ranks to almost the elite level in the space of four of five years.
Always a keen sportsman, but mostly as a footballer with St. Naul's and Letterbarrow, an interest in race walking came about after his cousin, Pearse O'Callaghan, represented Ireland.
Shaun had a passing interest in athletics and ran the odd 5k or 10k, mostly for fun, but then got involved with Killybegs AC.
"I would have been more into the football when I was younger. But I did get involved a little in athletics with Eamon Harvey in Donegal Town, doing cross-country and that," said Shaun.
Indeed, it seems as if everything about his present role has just progressed at an exceptionally fast pace, from topping his class in Ireland to doing the same at European level.
"The judging of race walking just happened and I just progressed then, firstly through Level 1 in Ireland, I think it was five or six years ago.
"So I'm judging walking and all events really. I would be a NTO (National Technical Official) in Ireland as well, which could see me in at the deep end of any event.
"But I always followed race walking and I would have good friends in the sport. I would know Robbie Heffernan well, and I used to follow them about, 10, 15 years ago. I used to travel about a bit and see them competing. I just decided then when Athletics Ireland were doing Level 1 exams, which is national level. So I passed those exams, coming first in the class.
"Then three or four years ago, the European exams were on offer, so I was put forward with two others from Ireland, one of them Ray Flynn from Sligo. Ireland were hosting the exams at the time in Athlone.
"I came second in that exam which means that I had passed Level 2, which covers your continent, Europe.
"There is another step you can go, Level 3, but that is IAAF standard. There are exams up for that in the next year or two," said Shaun, who is hopeful of reaching that level. "It is up to Athletics Ireland if they put me forward for that Level 3 exam."
At the moment Shaun is one of four European qualified judges. Susanna Costin (living in Ring, Co. Waterford, wife of former walker Jamie), Ray Flynn and himself are Level 2 qualified while his cousin, Pearse O'Callaghan is Level 3 qualified.
Most people would be unaware, especially in Donegal, that there are race walking events almost every weekend throughout the year, with indoor events at the moment, which are mostly nowadays held at the Indoor arena at Athlone IT, although the new facility at Abbotstown, opened recently, will share the load.
The outdoor walking season events are usually hosted by Santry in Dublin and Tullamore.
"You could be away most weekends and I'm lucky that I have a understanding wife, who allows me to go away and do this judging role," said Shaun, who said he is looking forward to seeing the new facility at Abbotstown.
"The outdoor season starts around May, which goes on to September and then you would have cross-country kicking in.”
Asked what are the qualities necessary to be a competent race walking judge, Shaun said: "You need to have a good eye and good concentration and, importantly, good sportsmanship. We're out to assist the walkers; we're not out to disqualify. You're like a soccer referee or a Gaelic referee; you give a yellow paddle (card) first and if you're not happy the next time, you give a red card. But once you give a red card, that person is out of the race in my eyes, but it takes three different judges from three different countries at European level to disqualify a walker. In Ireland, it just takes three different judges.
"In most events there could be 6-8 judges and then you have a Chief Judge, like a main referee. It is usually a 1k or 2k loop, so on a 20k loop, they could pass me 10 or 20 times.
"There can be sometimes over 100 people in a race and it can be very difficult when they are in packs. But usually as the races progress, it stretches out," said Shaun, who agrees that the spotlight will probably fall on the top ten in the closing stages of any race.
"On a 50k walk, you are going to get fatigue, you are coming up on 32 miles. And we have to do our job. If there is a good walker coming behind and they are doing it correctly, you have to be fair.
"You don't want to cheat anyone out of a position," said Shaun, who explained that there are two yellow card offences, one for lifting (you have to have one foot on the ground at all times) and bent knee (knee has to be straight from first contact with the ground until it passes your body). There are two different types of cards for the offences, which are shown to the competitors," he said
Shaun had a very enjoyable football career prior to taking up his new sporting role. "I played up to my late 20s with St. Naul's. I never really played much senior, but all up through underage and reserves and thirds. I played with Letterbarrow throughout that time and I would still be playing for Letterbarrow but I turn off the 'phone on Sundays," he quipped, although quickly adding that they are going well enough at the moment.
