Shane Healy: From Goldenbridge Orphanage to the Olympic Games — October 2011
HE HAS no medals, no memories of standing on the podium to face the Tricolour.
No ticker-tape parades or open bus tours greeted him when he came back from Atlanta 15 years ago.
To most Irish people, he was an afterthought, if they gave him any thought at all. An also-ran.
But Shane Healy is one of Ireland’s most remarkable Olympians — because few other athletes had to battle so hard against all the odds just to get to the starting line.
He was brought up in Dublin’s Goldenbridge Orphanage, spent months on end sleeping rough and in homeless shelters in Europe and America, hitch-hiked across the US, worked at everything from ‘slave labour’ on cliffs in Gibraltar to a spell as a deckhand on Atlantic crossings, and only took up running at 22 to win a 50 dollar bet.
But Healy had enough natural talent to make a 1500m Olympic semi-final.
He gave up the sport at 1999, but his fifth place finish in the Rathfarnham 5km a couple of weeks ago announced his comeback.
And there is a very good reason why he has returned to athletics at 43.
“I’m unemployed. I started coaching Colin Costello a while back, met up with those boys and that gave me the fever back for running,’’ he said.
“I started back training in April. I was 12 st, 8 lbs. On the scale this morning, I was down to 9 st, 11lbs.
“I started running 40–50 miles a week. After a couple of weeks, I was up to 80 and handling it well.
“I don’t like running for nothing. I want a goal.
“Back in 1995/96, I was chasing the Olympics A standard. That was the goal, what was motivating me.
“Now I have a different goal. To be the first man over 40 to run a four minute mile outdoors. Eamonn Coghlan did it indoors. No other athlete over 40 has done it.
“My aim is to have a go at it next summer. I want to try and do it at the Morton Mile in Santry.
“I’m looking at Crystal Palace as well. It’s every promoter’s dream to have a world record at their meet.
“I have a couple of favours to call in if I don’t do it here.
“But I’d love to do it in front of a home crowd.
“It would be great for Irish athletics — and great for people hitting their 40s to show that they’re not over the hill.”
Healy left school at 13 and, just four years later, he hit the open road.
“I went hitch-hiking through France and Spain and ended up in Gibraltar,’’ he recalled.
“I was working on the catchments — that’s these big fences that are built to stop the rocks from falling off the cliff on to the roads. It was like slave labour.
“I was homeless and living with two guys from Germany and Greece in a disused bomb shelter.
“We were looking down at the marina and all these yachts and I asked someone where they came from.
“He told me they travel all around the Mediterranean and they take on deckhands.
“I was sick of climbing up and down the cliffs with cement buckets so I went from yacht to yacht.
“It was just no, no, no, no. Then, on the fourth day, I went up to this French skipper. He was going ‘you Irish are just a bunch of drunks’.
“I was a Pioneer, took the pledge and have never smoked or drink. I told him this and he gave me a trial on a run to the Canaries for a week.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but I’m a quick learner.
“It went OK and then he said we’re going on a trans-atlantic trip to Guaduloupe. I just went ‘yes!’.
“It was 19 days. Fantastic. The best days of my life. All I had to do was spend a couple of hours looking out for super-tankers in case we got mangled.
“I swam in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Not many people get to do that.
“I worked in the Caribbean for a while, then hit Florida. Hitch-hiked across America. Slept on the side of the road or in fields.
“Then I tried Canada, ended up in Vancouver, didn’t like it so jumped on a plane to Hawaii.
“I was living in homeless shelters there, ended up getting some work waiting tables.
“A guy told me that California has a great collegiate system and that’s how I eventually found myself at Contra Costa Community College.”
It was at Contra Costa that Healy had a chance meeting with track coach Archie Owens that changed his life.
“I was living in a campervan and bumped into him.
“He said to me ‘hey, Irish, you guys are good on the track. I’ll give you 50 bucks if you can run a mile in five minutes’.
“I thought it was three laps to a mile, not four! I’d never ran in my life but, that day, I found the American dream. I found athletics.”
Healy ran that mile in 4.52 in a pair of battered tennis shoes.
“Owens told me that I had natural talent and, that if I ran for the College, he’d pay my grocery bills. So I jumped at it.”
Healy’s progress was rapid and, and he set his sights on a spot at the Atlanta Olympics. Not that his progress to the Games was straightforward.
“I was getting desperate because time was running out for me to get the qualifying mark,’’ he said.
“I was under severe pressure. Ran four games in four different countries in June.
“After all the races and travelling, I was knackered but saw there was a meet on in Madrid and kept ringing the promoter until he agreed to put me on the start-list.
“Eventually he relented. But I was so wrecked that I slept through dinner, slept for 14 hours and I was in bits by the time I got to the track.
“I fell off the pace and could hardly breathe at the half-way mark because of the heat.
“But with 600m to go, I got a second wind. Kept chasing Fermin Cacho Ruiz, the 1992 Olympic champion, to the line.
“I was doing the warm-down and one of the Spanish athletes ran over to me ‘Shane, Shane, you did 3.36.5!’ — a second and a half inside the mark.
“I had the Olympic dream. It was the happiest day of my life.”
Healy adored the Atlanta experience, on and off the track.
“I remember going to the cafeteria in the athletes’ village one morning for breakfast,’’ he said.
“There was no-one sitting at any of the tables and I was wondering what was going on.
“Then I spotted all the athletes lining up to shake hands with Bill Clinton.
“He came to me and I just went ‘sir, can I ask you one thing. What’s happening in Northern Ireland’.
“I’ll never forget his answer. ‘Young man, I’m working on it’.”
Three years later, Healy’s athletics career was over — but his eyes light up as he recounts how he rediscovered the buzz.
“I was disillusioned with the sport when I finished up in ‘99. I’d had a lot of injuries and was fed up,’’ he said.
“I’d completely stopped. Was a bit of a couch potato. I used to mess around doing bit and pieces with classic cars but had no work.
“I needed some kind of goal, and chasing the four minute mile has given me one.
“I can’t afford a physio or a masseuse.
“I massage my own calves when I’m sitting down watching telly at night. I do my best, drink water, keep hydrated.
“It would be great if I could get some sort of sponsorship because I’d love to get away in February for a few weeks’ warm weather training.
“Whatever happens, I’ll give all I have.”