Oct. 29, 2008
By Larry Watts
Two years ago, Ciaran O'Lionaird was ready to pack his bags and head back to his home in Cork, Ireland. The three-time Irish national cross country champion was so frustrated that he was seriously thinking about ending his running career.
Now the University of Michigan junior is focused on leading the Wolverines to their first Big Ten title since 1998, ending Wisconsin's nine-year reign, when they host the championship this Sunday at the University of Michigan Golf Course.
"That freshman year was a big adjustment for me," says O'Lionaird, who is a sophomore in eligibility. "(In Ireland) I was used to cruising through all my races. I didn't have to push myself until I ran into the elite runners, which was very often. They just don't have the depth of elite runners in Ireland like they do here.
"I didn't know how much harder it was going to be at Michigan until I came out for my first day of practice. I was used to running 30-40 miles per week because my high school coach understood how good I was and didn't want to push me any harder. I came out here and these guys were already running 80, 90 and 100 miles a week."
Two months before his arrival in Ann Arbor, O'Lionaird suffered a herniated disc in his back. Instead of taking the proper time to heal and not wanting to back down from his new challenge, he threw himself right into the thick of the workouts. He wound up suffering injuries to his groin and abdomen, effectively ending any chance to competing for the Wolverines as a freshman.
"I wanted to prove myself to the other runners and run the same distances," he says. "I simply ran myself into the ground by being too eager."
It took a long talk with veteran head coach Ron Warhurst to get O'Lionaird back on track mentally.
"He had lost a lot of confidence," Warhurst says of O'Lionaird's initiation. "He was so good, but he had never stiff competition on a regular basis and all his peers were used to the training and demands of running at this level.
"Irish runners have a tradition of being thin and frail. I think he was shocked at not being the No. 1 runner here. Then he got his butt handed to him right away and he struggled with that."
"Coach Ron told me he believed in me and that I had all the tools and potential to be a great runner. All I had to do was get myself back together, both mentally and physically. I'm now thinking long term in my Michigan career. In three years I hope to be competing for the NCAA championship."
O'Lionaird bounced back as a redshirt freshman to qualify for the NCAA Championships. He ran a season-best 24:09.30 during the Pre-Nationals. But his second season in track got derailed when he contacted a virus and was hospitalized just before the Big Ten Indoor Championships.
"The best thing about that illness is now I have sophomore eligibility all year round," he says.
Had it not been for O'Lionaird's persistence, he would probably be competing for Florida State.
"Traditionally, most Irish students head to East Coast schools, like Providence or Villanova," O'Lionaird says. "I knew Michigan had some outstanding runners, so I sent a couple of e-mails to Coach Ron, but he took a long time getting back to me. So I committed to Florida State."
"Recruiting a kid sight unseen is pretty difficult," Warhurst said. "You're a little skeptical when someone sends you e-mails. You don't know if the guy really has one foot faster than the other. But it has really worked out well and he's such an outstanding student (3.5-3.6 GPA as an English major)."
"When Coach Ron finally got back to me with an offer, I immediately contacted Florida State and informed them of my decision," O'Lionaird says. "Fortunately, they were very understanding."
"Those guys at Florida State sent him a postcard with a bunch of bikini-clad girls at a beach on the front," Warhurst says with a laugh. "On the back, they wrote, 'Do they have this at Michigan?"'
"I met Coach Ron when I came to the United States for the first time to compete in the Boston Indoor Games," O'Lionaird said. "He had some runners competing in the meet and he really sold me on the Michigan program and what it was all about. That meeting really reinforced my decision to come to Michigan."
Having never visited Ann Arbor until he reported for his first season, O'Lionaird soon discovered there were few beaches and a lot of cold weather.
"What you see about the U.S. on TV back in Ireland is a lot of cities with bright lights," O'Lionaird says. "Ann Arbor isn't anything like that, it's more like the European towns I'm used to, except for the cold."
O'Lionaird heads into the Big Ten Championships in his best shape yet. He has been the top Wolverine finisher in three races, clocking a career-best 23:50.6 (10th) at the Pre-Nationals Oct. 18.
"We all know Wisconsin has a real solid program and they have that nice streak going, but we're itching to get after them," O'Lionaird says. "We were the last team to beat Wisconsin (1998) and that meet was on our home course, so it's time to complete that circle. We've all decided the buck stops here for Wisconsin.
"This (Big Ten Championships) has been the focal point of our season, anything we do after this is icing on the cake. I will run the way the team needs me. I'm not about to let the wheels fall off just to stay with the leaders, especially if it is going to hurt my team."
"It's going to be exciting to have the Big Ten meet back here in Ann Arbor," Warhurst says. "The state high school meet is Saturday, so many of those people will stick around for our meet Sunday. We'll probably have around 3,000 fans here."
"The onus is on me to step up with the best. I've never been around a team before and this is such a great atmosphere," O'Lionaird says. "I couldn't ask to be in a better position and I owe that to Coach Ron, not only as a coach, but also as an advisor and a friend."