"I played for Letterbarrow regularly until about two years ago. I was always involved in sport and I took part in the charity cycle from Dublin to Letterbarrow last year, a great event organised by Fergus McGroary.
"We run a darts competition every year in Drimarone for charity and I'm presently involved in the Scór ballad group representing St. Naul's."
Indeed, Shaun and his group were successful at the semi-final stage of Scór on Friday night last in the Bluestack Centre, Drimarone and he will be back in time for the Co. final.
When put to him that he could have made a career on the stage as a singer, he said he's happy enough with the day job as a plumber with his brother-in-law, Frankie Greene.
"Frankie is good too, because I can get time off when needed. Thank God Frankie would be good that way too," said Shaun.
Shaun is not fully aware of how he got the call for this weekend's assignment, but judging by the list below, travelling to other countries does not faze him: "I'm not sure how I was drawn to go to the Indian Walk Championship. It may be down to the fact that I finished high in the European exam. It was fantastic to get it. It will be my first time out of Europe.
"I have been to a lot of countries in Europe, to Russia a few times, Poland, Portugal, Czech Republic, France and Germany once or twice. On the shorter trips you would normally head away on a Friday afternoon and the races would be on a Saturday and Sunday.
"My first ever international assignment was in Baku, Azerbaijan for the European Olympic trials.
"In India we are actually giving a lecture to the local race walking judges as part of the trip. There is a seminar beforehand and there will be an exam for them so I will be taking part in that. It is all something new for me," he said.
His rise in the ranks as a walk judge, however, is just phenomenal. "I would be a dedicated kind of person. Once I put my mind to something, I would give it 100%. Thank God Athletics Ireland were good enough to put me forward."
Shaun is one of a select group, especially in Europe, as he explains: "When I did my first exam in Ireland in 2011 there 30 qualified from that class. So you would have 30 in Ireland and you would have a pool of 25 in Europe," said Shaun, who agreed it was a small number.
"Yeah, you could get called a lot, if you had enough free time. We're so lucky that English is the language used, which makes it much more difficult for judges from Eastern Europe in particular to pass the exams.
"It is a very technical event, but Ireland has been very successful in the recent past. Indeed, since Sonia O'Sullivan being successful for Ireland, we've had Gillian O'Sullivan, Robbie Heffernan, Olive Loughnane winning medals. So in fairness, the coaching of walking must be good in Ireland, which is good for me being involved in the sport that there are so many high profile people there.
"I was actually in Moscow when Robbie Heffernan won the gold at the World Championships. We had a great night that night. I was there as a spectator. I went out for five or six days on holidays.
"Hopefully, I will get to London this summer, too, to cheer on Robbie in the World Championships," said Shaun.
"The cut-off point for judging is 60, so I have plenty of years left yet. There are exams for the Level 3 in 2018, but I have re-sit my exams next year to keep on the European panel. I think the venue hasn't been picked. There are rumours that we will have to go Athens. I'll worry about them when they are decided."
TIME ON HIS SIDE
At 36-years of age, Shaun has plenty of time to work on getting to that top grade, Level 3. But the moment he is enjoying every minute of it.
"Thank God, I enjoy it," said Shaun.
"I enjoy over in Finn Valley as well. There is a great club there with Patsy McGonagle and they have great facilities," added Shaun, who said he doesn't coach walking, but he is happy to give advice to walkers.
"I find that better because coaching is a whole different world. In fairness the Finn Valley club is well run with a large number of volunteers."
After this weekend, there is a busy diary for Shaun. Wife, Amanda and two-year-old son, Eoghan, will await his return from India and there is another addition to the family due before the end of March.
Apart from the race walking diary in Ireland, Shaun will be in Poland from 13-19 July to judge at the European U-23 Race Walking Championships.
Don't bet against him being the first Drimarone man to judge at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
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