As dusk fell on Monday at the Market Square raindrops crackled off umbrellas as Mark English arrived home from the European Track and Field Championships in Zurich with his bronze medal dangling from his neck.
The Letterkenny weather did little to - as the well-hashed cliché says - dampen the spirits. English’s father Joe admitted - more off-the-record than on it - that there was a tear in his eye as his son touched down in Dublin airport that morning when he had seen the effort that some folk from the Cathedral town had made to see him.
The 5:20am Bus Eireann from Letterkenny contained well-wishers headed for Dublin airport without passports or boarding passes. Their only destination from Dublin welcoming the English family back onto Irish soil would be Letterkenny that evening.
“I’m so proud I can hardly explain it,” Mark English said from the Market Square. “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.
“It’s phenomenal, there’s so many people out here. I would like to thank everyone for coming out and to everyone for organising it.”
Three days beforehand at the Stadium Letzigrund, the 21-year-old had become the first Irishman ever to win a European Championships medal in the 800 metres.
The UCD Medical student, who was seventh of the eight finalists at the bell, produced a stirring last 200 metres to land Ireland’s only medal in Switzerland.
English, who was competing in his first ever senior championship final, came in third place behind the Polish pair of Adam Kszczot and Artur Kuciapski in a time of 1:45.03, equalling his season’s best.
“You have to confident when you’re racing and have a strategy,” he added. “You can pick and choose your advice but at the end of the day you make your own decision and you go with it.
“I wanted to get to the 600-metre mark not stressed and feeling as best you can. That’s what I tried to do in the final.
“It’s just about staying calm and composed. That’s what I have learned to do. I don’t try and do anything out of the ordinary. For me, I think I’ve done better in each race this year.”
Although his career in the senior ranks - Friday was his first final at the level - isn’t far past the embryonic stage, English, in a way, has already etched his name onto a list of immortal Irish athletes.
His podium place meant he joins the top brass of Irish athletics in winning European medals - Ronnie Delany, Frank Murphy, Eamonn Coughlan, Sonia O’Sullivan, Mark Carroll, Derval O’Rourke and Rob Heffernan.
Although between coaches at this particular point in time, English’s race-management was the difference between winning a medal and not: Head for thinking; feet for running.
Intuition like that isn’t something that can necessarily be taught or learned. It can, though, cumulate through experience to enable the formulation of instant decisions in an unforgiving environment where one split second can be the difference between all or nothing.
“I have to say thanks to Letterkenny Athletic Club and all of the coaches,” English added of those who helped him learn his trade.
“It’s great that you can actually think of so many of them because it shows what sort of interest there is. I’m actually afraid in case I leave one out - Neil Cullen, Anthony Ward, Sean McBrearty - I could leave so many so I’m going to stop here. I’d like to thank Teresa McDaid of course as well.”
English - who now races for UCD Athletic Club - recalled before he first pulled on the Letterkenny Athletic Club vest how his sisters Michelle and Joanne had to cajole him into athletics. It was at a stage in his life when he admitted he “was more interested kicking a football.”
Sometimes as a youngster results were good; occasionally not. But the support system he had at home was consistent.
“Family are so important,” English added. “You’re going to have your good times but you also have the times when you are down in the dumps as well. Your family are always with you during those times. I really have to take my hats off to them.”
When English assembled a to-do list at the start of this season there were two primary objectives. Familiarity of an uncomplicated approach helped form his ambitions for the year, just like it does in the short-term prior to a race.
“I hope to get an Irish record before the end of the season,” English said with the current standard being the 1:44:82 set by David Matthews in Rieti, Italy, in 1995.
“It’s a strong record but I’m only within two-hundreds of a second of it. That, along with making a European final, were my two aims this season. I would be delighted to do that.”
Away from the bronze, Ireland’s men’s relay team smashed the Irish record that they’d set on Saturday when finishing fifth in the 4x400m final in 3:01.67. English ran the second lap in 45 seconds dead with Brian Gregan, Richard Morrissey and Thomas Barr also on the team. D
uring that race, English picked up a minor injury and how he responds to that will shape how he assaults the conclusion of the season.
“I have a bit of a niggle in my hamstring at the minute,” he said. “We’ll see how the next few days pan out. I’m going to get some treatment on it. If I’m all well I will try and race the Diamond League in Zurich.
“If not I still have a race in Rieti in September. Then there’s an intercontinental cup where I’m representing Europe. I’m looking forward to a few more races.”
English didn’t leave Ireland last week as an unknown but after three days on the track in Zurich he returned a hero.
“It’s going to take a while to sink in fully,” he concluded. “It’s a very proud moment for me and my family.”