Los Angeles 1984 Silver Marathon
World Cross-Country Championships
Glasgow 1978 Gold
Limerick 1979 Gold
Limerick 1979 Silver (team)
Los Angeles 1992 1st.
Dublin 1993 1st.
As he charged into the final stages of the 5000m at Crystal Palace, Olympic gold medalist Steve Ovett began to salute the applauding crowd. He looked to his left and saw a small Irishman alongside him. Mr. Ovett threw him a dismissive glance, accelerated and continued to wave at the crowd. However, just as he raised his arms to break through the ribbon, the Englishman saw the Irishman slip under him to get there first. The crowd exhaled, Mr. Ovett expleted and John Treacy of Villierstown, Co. Waterford, secured perhaps not his most famous win, but certainly one of his most audacious.[i]
The Treacy family has been based in Villierstown for many generations. According to the 1911 Census, John’s grandfather ‘Redmond Tracy’ was born in 1877 and worked as a baker. By the time John’s late father Jack was born in 1916, Redmond had added a general store to the bakery. In his youth, Jack drove a horse and cart around the surrounding parish, delivering bread every morning.
Jack managed to stave off marriage until he was 37 years old. ‘He had a good bachelor hood, you know that sort of a way’, laughs John. He kept fit playing both Gaelic football and rugby at local level but, says John, ‘his real passion was the greyhounds, both racing and coursing … from the time that I was a young lad, I remember my dad walking the dogs. He bred them and he sold them and he’d be looking for new one’s all the time. He’d deal on the phone and seal it with a handshake. They call them “doggy men”!’[ii]
Jack’s wife Gertie O’Brien came from the neighboring village of Aglish where her family had a convenience shop and post office. They had four children – Patricia in 1952, Ray in 1954 and the twins John and Liz in 1957. In 1963, Jack and Gertie closed down the bakery and opened up as a post office come telephone exchange’.
John began to run seriously during his first year at secondary school in Cappoquin. His brother Ray was by then running cross-country for his club in Waterford’s An Rinn Galteacht region. Ray invited John to come along.[iii] ‘We trained on a cattle farm near our house’, recalls John. ‘It was better to be running on grass than on the road. Liz ran with us as well.’
Gladdened by the Treacy’s enthusiasm, Fr. Michael Enright, the club manager, put them in touch with legendary Strawberry Hill physiologist Tom Reilly.[iv] ‘Tom started writing training schedules and posting them to us.’ The schedule was instrumental in helping the youngsters develop into athletes of international renown.
In Waterford, the Treacys were joined by two others, Tony Ryan and Gerry Deegan. ‘We all pushed each other along. One of us would win one day and another the next. It raised the bar and we all became internationals’.
One day, during his last year at school, John passed his bag to Liz and decided to run home from Cappoquin.[v] The journey was normally 5 miles, but John went the long way around, racking up 9 miles a day. ‘That’s how I really got started’, he says. ‘I wanted to see what I could get out of myself’.
Before long, he was winning junior and under-18 Munster and All-Ireland titles in cross country, as well as 1500m and 3000m. His success resulted in his selection for the Irish squad who competed at the 1974 World Junior Cross Country Championships, in which he won Bronze. ‘It was huge surprise to every one, including myself, but it confirmed in my mind that running was what I should do’.
When he got home to Villierstown, the phone began ringing. ‘American coaches, trying to get me go to their university. Jumbo Elliot from Villanova even visited me at home. That was probably one of the few recruitments trips he ever made!’
But Bob Amato from Providence College, Rhode Island, was the coach who ‘did the best selling job!’ John spent the next four years with the Dominicans at Providence and ‘loved every minute of it’. ‘To go from Villierstown to Rhode Island in 1974 was such a big culture change’. He studied business and focused on his running. ‘There was twenty of us on the cross-country team. They came from all over the world but we all had the same passion. We all wanted to be world beaters.’
John trained hard and, during his fourth year, he took ‘a gigantic step forward’ by finishing second to Henry Rono in the NCAA cross-country championship. (NCAA is the USA’s collegiate system of track and field.[vi]) In March 1978, he won the NCAA indoor three mile championship.
‘And two weeks later I ran over hill and dale to win the World Cross Country Championships in Glasgow. It was a very windy, wet and freezing cold and I was covered in mud. Three of us got away - Karel Lismont, Aleksandras Antipovas and myself. And, in the last thousand metres, I ran away from them and held it to the end. That was a good day.’
