Chris O'Donnell Picture: Sportsfile
Grange in Co Sligo are doubly represented at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics with 400m runner Chris O'Donnell part of the Ireland 4x400m mixed squad.
O'Donnell was a late developer in athletics, spending much of his younger days on soccer fields. His connection to Donegal is similar to the other Grange Olympian, Mona McSharry, and is through his second-level eduation.
He went to Magh Ene College in Bundoran where he sat his leaving cert before then continuing his education at Loughborough University in England.
His early sporting career was mostly soccer, playing for Benbulben FC as a speedy winger, who would make the Sligo/Leitrim Kennedy Cup team in 2012.
O'Donnell would have represented Magh Ene in a small number of athletics events but was never attached to any of the predominant Gaelic teams at the school.
A former pupil of the school from the same year, Shane Carr, says there was great excitement when they heard the news that Chris would be part of the Ireland Olympic team.
"Chris definitely wasn't Gaelic orientated, he was a soccer man through and through plus athletics. He would have played underage soccer for Sligo/Leitrim. I think as he got further on through school he was focussed solely on the athletics.
"He was very intelligent but by the time he got to fifth year and leaving cert he was very focussed on the athletics. We would have played football at break time and as much as he would have liked to play, he would have had to restrain himself, because he couldn't afford to get injured," said Carr, who remembers that O'Donnell was nominated for a Donegal Sports Star Award around the same time that current county senior player, Jamie Brennan, was also nominated. Brennan was a few years ahead of O'Donnell in Magh Ene.
Asked if he thought back then that there was an Olympian in their midst, Carr replied: "Probably not. But Chris was very intelligent and was very focussed on his athletics. I knew he went to Loughborough but Olympian, you wouldn't have thought.
"It obviously showed that he knuckled down after that because a year or two after school he began breaking records. But when we heard he had qualified, you were taken aback. But fair play to him, it's a huge achievement and it's nice to have the connection through Magh Ene," said Carr.
Like all sports people who succeed, O'Donnell was prepared to put in the hard hours, which included making a conscious decision in his early teens to avoid nightclubs and alcohol.
With soccer his first love, he says he was encouraged to join the local athletics club, North Sligo AC with the aim of getting faster for his soccer games. But it became clear pretty quickly that athletics and sprinting in particular was his forte.
It was around the age of 16 that he had to make a decision and he decided to give athletics one year, and the rest is history.
Chris will take his place alongside Phil Healy, Sharlene Mawdsley and Thomas Barr and is the perfect example of the late developer in sport. O'Donnell in a recent interview, had words of advice for any young sportsperson. “Stick at it, because you don’t know when your time will come and don’t be too disheartened if you’re not winning races by a mile when you’re 12 years old. You don’t have to. It’s more for fun at that stage. Your time will come if you keep working.”
Like all Olympians, he says it's a dream come true and he is thankful to the support he has received locally. And when he takes to the track in Tokyo, there will be fingers crossed in south Donegal and north Sligo.
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