Former “Ceol na Gael” host Kerri Gallagher, placed 3rd, and Shannon Rowbury was 2nd in the 1,500 meters at the USATF Championships and went on to represent their country in Beijing in August.
By Colleen Taylor
What do the 2015 IAAF World Track and Field Championships and Irish music have in common? As it turns out, a couple of things, but the most important of those is Kerri Gallagher. Gallagher, who qualified for Team USA in the 1,500 meters and raced against the world’s fastest women a couple months ago in Beijing, has always been a top-class athlete in the making. She led her team at Bishop Kearney High School and later earned the university-wide title of MVP at Fordham, which catapulted her to a professional training and coaching career at American University under Coach Matt Centrowitz. Historically, however, it hasn’t just been the track for Gallagher. The Rockaway, Queens, native also moonlighted under another celebrity career for a time: Irish music DJ.
When she wasn’t running around the Bronx, Gallagher was behind the mic at WFUV Radio as host of “Ceol na Gael” (“The Music of the Irish”), sharing Irish tunes with over 75,000 listeners in the greater New York area. She had a far bigger audience when she ran in Beijing, of course, but Irish music still grips the core of Kerri’s identity, as well as her competitive drive. Irish music is both her pre-race adrenaline and her main social outlet. When I caught up with the star about her experience at the Worlds, she proved she’s still an Irish music connoisseur. In fact, despite the fact that she came in third in the nation in the 1,500, that she made her PR this year, that she took on world-class competition Beijing, Gallagher still said, “I think that day I hosted ‘Ceol na nGael’ with Eileen Ivers was the best day of my life.”
After “Ceol na nGael,” Gallagher was far more used to asking the questions than she was answering them, but her running career has made her familiar with being interviewed. She explained her third place finish at USA’s to me in laymen’s terms: “If you asked me before USA’s, my main goal was to make the final, and I wouldn’t have really been able to say what that meant. So the third place was a big surprise. I was patient and stayed out of trouble [during the race].”
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But it wasn’t over just then. Not only did Kerri have to place top three in the nation to make it to the world championships (which happens every other year), she also had to beat a 1,500 time of 4.06. Sounds like a cruel and nigh impossible challenge after working so hard to make third in the nation—but not for Gallagher. A couple weeks later in Italy, she ran 4.03. (Races are often somewhat slower because of tactical running and so Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba won gold in Beijing on a time of 4:08:09. Gallagher qualified in her heat with a time of 4:06.34, which Dibaba won in 4:02:59, and the New Yorker was 8th in her semifinal with 4:17:63, compared to the winner’s 4:15:38.)
Beijing was excitement, nerves, sensory overload and one nostalgic moment of Irish music for Gallagher. “That was my first real experience of international racing,” she said, “It was different but exciting and fun and challenging.” She recalls the best parts of the experience were interacting in the international dining hall and getting to know her competitors on a personal level. “It was cool getting to know some of the women I race against, to go from following their races online to getting to know them personally.” After racing early in the week and making it to the semi-finals, Gallagher was finally able to squeeze in a big of sightseeing, including the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square.
Gallagher saw a bit of Ireland in Beijing too. China treated their visiting athletes to a banquet at the end of the championships, which included traditional Chinese music, pop stars, dancing Kung Fu pandas, and, surprisingly, a Chinese traditional Irish music band. Gallagher was thrilled. While no one else in the audience seemed to know what to make of the trad band, Gallagher was over the moon. “That performance was very, very cool. I was so excited and clapping along,” she said, laughingly adding, “but I was the only one.” So she took a video of the performance to share with her old “Ceol na nGael” network back home.
Running and music still mix in interesting ways for the former host. Despite her busy schedule, she listens to “Ceol na nGael” religiously down in D.C. “It was a nice piece of home when I first moved to D.C. It was pretty comforting in that way.” She even met a former fan at the USA championship last year, who was shocked to have encountered a “Ceol na nGael” host and running star in one package. Gallagher is grateful for the links the music still brings to her life: “Somehow CNG always comes up. The show is so far-reaching, it’s ridiculous. I’m still amazed at how I connect with people so randomly still, four years later.”
When you’re an international athlete, you don’t often take the weekends off, but any free time Gallagher does allow herself is spent with live Irish music. Since moving to D.C., Gallagher has attended Eileen Ivers’s show in Virginia every year. One time, she even drove over an hour to make the gig. Ivers keeps up with Gallagher too. During Kerri’s time as host, the two women once spent four hours together behind the mics, when Ivers guest-hosted the show. “When I saw [Eileen] a couple years back at her show, she remembered! She was asking me about running.” Ever humble and gracious, it’s clear the fame hasn’t gone to Gallagher’s head.
But it’s certainly gone to Rockaway’s. The neighborhood is proud to claim Kerri Gallagher as their own. They did so when her voice was on the airwaves each Sunday, and now the community watches her dash around the track on TV. Gallagher’s family, who still reside in Rockaway, were elated watching her race in Beijing. “My dad was telling me I made him famous back in Rockaway,” Gallagher said with a chuckle.
Unlike the average athlete, the ever-focused Gallagher doesn’t listen to music while she runs. But the tunes are still an essential part of her pre-race routine. She has a couple playlists she listens to in the lead up to a race, and they’re full of her favorites from “Ceol na nGael.” “Those haven’t left my repertoire—they still get me pumped. All that music gets me excited in my warm-up.” If you’re looking to pump up your own workout with the playlist of an international athlete, Gallagher swears by Lunasa, Natalie MacMaster, Solas, the Chieftains, and of course, Ivers.
When I first met my former co-host Gallagher five years ago at “Ceol na nGael,” I knew two things at once: firstly, she was a natural star, and secondly, her passion for Irish music was infectious. I’m glad to see those two things remain true today, as does her graciousness and ambition. Reflecting on Beijing, the runner still isn’t satiated: “I feel like I’m capable of more, so it’s more motivating that anything else.” No doubt Gallagher will motivate herself to greater wins this year and next, and Irish music will be there to help meter out the rhythms of her racing. “Whenever I’m looking for music, I always go to Irish music. It’s just more fun and meaningful for me,” she said.
Keep an eye on Gallagher at aueagles.com; she’s making Irish America proud.