John left Providence in 1978. The following year he won his second world cross-country title in Limerick, urged on by a crowd of 30,000 home supporters. ‘It was wind and rain and cold again. But if you grew up running in Villierstown, you’re used to that.’[vii]
‘I wouldn’t be the most stylish runner in the world’, he says. ‘But I know what it takes. You can always say “I am the best in the world”. But all the positive thinking in the world ain’t going to help you if you haven’t got the work done. But if you do train and get to the right level, then you will have the confidence – and the psychology almost takes care of itself.’
John’s next big moment was the Moscow Olympics for which he was ‘in the shape of my life’.[viii] However, just 200m from the finish line of his heat in the 10,000m final, he was overwhelmed by dehydration and collapsed unconscious on the trackside. He somehow recovered to qualify for the final where he came a creditable seventh. His surprise victory over Steve Ovett at Crytsal Palace came just a couple of weeks later.
Returning to Ireland, John went to work full-time with the Export Board. He married Fionnuala and became a father. But, most critically, he suffered two injuries, a fracture in his back and a knee injury, which curtailed his training.
The injuries did not stop his desire to run. In 1983, the Treacys decided to return to America to the competitive environment in which John had excelled. They made their way to Providence where John reunited with his former colleagues and began running. It took several months to get back in action. And then, at a road race in Connecticut on Thanksgiving Day in 1983, he raced Eamonn Coghlan all the way to the finish line. ‘As he crossed the line, Eamonn turned to me and said: “You’re back”.’[ix]
The following summer, John thanked Eamonn by breaking his 5,000m Irish national record. At the Los Angeles Olympics, John competed in the 10,000m but disappointed. Five days later, he set off for the Marathon at the Santa Monica Track Club. ‘It was my first marathon, my maiden journey’. He came home with an Olympic Silver, finishing 27 seconds after the winner Carlos Lopes. Their respective finishes remain the two fastest marathon times in Olympic history.[x]
The Treacys continued to live in Providence until 1994, during which time John was a professional athlete sponsored by New Balance running shoes.[xi] In 1992, he won the Los Angeles Marathon and the following year he won the Dublin Marathon. However, when he realized that he no longer really minded if he won or not, he decided to call it quits. The Treacys now live in the hills by Saggart while John is kept busy as the Chief Executive of the Irish Sports Council and a board member of Concern. He keeps fit by running cross-country and playing golf.[xii]
[i] The Crystal Palace race took place shortly after the Moscow Olympics and involved ‘all the Olympic champions’. ‘Steve was very stylish. He takes off with about 200m to go and starts waving to the crowd. So I get along side him and gives me glance, kind of dismissive, and accelerates away. But about 20 yards from the line, I spot him slowing down, so I sprint like mad and … there’s a picture he has in his book where he has his hands up and me ducking under his arm. I could hear the crowd go ‘uh’ and I could hear Ovett say fuck. It’s hilarious.’
[ii] ‘‘My father was a smalltime trainer and never had more than five dogs. The best was a bitch called Little Pilgrim. That dog won a lot of races in Youghal, Clonmel and Cork. She bred a lot of other dogs that were successful as well. There is a bond between greyhound people. They call each other “doggy men’ Jack Treacy passed away age 94 in March 2010, two weeks after we interviewed John.
Redmond’s wife was called Mary. They had a couple of other sons – ‘one died anyway, Brother Bill was an Augustinian priest and he lived in Australia for many years. He finished up beside us in Dungarvan.’
[iii] At the time Villierstown had a community of about 100 people. The nearest running club was 16 miles away at Ring. Dungarvan was 12. There wasn’t one in Capoquin. So we ran for Ring where my brother was at school.
[iv] ‘We were just starting up so we just ran maybe two miles a night. You learn very quickly and we didn’t have any coaches. We didn’t have anyone ever watch us train. We started reading magazines and we started buying books, so we educated ourselves how to train. Father Enright put us in contact with Tom Reilly in England, who passed away last year. He was a Strawberry Hill man and ran for London Irish. He went to be an exercise physiologist.’
[v] Liz ‘didn’t have the same passion at first, but later she got back into it and did very well.’ Ray was then working in the Bank of Ireland in Cork and he was beginning to make national teams as well.
[vi] ‘ I got serious in my last year. I was beaten by Henry Rono who went on to break the World Record for 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters in the collegiate cross-country championships. I was second and Gerry Deakin from Waterford was third!’ By that stage, he was running 110 miles a week to maintain his fitness. You’re training at a very high level all the time and you’re doing real quality sessions on the track in terms of preparations. All the hard work that you do gives you the confidence and when you have the hard work done, then you can work on your psychology.
