Alistair Cragg of Ireland celebrates 3000m gold in Madrid (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Cragg takes long winding road to success

Following a perfectly executed race at the European Indoor Championships in Madrid Alistair Cragg grabbed his first major international title. According to Ed Gordon who tells the fascinating story of this South-African born Irishman, the future looks even brighter for Mister Cragg.

“I could have a shot at another skull to mount on my wall,” was Alistair Cragg’s immediate reaction to a preliminary scouting report on his likely rivals in the European Indoor Championships 3000 metres recently contested in Madrid.

Relatively new to the international scene, the 24-year-old Irish runner has quickly been cultivating an aura of invincibility running indoors, such that he welcomes every competition as a test of his dominance on the boards in the middle-distance realm. These are, after all, “no-lose” opportunities at this stage of his career. His appetite for challenges seems insatiable, and so far, his self-confidence has not been shaken, even against some of the sport’s biggest names.

Over the last three indoor seasons, Cragg has won thirteen of fourteen races, including the European Indoor 3000 this winter, not all of them easy walkovers of his US collegiate brethren as two Olympic champions will attest. (Even in that lone loss - by 0.29 seconds to Kenyan Boaz Cheboiywo - Cragg came away with an Irish record of 7:38.59 which still stands.)

Two years ago, the Sydney 1500 winner, Noah Ngeny, fell victim to the Irishman in a 3000m race. This season, Cragg’s 3000m conquests - on separate weekends - have included the Athens 10,000m winner (and double World record holder) Kenenisa Bekele, along with his countryman, Markos Geneti, the current World Junior Indoor record holder in the 3000m.

That is not to say that Cragg’s talents do not emerge when he moves outdoors. Last year, he was the top European in the 3000m and was the continent’s number-two for the 5000m. Clearly, a sub-13 clocking is high on his short list of things to accomplish soon.

Cragg’s wanderings throughout his short life bear the stamps of a true internationalist. Though born in South Africa, where he lived in Johannesburg for nineteen years, he now competes for Ireland and lives in the US. Such a vagabond background has contributed significantly to the tenacity and daring with which he approaches sport and life itself.

The third of Ray and Jill Cragg’s four sons, Alistair seemed destined to be led to competitive running. His father had been a successful middle-distance runner in South Africa, collecting a bronze medal in the 3000m at the junior nationals in 1970.

South Africa’s sports history meanwhile was mired in a dark period, as the nation’s apartheid policy had caused the country to become an outcast, excluded from the Olympic sports movement.

“I had a dream of competing at the Olympics myself,” said Ray, who himself soon withdrew from competitive running as a result of his country’s political isolation, “but I could still help prepare my sons to achieve my own goals at a later time.”

Starting with eldest son Duncan - seven years Alistair’s senior - and continuing with Warren, born a year after Duncan, father Cragg filled the role of coach, but there was never any parental pressure put on the young boys.

“I tried to get my youngest sons interested in running when they were five and six,” he recalled, “but I quickly saw they weren’t old enough for that.” The seed had been planted, however.

“When Duncan was thirteen, he saw a photograph of me wearing the sports uniform of my school, which was now also his school,” Ray continued. “He decided he wanted to be a runner too, and he asked me to coach him.” It wasn’t long before Warren joined his brother on the track.

Alistair had always accompanied his brothers to the track during training sessions but had never shown much interest in replicating their disciplined ritual.

“One day, when he was thirteen, he said he wanted to win a championship,” Ray recollected. “We all laughed at him, not thinking he could do it.” Not only did Alistair disprove his doubters by winning his first provincial title, he never looked back from that day onward.

Nearing the end of his high school years, Duncan sought out a stipend at an American university, following the pattern of many South African athletes. He spent four seasons as a steeplechaser in Dallas in the mid-1990s, at Southern Methodist University, and he still makes his home there with his American wife.

“In South Africa, we knew that if we ran well when we were young, the US colleges represented a good opportunity for us, not only for education but also as an important bridge between our club running and international competition,” said the senior Cragg brother. “And because America was so far away, there was also a ‘wow!’ aspect to consider, too.”

With Duncan living in America, Warren soon lost his interest in athletics and eventually moved to London. This left Alistair and younger brother Andrew as the remaining two sons living at home. The only non-running son, Andrew became involved in some adolescent experimentation with drugs, which led to a suicide attempt in mid-1999.

“I was at the track with Alistair when it happened,” Ray says, still with deep remorse. “I still have a feeling that had I been at home, I could have stopped it.” After seemingly on the way to partial recovery, Andrew’s condition slowly deteriorated, and he died seven months later.

Suddenly, with his brothers now living away, Alistair had become an only child through this misfortune.

The incident weighed so heavily on Ray that he found he could no longer go near the track because it symbolized, in his mind, the momentary abandonment of his youngest son and the tragedy which ensued.

Unexpectedly in need of a coach, Alistair quickly found a new mentor in J.P. van der Merwe, an association which brought him to new world-class training partners, albeit only for a few months, such as Hezekiel Sepeng and Johan Botha, both part of the renowned coach’s group.

But the trauma caused by his brother’s death, and the daily contact with his parents’ grief, also engendered an intense yearning for escape.

