Sinead Diver’s pathway to a top 10 finish in the Olympic Games marathon for Australia on Saturday was as bumpy and precarious as a cobblestone street in her native Ireland.
Diver stumbled into running 11 years ago, aged 33 as she tried to regain fitness on maternity leave after the birth of her first son Eddie.
She joined her sister’s work team and proved an unexpected star in some corporate events, surprising friends, her husband Colin and herself.
From there she began winning some state titles, joined Nic Bideau’s famed Melbourne Track Club and progressed to marathons, believing she was destined to represent her homeland, only for a surprising rejection to lead her towards the green and gold of Australia.
“I’m from a small town on the west coast of Ireland called Belmullet,” Diver told AthletesVoice when she ran the qualifying standard for Tokyo.
“At my local primary school, the focus was on academics. Sports just didn’t feature. However, outside of school I was very active.
“I grew up on the coast and, although we didn’t have any organised sports in our town, I was constantly running around, cycling, swimming, climbing cliffs or playing soccer and basketball with friends.
“Unfortunately, the secondary school I attended had the same outlook. Academics was the focus and sports were seen as something you did in your spare time.
“The school was run by nuns and they discouraged girls from being involved in sports.”
Diver ran her first marathon in Melbourne in 2014 and clocked a World Championship qualifier. As a citizen of Ireland and Australia, she was eligible to run for both countries.
“I had presumed I would represent Ireland as this was my country of birth, but Athletics Ireland (AI) had other ideas.
“A month after my 2:34:15 at Melbourne, they changed their qualifying standard to 2:33:30 – 45 seconds faster than mine. This was a bit of a blow for me at the time.
“I took it quite personally and couldn’t understand why they would intentionally exclude me from the team. In hindsight, I realise it wasn’t about me and I can understand how AI might not have been overly thrilled about welcoming a 38-year-old with no real running credentials to the team.
“I was very lucky that Athletics Australia were a bit more open-minded and offered me a spot on the team for the World Championships in Beijing in 2015.”
Diver ran in Beijing, but injury cost her a place on the Rio Olympic team. The one-year delay in the start of the Tokyo Olympics worked against plenty of athletes, but Diver dug in and pushed on with her workload.
She bristles with much of the coverage about her feats and career, being a late starter and now 44.
“I find it extremely frustrating that a lot of the media attention I get is mainly focused on my age,” Diver wrote in AthletesVoice.
“So often, my race times are glossed over and all that gets mentioned is my age. In the coverage of the London Marathon (in 2019 when she came seventh), I was referred to as ‘the 42-year-old’ – everyone else was allowed the privilege of being referred to by their first or last name!
“I know, in some ways, it’s meant to be complimentary. Not a lot of athletes continue to find success in their 40s but I’ve been running for a relatively short period of time, so it’s a very different scenario for me.
“I would like if people were a bit more progressive and realised that not everyone has to follow the same path to achieve success, particularly in running.
“There are no major skills to master. It’s not like you’ve missed the boat if you didn’t do it as a junior. Being fit, healthy and motivated is a great place to start – and that’s exactly how it was for me.
“Succeeding at any age is all about your mindset. I’m still really motivated and determined because I haven’t been doing it for that long.
“For a moment, I believed the whispers that I was too old to make it. But If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that you should never let others decide your fate.”
On Saturday, Colin, Eddie and Dara got up early in Melbourne to cheer on their mum. In oppressive heat in Sapporo, she made up plenty of ground late in the race to cross in 10th in 2:31.14, 3.54 minutes behind the winner Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya, and was in tears at the finish as she spoke of her young boys Eddie and Dara.
“I‘ve been away from them for quite a few weeks and I really miss them. I hope they’re proud of their mum I’m sure they’re screaming at the TV now,” she said.
“I just gave it everything from about 22km, and it was still a long way to go and it‘s very hot out there.
“I‘m just so relieved I was able to stay strong until the end.”