Derry's long lost Olympian

When was the last time a Derry native took part in the Olympic Games? Or, indeed, exactly how many local sports people have competed at that level?

Such questions have been posed regularly, and more so in recent times given the fact that the 29th Olympiad is currently in progress in Bejing.

Most quiz buffs would answer that Roisin Smyth's appearance for Ireland in Los Angeles in 1984 was the last time a local sports person competed at that level - but they would be wrong!

Other suggest that Derry city boasts SIX Olympians - cross-country runner, Anton Hegarty back in 1920 in Antwerp, who actually won a silver medal; amateur boxers Charlie Nash and Neil McLaughlin in Munich in 1972; Terry Watt in judo, also 1972; the late Liam Ball in swimming, in 1968 in Mexico and in 1972); and 3,000 m runner Roisin Smyth in Los Angeles - but there's one more!

In fact, Derry actually boasts SEVEN individuals who have competed in the Olympic Games. So who then, is the city's long-lost Olympian?

Well, she's a lady approaching her 45th birthday who competed in the 1988 Games in Seoul - the city's latest Olympian - and she represented Great Britain in the 400 metres hurdles.

In those games in South Korea, Elaine McLaughlin reached the semi-finals of the event and finished in fifth spot to record an Irish record which still stands to this day - her time of 55.91 secs. has not been bettered over the past two decades!

Amazingly, a forgotten Olympian - and it's not that she's disappeared off the face of the earth or anything like that. She actually resides just across the border in Tooban, near Burnfoot, and these days works for 'Wallart', a local business specialising in producing artistic work on walls.

Following extensive research, I caught up with her this week to find out more about a lady who has not only competed at the highest level of her sport, but also represented Great Britain in two Commonweath Games.

Elaine competed in Edinburgh in 1986 before gaining selection for Seoul and then raced in the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand in 1990, finishing in 5th spot behind winner and team-mate, Sally Gunnell - her final competitive 400m hurdles race.

Derry-born and proud of it

Happy to reflect back on her career and acknowledge that she had, indeed, been a forgotten Olympian over the past 20 years locally, Elaine felt that her family's move from Derry as a child was probably the main reason for that.

Still speaking with a broad Derry accent, she commented: "I was born in Altnagelvin Hospital in November, 1963, and attended the Model School until I was seven.

"But my father's work took the family to Dundonald and then Antrim before eventually moving on to Scotland. My father was from Ballymagorry and my mum from Bond Street. and we lived in Stewart's Terrace, bordering Brooke Park."

But it was while living in Scotland that she began to get seriously involved in athletics, representing no fewer than three clubs. It was with Edinburgh Woollen Mills AC that she saw her career progress. She is now an honourary member of the club.

Elaine returned to Northern Ireland in 1986, two years before the Seoul Olympics, and lived in Belfast. She got an opportunity to be trained by the legendary hurdles coach Alf McMeekin. While based in Belfast, she represented the Ballymena & Antrim club competitively, a club she was involved with during her school days.

“I also had a connection with Sparta AC in Derry and while I trained under Paddy Devine, I never actually ran competitively for the club, just trained with other athletes such as Noeleen Mullan (my best friend), Heather Wilson and Patricia Barr among others in St. Columb’s Park.”

Elaine was the UK 400m hurdles champion for three consecutive years (1987 to 1989) and while her competitive career came to a conclusion in that 1990 final in Auckland, life has not been plain sailing for the articulate athlete.

‘Very proud’

“I’m very proud that my roots are in Derry and, of course, of my achievements in sport. I still treasure the video of the 1988 Olympic Games semi-final and the commentator of the race, the late Ron Pickering, clearly stated that I was from Derry as I stood on the starting line.

“I’m still the record holder for the 400m hurdles and have been for 20 years, which is nice. I may not have won a medal, but having recorded 55.91 secs. in the semi-finals allowed me to take something home with me,” she declared.

At 33, Elaine started to lose her hair through alopecia. It’s a condition which she has come to terms with and she gets on with life.

“I’ve had aloepecia for over 10 years now and I’ve learned to manage the condition. While losing your hair can be very difficult, especially for a woman, I’ve come to the conclusion that if it was important it would be on the inside. I feel fit and healthy and I’m confident in myself. I’ve dealt with the condition and I simply get on with life,” she concluded.