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Triathlon in Ireland has been alive and well since the early 80s, when an ultra-runner from the village of Skerries decided to stage a race in his hometown. The draw to that event eventually led to the spread of the sport throughout the country, and today there are several races ranging from sprints to Ironmans to choose from (including Ironman Cork, set for this August). In turn, the country of some five million people has produced standout success in the sport, including world championship medalists and Olympians. So, in no specific order, here are some of the Ireland’s top triathletes through the decades.
The Pioneer: Ann Kearney
Ann Kearney was there from the start—all the way back to 1983, when triathlon was first taking root in Ireland. Having come into the sport as a 30-something mom, Kearney shattered expectations of women in sport. “She was a small, petite woman, but the guys knew her as a little demon,” a friend recalled of Kearney. Kearney was the first Irish athlete to place on the podium in an elite race, set the Irish national record in the Ironman (which stood until 2008), won a total of nine national championships, and remained dominant in a career that spanned nearly two decades. Along the way, Kearney inspired a bevy of women to get into triathlon, including her own daughter, Caroline, who was a rising star in the sport when she was tragically killed at the age of 24 in a cycling accident in 2008, just four years after Kearney passed away from cancer. Today, the Kearney name remains firmly linked to the sport of triathlon throughout Ireland.
The Legend: Desmond McHenry
Like Kearney, Desmond McHenry was around in the very early days of triathlon. A converted marathoner, McHenry, now 75, took up triathlon after learning how to swim and went on to become a prolific age-group competitor, winning many international medals, most recently finishing 10th in the 70-74 age-group at the 2019 world champs. “I borrowed bikes for the first couple of years,” said McHenry, who is one of the most recognized and revered triathletes in Ireland. “Obviously at the time I wouldn’t have thought it would last that long and still to go on as well. Lord knows how long I will be doing it…I’ve done almost 300 races and there’s a sense of you’ve given everything, you finish it and every race has the same feeling. That was a good race, I did my best.”
The Superstar: Aileen Morrison (Reid)
Back in 2010, Morrison (now Reid) charged to a bronze medal at the Hamburg World Triathlon Series race, earning Ireland its sole medal in WTS history, later picking up a silver medal at the London Grand Final in 2013. Throughout her decade-long pro career, Reid was ranked among the top ten in the world for three consecutive years and represented Ireland at both the London and Rio Olympics. Now 40 and retired from competition, Reid is a youth triathlon coach in Queensland, Australia.
The Record Setter: Eoin O’Connell
In 1998, Eion O’Connell covered the iron-distance faster than any other Irishman before him. That year, the 28-year-old O’Connell—who got into the sport as a teenager and would win the Ireland national champs four times—finished Challenge Roth in Germany in 9 hours, 30 minutes, breaking a 13-year-old record. His own mark would stand for six years, until countryman Paul O’Doherty brought it down to 9:19:26 (the record is currently down to 8:07:37, set by Bryan McCrystal at Roth in 2018). O’Connell continues to race as an age-grouper.