Susan Egelstaff talks to Eilish McColgan about following in the footsteps of her famous long-distance-running mother Liz by competing at the Olympic Games in Rio. This is a daughter who has a fountain of knowledge and advice always on tap
There are few better people to turn to for advice than your mum. This is particularly apposite when you are looking for advice about athletics and you mum is a former world champion. Eilish McColgan will compete in the 5,000 metres at the Rio Olympics, but she knows it will take quite an effort to get close to matching her mother’s achievements on the track. Liz McColgan, now fifty-two, won Olympic silver in 1988, but that was only one part of a wholly impressive career. She also became world champion in the 10,000 metres in Tokyo in 1991, Commonwealth champion in 1986 and 1990, as well as winning a host of other international medals.
It has been a hard act to follow for Eilish but, to date, the 25 year old from Dundee has handled the pressure well. She won her first GB cap in 2011 in the 3.000 metres steeplechase and went on to be a part of Team GB at London 2012. In the past few years, though, Eilish has been plagued by injury to such an extent that she did not race on the track for 21 months. During this time she admits that she went through countless ups and downs and even had doubts about whether she could make it back to elite level. “It was difficult – there were stages when I was so determined to get back fit, and then I’d go through stages of being really down,” she says. “And I started to think maybe my body wasn’t built to run because I was just breaking down all of the time. I started questioning my own ability and I really didn’t know what to do.”
Her persistent injuries ultimately led to surgery and metal screws inserted in her foot. But at the start of 2016 she still could not even walk without pain. It was the support from those around her who kept Eilish going through the hardest days, most notably her parents and her boyfriend, Michael Rimmer, the 800-metre runner who will also be a part of Team GB in Rio. They persuaded her to keep at it, however tough it was. So, at the turn of the year, she set herself the target of qualifying for Rio, though she admits she didn’t know how realistic it was going to be.
Slowly but surely, the realisation dawned that her body was struggling to cope with the demands of the steeplechase. In February she made the decision to move to the flat and go for Olympic qualification in the 5,000 metres. It was a risky move. She had barely raced at the distance, and with the Olympic team due to be named just a few months after her first 5,000 metres race, it looked like something of a long shot. “It was a very scary decision to change event in Olympic year,” she admits. “It was tough to make that call and think that I might not make the team for Rio.”
Eilish’s nagging injury issues meant that she had to alter her training programme. Instead of running twice a day, as almost every elite distance runner does, she was forced to reduce her training load to one run per day, plus a cross-training session in the evening. The reduction in miles did, she admits, mess with her head at times. “I linked up with the GB team in Flagstaff in the spring and I started questioning my training because I suddenly became really aware that everyone else was going out for a five-mile or a seven-mile run and I’d be going on the cross-trainer,” she says.
“I added up my mileage and I’d be doing 35 or 40 miles per week and the other girls would be doing close to 80 miles. I started really questioning my training and thinking that I wasn’t doing enough. I remember texting my mum saying, ‘I think I should start running twice a day again’, and even she started thinking, ‘Yeah, maybe we should try it’. But then Michael said, ‘Why risk it, there’s no point’. I spoke to my mum again and we decided to just ignore what other people were doing. But I was still questioning myself right up until I ran my first race of the season.”
However, things could not have gone better for the Scot: in her very first 5,000 metres outing of the year, she smashed her personal best and ran the Olympic qualifying time. It showed just how gritty and determined Eilish is, attributes that her mother also famously possessed. Her season continued to go from strength to strength. Another qualifying time followed, then a second-place finish at the British trials which secured her spot on the plane to Rio. Though it was a personal triumph, she is quick to acknowledge that it was a team effort. “I’ve got to give credit to my mum because the two of us had worked so hard to get back to this stage,” she says.
Having someone like Liz McColgan as your mother, someone who has lived the life of an elite athlete, is indispensable, says the daughter. That her mum has been in very similar situations has been such a blessing, she says. “It’s really helpful having her there for advice – literally any situation that I find myself in, she will have been through herself. Whether it’s illness or injury or even emotional stress, in or out of athletics, she’ll have been through it. I know how hard she worked and I think that makes me even more determined to make her and my dad proud. It’s good to have that lifeline – I don’t think there are many other athletes who have someone like her there. It’s also, I think, easier to accept advice from someone who’s been there and done it. You can’t argue with that knowledge.”
Eilish is an outspoken critic of the dopers who have sullied the reputation of her sport in recent times. One of the many reasons she is such a proponent of clean sport is that she knows that it is possible to win clean because of the example her mother set. “I’ve been very lucky to have grown up around my mum and I know how hard she trained to be the best at her sport. I know my mum was completely clean and I was lucky to have had her there and seen it up close – it’s maybe difficult for other people who don’t have that inspiration right there. It can be difficult because it’s hard to know who’s on drugs and who isn’t, whereas for me I know 100 per cent that my mum was a clean athlete. It’s so inspirational to have someone like that in my family who went on to be an Olympic silver medallist and a world champion – it shows that you can do it through hard work.”
For the next few weeks, though, Eilish will have one thought and one thought only in her head: the first round of the 5,000 metres on Tuesday, August 16. It is one of the toughest events on the programme and Eilish has targeted making the final. There will be no one cheering her on louder than the person who knows exactly how hard she has worked to be on that start-line. And that person is her mum.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.