Sean McAnuff (24) lines up later this week at the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships (8-10 April) in Montreal, Canada three years on from his first participation in the event. In the meantime, the Irish speed skater has graduated from university, gotten married and moved overseas to a new training base all in the midst of the difficulties involved competing at an elite level during a global pandemic.
Following his graduation from Bishop’s University (Sherbrooke, Quebec) and marriage to Jess, the newlyweds moved from Canada to Budapest, Hungary to train with the Hungarian national team in December 2020. In recent years, Hungary has been a powerhouse nation in short track speed skating with stars such as brothers Shaolin Sándor Liu and Shaoang Liu winning European, World and Olympic medals. After competing alongside and getting to know his Hungarian counterparts over a number of seasons, the opportunity to attend a training camp in July 2020 presented itself.
“I’d never been to Budapest before and it was actually the two hottest weeks they had that year, but the training was really good,” McAnuff recalled. “Immediately, the athletes and the coaches took me in as one of their own and they were just very generous. Even though they all speak Hungarian, obviously, the coaches are very international. There’s a Chinese coach and a Korean coach, so English is the main language spoken for training which made it easier as well.”
Covid-19 inevitably delayed McAnuff’s move to Hungary, but after several months and quarantining over Christmas 2020 he began training full-time in Budapest in January 2021 with his eyes on the target of qualifying a spot for Ireland at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Last summer his focus was on preparing for the four ISU World Cups Olympic qualifying events in autumn 2021.
“Everything went pretty well honestly,” he said. “The equipment, my endurance and my technique – I felt improvements overall.”
The first two World Cups were held in Beijing, China and Nagoya, Japan. McAnuff raced well and even set a new personal best in the 1500 metres, but he found that his fellow athletes had also raised the bar during the off-season.
“The competition was very high,” he said. “I looked around and I realised how much everyone else trained. It wasn’t a shock. I didn’t expect to be getting a gold medal out there, but it was very clear that everyone really worked hard coming into this Olympic season. It was a tough competition and overall I was pleased with my placement and my strategy. There were things I got to learn and work on, but also some little successes too.”
However, on his return to Europe to prepare for the final two World Cups in Debrecen, Hungary and Dordrecht, Netherlands, he tested positive for Covid-19.
“I didn’t really have symptoms when I got the positive tests, but the next day it hit me,” he said. “I was out of training for five weeks. All of November into the first week of December, I was off.
“In those five weeks, I missed the third and fourth Olympic qualifiers in Europe. I was really looking forward to them and it was really difficult to not be able to compete. I felt like I worked for the last four years and then Covid hit me and I couldn’t test negative.
“I think I could have gone to race, but I don’t know how I would have performed physically after the illness. That was really hard mentally. I had to come back and focus on why I’m skating. The Olympics is a goal, but I really do treasure building the community in the sport.”
McAnuff has also connected with the Irish community in Hungary and the Irish Ambassador to Hungary, His Excellency Mr. Ronan Gargan, has even come to watch one of his training sessions.
“The morning of the practice, I was notified he was coming to watch and he wanted to see me skate and meet me,” McAnuff said “That was really cool.
“There’s a lot of Irish restaurants, which is awesome. I can always go and feel like I’m sitting on the streets of Dublin in a little bar or restaurant. There’s some some great musicians we go watch. There is actually a solid Irish community here and, funnily enough, my wife and I live near the Veterinary University and there are hundreds of Irish students studying right here on on the campus.”
McAnuff and his wife are also full-time missionaries and through their church they have been involved in outreach programmes and voluntary activities. Recently, they have been actively supporting refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine which shares a border with Hungary.
“This organisation that we volunteer with is called Youth With A Mission and their base in Budapest is connected with one in Kyiv. They would message us and tell us they have a family coming over arriving at the border at a certain time and ask us if we can go pick them up. We would get a rental car and drive to the border. It’s about three hours to three and a half hours away. We’ve done that multiple times. Sometimes you don’t even have their phone numbers, so we just have their name on a sign.
“We pick refugees up and bring them back to the city. Then we would put them up either in a hotel or even in our apartment. We have a spare bed, so we would house them, or if they already had a destination, we figured out how to get them there.
“Aside from the the border runs, the other thing we would do would be grocery shopping for refugees. People in Canada, and actually internationally, who we’re raising funds with, are sending us money to help these refugees.
“We just get to help these refugees going through a ridiculously hard time. Most of them come with just a backpack. They need sweaters. They need socks. They need shoes.
“Just how thankful they are, the tears in their eyes, the smiles on their face, and the hugs they give – you don’t even need to speak the language. They’re just so thankful that people here are helping.
“The organisation we’re volunteering with actually have vehicles going into Ukraine. I’ll be going on some runs into Ukraine once I get back from Worlds. It sounds very intense, but obviously we take the proper safety precautions and security.”
Being born and growing up in Canada, McAnuff is looking forward to going back to Montreal to race in a venue with which he is very familiar.
“It is very exciting and I’ve raced in the Maurice Richard Arena a dozen times over my lifetime, because it’s a quick drive from Ontario, where I grew up,” McAnuff said. “It’s kind of nostalgic to be back in that rink. The last time I was there was for the World Championships in 2018, at the end of the Olympic season. My brother Ryan was the one competing as we only had one spot. I was there as an alternate. Looking back now, it’s four years later and the same situation at the end of the Olympic season, but this time it’s me representing Ireland. I would say it’s a little extra special just to be there representing Ireland so close to where I was born and grew up as well. I will get to see some familiar faces and reunite.”
McAnuff will compete with teammate Liam O’Brien and it will be the first time that Ireland will have two entries in the same category at an ISU World Championships.
“I’m very excited to have Liam there as well,” McAnuff said. “We only got to really train together for those first two Olympic qualifiers, but it was fun to get to know each other more. Just having a teammate there is also nice. You can talk about your races and just decompress a little too.”
The ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships begin this Friday, 8 April 2022 with the qualification rounds. Follow the ISAI social media accounts for updates from Montreal!