After making an indelible impact on athletics, Sonia O’Sullivan recently retired from competitive running. Paul Fennessy speaks to the Irish icon about her distinguished career.
After seventeen years, numerous medals and a place in the history books as one of Ireland’s greatest ever sporting personalities, Sonia O’Sullivan has reason to be conceited.
However, you can take the girl out of Cobh, but you can’t take Cobh out of her. For all her success, she remains markedly level-headed and despite spending lengthy periods of her life abroad, she has maintained her uniquely Irish characteristics.
She bears all the hallmarks of the pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland persona, a perpetually polite, easy going individual, whose character is entirely devoid of even the merest hint of arrogance or insincerity. Moreover, her words and mannerisms evoke a stark discipline and penetrating poise, owing to her fiercely competitive spirit.
She speaks fondly about her seventeen-year career, singling out her silver medal gained in the Olympics as being an abiding memory, but refusing to elevate it above her impressive array of alternative accomplishments.
‘‘It’s very difficult to win an Olympic medal, so when you do, it does stand out from the rest, [but] I think along the way, when I won my first European Championship medal in 1994, that was a big step up for me to achieve at that sort of a level and then, to continue [the success] for the World Championships in 1995.
“I think when I had a lot of difficulty in ‘96 and ‘97, to come back in ‘98 in the World Cross Country and win the double was really special too.’’
“Confidence and belief is a really big thing, it’s something that you really need to be able to compete at a high level and it’s not impossible to get that”
Although she no longer competes in athletics events, O’Sullivan’s passion for all aspects of the sport remains as fervent as ever. She was recently appointed as manager of the Australian team for the World Cross Country Championships, where she proceeded to guide her runners to a bronze medal finish.
‘‘As soon as I was given the job, I started to think, ‘how can we possibly win a medal here’ and I believed it and I was able to share that with the team and they kind of felt that I believed it and so the belief was there. The girls went out and a lot of them ran above themselves on the day to get that bronze medal, so it was really good.’’
The fact that she was delegated to this prestigious position was particularly fitting, given that the event marked the ten year anniversary of her gold medal triumph in the same competition. With this in mind though, did she find the experience difficult, considering that she is so accustomed to being at the centre of attention for these types of occasions?
‘‘Not really, because you get to a point in your career where you have to move on and go to the next step and that was a really nice bridging thing for me to do that. So I quite enjoyed it and that was one of the first times when I was really able to go to the other side and not feel like I wish I was running.’’
O’Sullivan’s ability to accept retirement is perhaps due to the positive outlook she holds in relation to her athletics career. She seems to have left athletics, secure in the knowledge that she fulfilled her potential and achieved all she possibly could have. While she describes her time in the sport as ‘‘a rollercoaster ride’’ full of highs and lows, she ultimately derives immense satisfaction from this period.
‘‘I’m sure there’s a few points where I may have made different decisions about running certain races, maybe not running them, but of the main things, nothing really stands out that I would have changed that much.’’
As regards Irish athletics, she advocates the view that out of the current crop of contenders, several have the capability to attain success and perhaps even match her heroics. Nonetheless, a tone of caution accompanies these words. She subsequently emphasises some of the important qualities which are essential to succeeding in athletics, while noting that the possession of a high degree of talent does not necessarily guarantee that an athlete will be successful.
‘‘You can have a really talented person who mentally doesn’t have it and just doesn’t go after it, whereas somebody who is less talented may work a lot harder,’’ she asserts. ‘‘Confidence and belief is a really big thing, it’s something that you really need to be able to compete at a high level and it’s not impossible to get that. You just have to speak to the right people and surround yourself with very positive people and people who are going to push you in the direction you need to go.’’
She emphasises how athletics is about more than just the athletes and pays tribute to all those who have overseen her remarkable career: ‘‘There’s loads of people, from being at school as a fifteen- year-old and my very first coach, right up until my physio from 1992, Gerard Parkman, who always guided me in the right way and has been able to see ways forward for me.’’
Such altruistic impulses demonstrate why O’Sullivan has Kerinalways been immensely popular on the sporting circuit. Consequently, her general deportment along with her capacity for inspirational exhibitions of endurance will be sorely missed in the coming years.