As he continues to progress into one of the world’s elite distance runners, Patrick Tiernan always can look back on his growth through eight years as a Villanova athlete and assistant coach and having a four-time Olympian as a coach and mentor.
Tiernan, 26, is in the Olympics for a second time representing his native Australia to compete in the 10,000- and 5,000-meter runs in Tokyo. And although he has moved his training base to Eugene, Ore., to train with elite runners who have world-class experience, he still touches base with Wildcats coach Marcus O’Sullivan for advice.
“Marcus is a voice of reason for me in the sport,” Tiernan said in a recent interview. “He’s had a very big impact on me and I was lucky enough to spend seven to eight years coached by him. Even now, we’re still very close mates and stay in regular contact. ... He went to four Olympic Games, won three world indoor titles, and his track record is just impeccable.
“He’s someone who’s been there and done everything that I could imagine. So having him in my corner has been really beneficial to me. It was a fantastic program for me to be a part of, and really it was a success. If you look at athletes that come out of there and go on to a professional level, they’ve all achieved very high things.”
Tiernan competed in his first Olympics, the 2016 Games in Rio, while still a Villanova undergraduate. He finished his 5,000 heat in 13 minutes, 28.48 seconds, a time that did not advance him to the final. But it gave him valuable experience. Later that year, he won his fourth straight Big East Conference cross-country title and followed that up with the NCAA individual championship.
He said the best advice that O’Sullivan gave him about running is that track and field is a “selfish” sport.
“It doesn’t mean you’ve become a selfish person, but there are certain times when you have to do what’s best for you,” Tiernan said. “I’d say the biggest piece of advice he gave me was that the people who understand that are the ones who are worth keeping around. I think I’ve been able to build my circle of people around that sort of environment and around that advice.”
O’Sullivan said the key is to surround oneself with people who provide positive energy.
“It becomes this all-consuming thing, more emotional than anything, from the people around you,” he said. “If the people around you are not with you, then you have to remove them, or you have to remove yourself from those people, which is selfish in many ways because you might love them or you might really be happy with the people. But they’re not helping. That’s what I mean about being selfish.”
Tiernan has found that with his current training situation. The group is coached by Mark Rowand, who won the bronze medal in the steeplechase at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and includes Olympic finalists Hassan Mead and Ben Blankenship, and former world indoor champion and Easton native Chanelle Price.
Last December, about six months after joining the group, Tiernan ran a personal-best and Australian record time of 27:22.55 in the 10,000 to qualify for Tokyo. He said that performance allowed him to create a “six- to seven-month training block” when he could concentrate on his Olympic preparation.
“I didn’t really have to do much else racing-wise or anything outside of that,” he said. “So it’s kind of been a very good lead-up for me in that regard.”
Tiernan’s fiancée, former Villanova standout Angel Piccirillo, also went out West and joined a training group in Bend, Ore., about two hours away from Eugene, and competed in the U.S. Track and Field Olympic trials.
The participation of Tiernan and Siofra Cleirigh Buttner, who will compete in the women’s 800 for Ireland, extends Villanova’s streak of having at least one contestant in every Olympics since 1948.
Tiernan said his main focus in Tokyo is the 10,000, which will be contested on Friday, the opening day of the track and field competition. The field, led by world record holder Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda, is a formidable one, and Tiernan knows he’ll have to go under 27 minutes to have a shot at a medal.
“Anything can happen in a major championship,” he said. “I think realistically it’s going to be a sub-27 race, probably even closer to 26:40. So it would have to be a very big [personal best] for me, and it looks on paper that it’s unrealistic.
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“But I ran in December in a race that was set up to run around 27:20, and that’s what we did. So you’ve got to put yourself in a race that’s set up to run 26:40 to be able to figure out whether you can do it. So we’ve prepared for that, tried to get that sort of pace as comfortable as we can get it. Now it’s just all about going out there and staying as relaxed as I can through the first half and then really bringing it home.”
O’Sullivan said a race like the 10,000 presents a number of variations. He said a slow pace, when the contenders sit back and unleash their kick in the final lap, does not benefit Tiernan.
“He can tell you he won’t be in that,” he said. “What I’m looking for him is the surprise run, a run where he shines and a run where he’s actually doing his very, very best in there. Then, at that point, anything can happen.”