AS KELLY McGrory stepped onto the track at Dinamo Stadium on Tuesday, there was a sense of fulfilment.
From Chris McNulty in Minsk
McGrory hasn’t had it easy and been hurt by a wretched injury list, but Tuesday was different.
The Laghey woman waited an age for the moment.
It arrived in Minsk at the 2019 European Games, the Flame of Peace burning its illuminating presence high in the stands of Dinamo Stadium.
“I’d worn an Irish vest in small meets, but this was my first proper time running for Ireland,” the 22-year-old says.
It was a memorable run for other reasons, too.
Ireland didn’t manage to qualify for the Dynamic New Athletics (DNA) semi-finals, but the 4x400m mixed relay performance was the highlight.
Of the nine disciplines, they were the only athletes in green to claim a win. Their win came via a new national record of 3:24.14.
“We knew going into it that we had a strong team and that we could do well,” McGrory says.
“You just never know for certain, but we were obviously delighted.
“We’d have loved another day out. We were disappointed not to make it through, but it was still a positive performance.”
Andrew Mellon and Sinead Denny ran the first two legs for Ireland, while Luke Lennon-Ford took them across the line.
In between, McGrory ran the third leg in 54.4 seconds.
She says: “There was pressure on. The first two guys were so quick out of there.
“We were sitting in first when Sinead passed to me. Instinct kicks in and you don’t really have time to register the pressure, but when I was put in the inside lane I knew that I had a job to do.
“It was just like: ‘Don’t mess this up!’ It does go through your head, the position and the pressure, but a lot of race tactics just take over then.
“Pressure takes a back seat when you take the baton.
“I was delighted with my own run. Tactically, I wasn’t planning to go out so fast.
“I had to take it out hard. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to hold on. That did cross my mind. I felt it coming up the home straight and passing the baton to Luke.”
Initially named as a reserve, McGrory was unsure until Monday if her moment would arrive.
The Irish coaches – including Finn Valley AC’s Dermot McGranaghan – went for a change of the guard.
McGrory was in.
She says: “With the nature of the game, they did say that it was likely that they’d use the reserves.
“They had rounds to go through to get to the quarter-finals. I was just delighted to get the call to run in the 4x400m relay.
“It would still have been a brilliant opportunity, just to be here, but stepping onto the track was just a really good experience. It was something else.”
It is three years now since she was the Irish senior 400m hurdles gold medalist.
Beset by a recurring hamstring problem that dogged her juvenile days before and after 2016 hit hard.
She says: “I’ve had injuries that have kept me out for a season but in the last year I’ve, touch wood, been lucky on the injury front this season.
“Coming up through juveniles, there wasn’t a year where I wasn’t injured. I’m glad that that’s behind me now. I just want to stay injury free now for the rest of the season.
“We had a very young field in 2016. I was lucky to take the win. Coming in the following year, I got injured and going into last year, I was coming off the back of a niggle.”
She won bronze last year, behind Catherine MacManus and Miriam Daly.
There was gold in the U23 400m hurdles, though – the same event she won alongside her senior triumph in 2016.
Although based in Dublin, she retains the affinity with Tir Chonaill AC and long-time coach, Eamonn Harvey.
Having only just graduated with a sports science degree from DCU, she’s unsure as to her next move.
“Balance is the thing,” McGrory notes.
“I’ll never put anything out as the number one. I just try to balance everything and not put the focus completely on any one thing.”
McGrory – who was a shining star for Tir Chonaill and for her school, Abbey VS – favours racing over hurdles.
She says: “In my head, it’s an easier race because I just focus on the next hurdle.
“It’s a more enjoyable race. I actually find the flat 400m harder to run.”
The 2019 Irish seniors are in Santry on July 27 and McGrory has a firm target: lowering the 1:01.23 personal best she set when winning the crown in 2016.
She says: “I want to get a PB for that 400m hurdles. I’ve been holding onto that one for a while now so it’s time to get rid of it.”
The Flame of Peace – cradled in the Olympic Torch from the 1980 Olympics in Mosco – was burning brightly in the Minsk skyline, but McGrory’s own flames are beginning to ignite again.