It’s Eamonn Coghlan By a Mile
By Conor O’Driscoll
One of Ireland’s foremost athletes, Eamonn Coghlan, returned to Rye – where he and his family lived for ten years –for the 30th anniversary of the Rye Derby, the five-mile race he helped found. During his 20-year running career, Coghlan was the seven-time winner of the Wannamaker Mile at Madison Square Garden, and NCAA mile Champion. He represented Ireland at the 1976, 1980, and 1988 Olympics.
At age 18, Coghlan was recruited from Dublin, Ireland, to Villanova by legendary track coach Jumbo Elliot. Although it was his childhood dream to run with the Wildcats, Coghlan struggled in his first year with injury, a tough academic workload, and missing his family and girlfriend back home. In the dead of night, he left for home during his freshman year, vowing never to return. A combination of parental pressure, strong encouragement from Coach Elliot, and, most importantly, an order to return from his girlfriend (and now wife) Yvonne persuaded Coghlan to return to school, where he repeated his freshman year and rejoined the track team. He never looked back.
As a college junior, Coghlan smashed the four-minute mile barrier and anchored the Villanova track team to an NCAA relay record. By the time he graduated, he was an NCAA mile champion, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine (the first of three SI covers over his career), and was headed to the Montreal Olympics as a medal contender.
Coghlan went on to establish himself as possibly the greatest indoor miler of all time and is known as “Chairman of the Boards,” which was also the title of his 2008 autobiography. He dominated on the indoor track and excelled at outgunning his competition on the tight bends and shorter straightaways. He was the first athlete to run under 3:50.0 for the mile indoors (ten seconds faster than Roger Bannister’s outdoor mile). He also achieved success at the 5000m, winning a world championship crown at the distance.
In the 1980s, Coghlan and his family moved to Rye, a community that was not only ideal for family life, but also for his running career. He used the Rye YMCA’s pool for aqua running to help combat the wear and tear exerted on his body by intense training. And his Fairway Avenue neighbors would often see Coghlan out running with the family’s dog, Seamus.
In the late 1980s, Coghlan and Chuck Maze, who was Executive Director of the Y at that time, had a conversation about starting a Rye road race. A committee was formed with Y members Terry and Lynn Birdsong and Nancy Haneman, which is how the Derby began. Haneman recalled, “When we started the Rye Derby, we really did not know what we were doing. We spent many hours at Terry’s house calling everyone we knew to help and relied on the running community for support and guidance. Many people in Rye were not even aware that there was a YMCA in town.” Remarkably, Coghlan never won the Derby’s five-mile race, always recruiting world-class distance runners who excelled at the five-mile competition.
Coghlan and his family moved back to Dublin, where he pursued one remaining competitive goal: to be the first man over 40 to break the four-minute mile. With dogged perseverance, he battled persistent injuries and stunned the athletic world in 1994 when he ran 3:58.15 at Harvard University’s indoor track. He was 41 years old and had set a record that would last over 20 years. This was Coghlan’s 84th sub-four-minute mile and represented a fitting closure to a 20-year career at the top of his sport.
Outside the track, Coghlan has enjoyed a highly successful career. He served as a senator in the Irish parliament for five years and is now a partner in a venture capital fund in Dublin. He has also helped raise millions of dollars for children’s medical research as a director of the Crumlin Hospital Foundation. Although retired from the track, today Coghlan indulges his competitive instincts on the golf course.
The entire Rye Y was excited to welcome Eamonn and Yvonne back on April 29. Executive Director Gregg Howells said it all: “Eamonn is not only a rock star in the sports world, he’s also an important part of the Rye Y’s history, proving that a small group of people with passion and a good idea can start something big.”
The announcer at the starting line of the Rye YMCA’s 30th Derby was none other than Eamonn Coghlan.
Continuation page pix: Eamonn Coghlan winning the 5000M at the World Championships in Helsinki