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Niall Dunne Headshot

How Sport Saved Me

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The first time I dropped out of college was somewhere in the winter months of 1994. I can't remember the exact date. There was no Damascus moment where I woke up and decided college wasn't for me, it just kind of happened over a period of weeks, until the point where my mother would have a series of conversations with me, usually while I was watching Countdown or some other day time TV; her voice over my shoulder said something like, if I didn't want to go to college that was fine, but I needed to at least get a decent job.

The second time I dropped out of college I remember precisely. It was January 2000, I was on scholarship on the MBA program at Colorado State University. I had completed my undergraduate degree at Manhattan College in New York and still had a year of eligibility to use under NCAA guidelines. I had carefully evaluated the top athletic programs in the US and decided Colorado was the place for me to try and pursue what by then had developed into a dream of Olympic greatness.

What happened between those two significant moments in my life could be the subject of much reflection and stories for my grand kids, but can best be described as sport saving me, saving me from myself.

Dublin in the mid-1990s had not yet gone through the great, boom, bust and recovery of the last few years. Unemployment was high, emigration was a fact of life and people simply didn't just drop out of college, if you were given a chance you took it.

Yet as I attended classes at Bolton Street in the center of Dublin, studying architecture, I found myself about to do just that. I felt completely at odds with academia. I had spent the previous ten years of my life in Belvedere College, my high school and throughout my time there was provided with lots of opportunity but lacked the maturity to really embrace the traditional curriculum. I still lacked that maturity as I started college and for the first time felt I actually had a choice in the matter. I chose not to go. Not that I had any reasonable alternative, it just felt like I was beginning to take control of my life.

My conversations with mum led to me working in Shamrock Foods in Deansgrange, packing Whiskas cat food. That was by day. Then at night I would work in the Bank of Ireland in Cabinteely clearing personal cheques, sorting them into their requisite "jogglers", to be cleared and processed by their own banks. This would typically go from 10pm until 2am.

In the same way I renounced academia in the way it was being served to me I also over the next year pledged not to let this be the sum total of my life.

In the morning before I would go to work in Shamrock Foods I would run. Mostly to clear my head and feel normal but also to explore fully how I had managed to finish 2nd in the Irish National Schools Championships over 400 meter hurdles off very little except rugby training.

Gradually my running became more planned, more thought through. With the help of many volunteers and coaches, mostly associated with Crusaders Athletics Club in Dublin I learned to develop as an athlete. Without the help of these people, I would never have discovered my potential. To this day I feel that everything I do is on their shoulders. Phil Conway, John O'Connor, Larry Ryder, I could never possibly repay you!

On the back of the voluntary efforts of these men, something unusual happened. I started to win races in the UK and in Ireland. Not long after that the phone started to ring, with coaches from places I'd only ever heard of talking to me about scholarship opportunities. No one in my family had lived in America before, yet understood the US collegiate system, so it was all a bit of a mystery.

Phil, Larry and John helped me decipher what was being offered and in January 1995, I arrived in John F. Kennedy airport after deciding that Manhattan College had stronger understanding of Irish culture and our biomechanics was therefore less likely to reject me when my first injury hit.

True to this, my freshman and sophomore years were mostly spent injured and recovering from injuries. That was until I met another person who volunteered their time to me, Doctor Tom Spiridellis. Tom was an amazing physiotherapist who worked to repair a stress fracture to the neck of my femur which I'd developed while running on the indoor tracks on the east coast of the US. This was a familiar injury for Tom as he saw it a lot with the dancers he worked on from the Broadway shows. I couldn't afford to pay him so Tom worked on me for free in the evenings when the last of his patients went home.

After a few months under Dr. Spiridellis's care, I recovered to start the 1998 indoor season. I was unbeaten over 400, 800 and 1000m until I came up against Johnny Gray from Santa Monica Track Club. Johnny was at this time the fastest American 800m runner ever and I knew would provide me with a test of who I really was.

Johnny pulled me around the 4 laps in Harvard to run the 4th fasted time on the NCAA rankings that weekend. My time of 1:49.08 still has me on the Irish all time indoor list I think.

After graduating from Manhattan College a few months later I moved to Colorado to try and build on this success.

However as the millennium wound to a close none of the evidence that this success was being built on was there. I was slightly chubby, injured and more concerned about going to the right restaurants in Fort Collins and Denver than achieving what by then ambitions of Olympic greatness. So in January, following a lengthy phone call with my lifelong friend Peter Coghlan, I contacted the Dean of the MBA program, told him I wouldn't be completing the MBA course and moved to Atlanta to train full time to try and qualify for the Sydney Olympics.

Not having a proper coach just months before the Olympics was of course a problem. Peter convinced me to pick up the phone and look for help from Sean Kyle. Sean and his wife Maeve have been volunteering their time to hundreds of athletes in Ballymena and Antrim athletic club for decades. I was almost ashamed to ask them for help but they embraced me like a long lost son and helped me get the best out of myself over the next few months.

None of this of course is on my CV, yet it is the colour behind who I really am. These are a chain of events all enabled through sport & the people who have given their time so selflessly to me, which have formed my character and saved me from being someone who never realized their potential in life.

I am still developing as a leader and know this will be a life long journey. However everything I have learned about commitment, dedication, ambition and that sense of fearlessness you only get when you know you have nothing to lose, comes from the athletics track and the people who volunteer their time there, not from the classroom or any other walk of life.

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