In January 2000, Alistair followed Duncan’s path to the US, and to the same university in Dallas. Hampered by a knee injury at the time, he still managed to lower his 5000m PB by thirty-six seconds with a 13:49.25 in his first semester away from home.

After corrective knee surgery in the US, he returned to Johannesburg as classes ended for the year. Rehabilitation, combined with rekindled fraternal bereavement, caused him to stop running completely for seven months as he missed the entire 2001 season.

“I had to get away from everything,” he remembers, still with a bit of apparent discomfort. “I went to London and lived with Warren for a while, and I just bummed around in general. I remember staying evening with friends, and then I’d sleep in the parks during the days. It was rough. I didn’t have any money, and I really had no home to go back to.”

Eventually, Cragg did return to South Africa for a short time before going back to Dallas, “where I tried to get back into shape by running with Duncan four miles a day,” he said with a laugh. Several months of sleeping on the floor of the newlyweds’ apartment also quickly lost its appeal.

With his own life already on firm footing in the New World, Duncan felt obliged to help his brother do the same. Methodically searching through possibilities, Alistair soon came into contact with John McDonnell, the highly successful coach at the University of Arkansas and himself a native of County Mayo in northwest Ireland.

“I only had that one time of 13:49 to judge him by when he contacted me,” recalled McDonnell recently, “but I could tell that he was determined to make something of himself. He wasn’t here very long before I realized he was really something quite special.”

Cragg adds his own view of the situation. “I think Coach was pretty desperate that year,” he reflected Cragg recently. “Just about everyone on his team had finished school, and he needed to restock. True, I had run that 13:49 while in Dallas, but still I think he felt he was taking a chance with me.”

McDonnell’s intuition was ultimately rewarded by the seven NCAA titles Cragg would capture during his three seasons in Fayetteville. And the runner began almost immediately to cling dependently to “Coach Mac” as a surrogate father.

“Whatever he tells me to do, I will do,” Cragg affirmed. “He is my insurance. He knows me better than I know myself. It may look like I’m taking a risk sometimes, but I’m really just following his orders.”

The coach-athlete symbiosis started almost immediately. Then still 21, Cragg won his first NCAA indoor title in 2002 with a victory in the 5000m, and six weeks later he lowered his outdoor PB in the event by twenty-seven seconds with a 13:22.07 performance. That was the pivotal event in his change of allegiance from South Africa to Ireland.

“After that, I knew I was going to be national-team material somewhere,” he reasoned, “but with all of the recent bad memories from my last years in South Africa, I felt that I had to make a new start by representing Ireland.”

With McDonnell’s help in cutting through the minor bit of bureaucracy, Cragg made a quick, uncontested nationality switch based on the Irish passport he had held since his teenage years.

His nationality claim was through his mother’s ancestors, who had left Killarney and Dublin to work in the Kimberley diamond mines more than a century ago. 

In the mid-1980s, the unsettled situation in South Africa had prompted Ray and Jill to exercise this option and secure Irish passports for their sons. Their premonition thus opened the door for Alistair’s overnight change from the dark green of South Africa to the Kelly green kit he would first wear in the 2002 European Cross Country Championships, where he finished eighth in the short course at age 21. 

As his times continued to fall during his final university season in 2004, Cragg’s attention began to shift to the future, almost as though collegiate running had become an impediment to his real goals. After a 13:16.98 PB win at Stanford last year, he was heard to gush, “I can’t wait until I get into one of those crazy sub-13 races in Europe this summer.”

His initiation into the European circuit last year was not one he remembers fondly, but he did get his wish for one of those “crazy sub-13 races”. Thinking he could keep up with the fast pace in the Rome Golden Gala 5000m, won by Eliud Kipchoge in 12:46.53, Cragg hit the wall just after 3000 metres and faded badly near the end, jogging in last with 13:37.75.

“I was confident going into the race, and I felt good coming through the 3000m. But 200 metres later, I was feeling bad. That’s what everyone had told me about racing at this level, that after 3000 it would start to get difficult. I wanted to drop out right there, but I had a lot of people who were expecting something from me, so I stayed with it until the end.”

Always one to quickly apply the lessons learned in what few defeats he has experienced, Cragg rebounded to run a PB 13:12.75 at London’s Crystal Palace four weeks later. It was his dress rehearsal for Athens, where he was the sole European to reach the final.

As the new outdoor season approaches, Cragg for the first time is enjoying the luxury of a late season start instead of being obliged to go immediately from indoor to outdoor competition for his university team. That does not mean his life is less complicated. He is enrolled in a full schedule of classes at the University of Arkansas as he completes his studies in Marketing Management.

He has also recently exchanged his “entropy-designed” bachelor apartment for the impeccably landscaped three-bedroom house he purchased in an outlying area of Fayetteville.

Settling into the couch in his new study on a late winter Saturday, Cragg exuded an inner peace, indicating he has finally found his true home, and with an overabundance of running friends at hand to join him in doing what he does best. He’s come a long way in a short time from those days of sleeping in parks and on floors, and with his zest for competition, Cragg appears to be on the verge of adding his name to athletics’ history.

Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 1 - 2005