[vii] ‘30,000 people showed up at Limerick race course to watch me win. It’s like the Katy Taylor thing. They all think it’s just a case of hanging around to watch a medal being hung around her neck in London at the Olympics. I know that’s not the way it is. She’s going to have huge competition from the very best. In Glasgow no one expected me to win. But there were 30,000 people in Limerick waiting for me to win the race. That’s pretty intense. But I was in decent shape and I knew I was in very good shape. I considered it a perfect race. No pain. Could have ran forever, and no one was going to beat me. Within 400 yards I knew I was going to win. After a lap and a half , I came up to the leaders and I could hear a cheer from the crowd. I didn’t know why they were cheering. It was because I had stepped into the lead and then I realized, shit, I’ve got a great advantage here. Then we came along the home stretch for the second time in front of the stand. I just sprinted and I opened up a gap and that was the end of it. I fell at one stage in the race, just when I said to myself two laps out, I’ve got this won… back up very quickly, but I still won by 15 seconds. I knew I was never going to be caught. It was wind and rain and cold again. But if you grew up running in Villierstown, you’re used to that.
[viii] ‘I went to Paris next year in the world cross country and I was 18th. I was hugely disappointed by my real focus was Moscow for the Olympic Games. I went to Moscow and I ran the 10,000 meters. It was 95 degrees and I was carted off on a stretcher, literally 200m from the line. I was flying, absolutely flying but just the heat got me … I got dizzy and I passed out, I didn’t know anything about dehydration. I was just was carted off unconcious. So that was a Friday, I got back on the track on a Monday, got through to the final for the 5000m the next Friday and finished seventh. Eamonn Coghlan was fourth and I was seventh.
[ix] ‘From that day on I’ve driven an automatic. It was 1983 and I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do what I wanted to do. It was an awful time.’ He discussed it with his wife and they rented their house in Dundrum, sold the cars and off we went back to America in September, less than a year before the Olympics. He went back to Providence, ‘to the lads I trained with, to bring me back to the environment. I was running badly. I wasn’t in the picture. Now there was a little bit of money coming into the sport. I started running and within the space of two months I was back at world level again. During those two months, ‘I got away from work and focused on being an athlete, It’s physically very hard to get up at the crack of dawn and run and then go to work all day long. Its like trying to hold two full time jobs down. So I left one job behind. I went to the world cross country in New York and I was 12th. So that was a really good indication that I was really on the right road. And then I started thinking about the marathon.
[x] An Argentine doctor urged him to try for the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics. ‘So I started getting long runs in’. He then qualified for the 10,000m for the Olympics. ‘The Olympics came around and I got through to the final of the 10,000 meters but I ran badly. So then I had five days to prepare for the marathon. My wife had an aunt who lived out in Van Nuys. And I jogged for five days … I got away from the Olympic Village and all that crack … I was still superbly confident because I really had done my work and I knew I was in fantastic shape. On the day of the marathon I made my way back into the Olympic Village. The race was on 5:15 at Santa Monica Track Club. We had all the big names in the marathon running. This was going to be my first marathon, my maiden journey. I knew the most important thing was to get plenty of water in. I didn’t know if I could run 26 miles in 85 degrees heat as opposed to running six miles in 95 degrees. You had to be careful. I made up my mind that I would follow some of the big names and take guidance from them. About half way through he drifted into the lead. And I thought, there’s no room for heroes in marathon running, and I got back into the pack again. But I really felt I was out for a Sunday stroll because I was used to running so much quicker in shorter races. Five miles out, he was one of the five who broke away. The crowd was lining the course all the way. Then there were four. And then three. While Lopez ran away, John battled it out with Charlie for the silver. He ran the last lap in 67 seconds, coming home 27 seconds after Lopez. Our first and second remain the two fastest marathon times in Olympic history. Unbelievable. That still stands. 1984. It was a great celebration. I had friends, journalists that stuck by me, ‘you’ll get back John’.’
[xi] ‘I was a professional athlete for 10 years, based on the racing circuit in America and on the track at Europe. I was sponsored by New Balance running shoes. That gave me a monthly cheque that I could depend on. They’d given me runners before I went to Los Angeles. So I won a silver for them and we had a relationship all the way until I retired.’ He trained in Arizona in the wintertime to avoid the snow.
We had four children, one born in Ireland, three in America.
[xii] He puts challenges in front of him. He takes part in a 10 mile race in Villierstown for Concern and is also taking a group to run the Great Ethiopian run in Addis in November, also 10 km, for Concern as well. ‘So I keep myself fit by going to those sort of things.’