Having only started running to get a day off school three years ago, Lucan’s Abdel Laadjel signed scholarship terms with the famed Providence College in Rhode Island, home to the legendary coach Ray Treacy.
In 2017, the Kishoge Community College student was focused on football, coming up through the ranks at Lucan United and then Esker Celtic.
But, along with a few mates, the chance came to duck down the road to the Phoenix Park for the west Leinster cross country championships where he caught the eye of Donore Harriers club coach Gerry Naughton.
“I was only there to take a day off school – the usual thing kids do for cross country,” he told the Dublin Gazette. “I gave it shot and came fourth! Gerry saw I was wearing no running clothes, barely having runners on me.
“He suggested I come down; it took me a year before I came down properly because of football but he said I could do something in running and he wasn’t wrong! Before that, I had never even thought about.
“I didn’t really have an interest but my mam just said ‘have a try’. I just went the odd week but I saw I was getting better and then got a bit of recognition in the school. It felt like I could do much better.”
He hails it as the big moment in his life, saying Naughton became “like a second father” while club physio Lee van Haeften is a “mentor, drilling into me about consistency”.
He is thankful to Donore for supporting him on training camps to Portugal as well as covering physio and blood test costs, adding: “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
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Laadjel admits he did not even watch the Olympics before that time but has since become an expert on middle and long distance running with his family’s north Africa roots, hailing from Algeria, providing an obvious influence.
“I probably know everything about guys like [two-time Olympic gold medalist] Hicham El Gherrouj and [triple gold medalist] Noureddine Morceli! I’ve watched their documentaries and read the books – I’ve really invested my time learning everything about them and about other guys in my sport.
“I am not naïve about the sport anymore. They are the ones I look up to, especially El Gherrouj, as north Africans. They show how good north Africans can be in the middle-distance events.”
“Like every young kid in north Africa, El Gherrouj was more invested in football before seeing he had a future in running. Even though he is one of the best, he talks about saving graces, not winning races, fighting to come back. He is probably one of the best ever despite losing some of the biggest races so I take that attitude on board.
“In nationals, I finished 12th despite training really well for it. Ok, next goal, I was going to beat everyone and managed to jump from 12th back to first.”
He is hopeful of meeting up with Morceli via a family connection with his mother’s cousin working close to him in the Algerian sports realm. They were due to hook up this summer before travel restrictions denied the chance to pick up some tips from a legend.
Nonetheless, the scholarship offer comes at the back end of a tumultuous year. It started as first place junior at the Tom Brennan New Year’s Day 5km, finishing just seven seconds behind Liam Brady, the 2019 senior cross country champ.
With lockdown looming, he did manage to win the All-Ireland Schools intermediate grade cross-country championship but Covid accounted for his chances of representing Ireland at a scheduled meet in Scotland.
He admits the break from action was hugely demotivating and, with no target to work toward, he took a six-week break before coming back strong in the autumn.
It culminated in a silver medal in the national junior 3,000m – a category he qualifies for the next two years – and the scholarship offer came soon after.
Providence were among several American places vying for his attention but the 17-year-old said it was the one he was holding out for.
“I did say it to them [they were my first choice]! Ray Treacy has been there 35 years and developed so many Olympians, always brought people on and has taken some on after college to coach. There’s a lot of Irish there which should make it easier to settle in.
“There’s also a focus on long-distance – not simply middle distance – and that’s where I think I will focus on.”