It started life as the ‘Templemore Triathlon’ but, in 1985 it was renamed after Derry’s two-time Irish Olympic swimmer - the late Liam Ball, who competed at the 1968 Mexico City and 1972 Munich Summer Games. Now, in it’s 30th Anniversary year, MICHAEL WILSON speaks to three local athletes with almost 90 years experience between them of an event that has become a focal point on Ireland’s Triathlon calendar . . .
Danny is synonymous with the Liam Ball Triathlon. In fact he is synonymous with almost every athletics event in Derry, and has been for the best part of 30 years.
The 70-year-old Creggan man is a competitor in every sense of the word, should it be triathlon, marathon or even his battle with prostate cancer which he refuses to allow stop him from competing. Backing down doesn’t seem to be in Danny’s character.
“I’m not a contender any more but I’m a competitor and will keep going as long as I can,” explains Danny, “This is me fulfilling a dream and even this year, I’m starting to get excited again as the race approaches.
“I have my personal reasons for competing all these years. I was in conversation with my late father, Bernard once and remember asking him about how he passed the time. ‘Football’ was his answer but later when I went looking for photos and things about my father, I could find none. It set me thinking that when my grand children look back, I want them to have something to see, something to help them know me.
“That is what got me started but never in my wildest dreams did I think, 30 years after my first triathlon, I would still be competing at 70!
Danny is unique. Not a member of any local club, the former Karate instructor is driven by pride in a record that is unlikely to be matched.
“I remember very well my first Liam Ball triathlon because it was my first triathlon ever. I was very keen to take part. I had done the five Foyle Marathons and was competing in the Waterside Half Marathons of which I have missed only one, which was due to illness and I’m very proud of that record.
“Last year the Walled City Marathon took me seven hours to complete but I wasn’t for letting it beat me, definitely not. The North West Tri-Club helped me a lot and curtailed my programme slightly to suit me. They will be doing the same this weekend but I’m looking forward to it.”
Over the years Danny has gone to some extreme lengths to ensure his record stays intact.
“Eight or nine years ago, the Waterside Half Marathon was cancelled because of fears concerning running on the road. When I heard, I phoned the organisers and explained my son had travelled over from London and informed them I would be doing the event regardless, which I did.
“When I neared the finishing line, the organisers - Gerry Lynch and Noel McMonagle - were waiting for me with my medal and t-shirt which meant a lot to me because it helped me maintain my record of competing.
“That was special but over the years, no matter what event it has been, my wife, Rose, has always at the finishing line to make sure I’m okay and I’m looking forward to seeing her there this Sunday.”
She won’t be fully fit after a knee operation in December but there was no way Roisin Lynch was ever going to miss the 30th Liam Ball Sprint Triathlon.
“It’s a great way to start the season,” she explains, “I won’t be fully fit but I’m fit enough to complete it and that will be enough for me. It is a special event and I hope to keep going for another few more Liam Ball triathlons yet.”
The 65-year old former St. Cecilia’s College teacher is a fixture on the local athletics scene and a founding member of the North West Triathlon Club so she knows what the event means to people, having missed only one race (in 1993) due to the birth of her son, David.
“I remember my first triathlon more than my first Liam Ball. It was in Magherafelt and I distinctly recall not being sure what we were doing. There was a naivety to us. After the swim, I wasn’t exactly applying the make-up but I was stopping to dry off and it took the legendary Anne Paul to remind me I was in a race and to get going again!
“Triathlon was this new, exciting event. There was a group of us who was trained together and when we heard about this new concept, it sounded exciting. I enjoyed the different disciplines and was more a ‘jack of all sports’ than someone who excelled at any one specific event, so triathlon suited.
“We had people like Raymond McCann, Adrian Kelly, Frankie Dunlop and others all involved and things spiralled from there. No one person was responsible, it was more a group effort from a lot of very dedicated people.
“Looking back though, never once did I imagine we would be talking about the event in it’s 30th year. It is remarkable that it has stood the test of time but it’s also an indication of the superb organisation and effort behind the event as well as the esteem in which Liam Ball was held by the Derry sporting public.”
Roisin says the event is a fitting tribute to one of Derry’s sporting legends.
“I would say the event is a tribute to the sort of person Liam Ball was, his personage as much as his athletic ability. It’s a great honour to not only Liam but also his father, Len, who did a lot of great work as well. It has become part and parcel of the calendar and is held in very high esteem by athletes. That’s not just because of the high level of competition but also the expert organisation and the welcome the athletes always receive in Derry.”
The Liam Ball Sprint Triathlon has helped many athletes throughout its 30-year history but did you know it once saved a wedding!
North West Triathlon club member Terry Donnelly is one of only two people - Danny Sheerin being the other - to have completed all 29 triathlons thus far. The race is a permanent fixture in his calendar which proved a lucky charm a few years back as Terry explains.
“When my daughter, Karen, was getting married she decided, along with her fiancee, it was going to be in Croatia. They came to me with some dates for the wedding but I noticed straight away it was for the May Bank Holiday weekend and said it couldn’t happen then because of the triathlon!
“I think they may have thought I was joking but they pushed back the date a week and when we finally got to Croatia, we found out the date they had previously wanted to go on had been hit by huge storms so Liam Ball was certainly looking down on us. The triathlon saved the wedding but I never got any credit!”
Another founding member of the North West Triathlon Club, Terry will actually be competing in his 32nd event, having raced in the Templemore Triathlon, as it was before being renamed in honour of Olympian Liam Ball.
“Templemore was the first triathlon in Ireland, I think, which is nice to say,” adds Terry. “It was always held in May which helped because it is the first event of the year and many athletes want to use it ahead of the new season.
“My background was in boxing. I was in Charlie Nash’s training camp when he was heading to the Olympics. When we were between training venues we trained up in Andy McClea’s and Liam Ball was training there. I was a couple of years behind him at St. Columb’s College as well but everyone knew Liam and what a good swimmer he was.
“Did I think we would still be going 30 years later? Not at all, but I’ve never found a reason to stop! In recent years things have taken off in terms of triathlon and the local athletics scene and the numbers have soared.
“The Liam Ball triathlon always met it’s capacity but in the past it would take two or three weeks, maybe longer to fill up, but now we could sell it out many times over which shows its enduring appeal.”