“My story is really unique,” Sinead Diver said.
She got that right.
From being discouraged from sport as a schoolgirl in rural west Ireland to being snubbed for representative honours by the land of her birth, Diver’s journey to running for Australia at the Tokyo Olympics was far from standard.
And that is before you consider she has only been running for little over a decade.
After getting an invitation to a race around Melbourne’s famed Tan track in 2010 — something the then-33-year-old admitted she did “pretty quickly for someone without any training” — Diver never looked back.
Diver went from running a couple of times a week for fitness, either side of getting pregnant, to challenging stereotypes around age by finishing tenth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic marathon in Sapporo — the best performance by an Australian woman since 1988.
Nuns ‘weren’t big into girls playing sport’
In an era where talent is carefully cultivated from a young age through carefully selected high-performance programmes, Diver’s story offers something completely different.
After all, where she went to school — in the small, west Irish village of Belmullet — girl’s sport was discouraged.
“We weren’t really allowed to play sport that much,” Diver told the ABC.
“I went to a conservative secondary school that was run by nuns and they weren’t big into girls playing sports.”
Limited to the odd game of basketball and football, Diver instead found release on the beaches and cliffs of the County Mayo coast instead, before taking up a degree in physical education and Irish teaching at the University of Limerick.
Even there, though, her natural running talent remained hidden.
“It’s quite strange, actually,” she said. “We had a module in athletics [at university], but that was more from a teaching standpoint.
Diver’s considerable athletic talents remained buried until long after she moved to Australia, aged 25, although a run around the Tan changing everything.
“When I started, it was just initially for general fitness,” Diver said.
“Then, in the running group that I joined, someone said, ‘You should sign off to an athletic club and start competing at state level’, which I did.”
She didn’t stop there, with wins followed at state level and national level.
“I knew I was getting better, but I still never really thought about racing internationally,” she said.
Running her first marathon as a 38-year-old in Melbourne, in 2014, Diver qualified for the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.
“That gave me a big jump in confidence — and I had the Olympics in the back of my mind after that, because that’s kind of the next level up again.
“But I didn’t really believe that I could make it, I think.”
Ireland snub opens up Australia option
Having thought little of running at the international level, Diver assumed she would race in the green of Ireland in Beijing.
However, Athletics Ireland shifted the selection goalposts, leaving Diver with little option but to compete for Australia.
“As a citizen of Australia, I was eligible to represent either Ireland or Australia, but I presumed that athletes would represent the country of your birth,” she said.
“I’ve made contact with Athletics Ireland to let them know my time and that I was keen to go to World Champs the following year and then, a month later, Athletics Ireland changed the qualifying time to make it 30 seconds faster than my time.”
“But then, my coach at the time said, ‘You can represent Australia as well’ and when selections came around, Athletics Australia gave me the opportunity, so I went to Beijing representing Australia, and I’ve represented them ever since.”
Athletics Ireland never got back in touch with Diver, although she says “the people that matter” in Ireland are “fully behind” her.
“It’s kind of worked out for the best,” she said.
“It’s almost like I have support from two countries. I’m proud to represent Australia … when I run I represent both Ireland and Australia. In my heart I represent both countries.
“Not a lot of people would give opportunities to a 38-year-old starting out in the marathon.
“I’ve had quite a lot of sceptics and critics, so it’s nice to have people in my corner [who] support me and then help me achieve what I can do. So, I’m really grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given here.
“[Athletics Australia] took a risk supporting me … it’s definitely paid off.”
Age just a number
In 2016, Diver missed out on Rio due to injury, but returned to form in 2018, breaking the course record on a “terrible day” for a hot, windy Melbourne marathon.
“I knew that I could go a lot faster,” she said.
“That’s what got me excited and really hyped up to continue with marathons and get to the Olympics.
She then finished seventh at the illustrious London Marathon in 2019, running a personal best time of 2:24.
It was in the aftermath of that race where Diver got frustrated about the focus on her age, writing in the AthletesVoice that, while other runners were referred to by their names, she was only referred to as “the 42-year-old”.
Diver proved all of those sceptics wrong on the streets of Sapporo, running an incredibly gutsy race in stifling conditions that sidelined several of her rivals.
“I felt a lot of pressure for this race,” she said.
“I’ve had a lot of sceptics, because of my age, thinking that I can’t achieve success in running. So I was really out there to prove a point and to show that I was in peak fitness.
“But I had to be really smart on the day because it was so harsh and so humid, there was no point in going out, guns blazing, trying to prove a point, and then crashing.
“I had no idea what position I was in, coming into the finish, but I could see the girl ahead of me and I was like, ‘This is an important spot, I’m going to kick myself if I don’t give it everything to go past her’.
Diver had plenty of support in Ireland, with her village bedecked in Australia flags, and they saw her race into the top ten, overtaking Namibian Jelalia Johannes in the final straight.
“I was absolutely delighted with how it went,” she said.
“It all worked out on the day. It was great.”
Not a bad outcome from someone who only laced up her trainers to keep fit, 11 years ago.