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The College Years - 'She set her goals and she was going to go after it. That was her attitude'

We retrace Sonia O’Sullivan’s time at Villanova with her former coach and teammate.

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SONIA O’SULLIVAN COULDN’T sleep. She had just moved to America, but she wasn’t feeling homesick. She wasn’t worried about the high quality of her new team-mates either, and it wasn’t even the stress fracture that she had nursed on the long flight over that was troubling her. Sonia O’Sullivan couldn’t sleep because her new home was just too loud.

It’s a memory that still stirs a laugh from her old college coach, Marty Stern.

“She said she couldn’t sleep because there was noises outside,” says Stern, his thick Philadelphia accent dragging out each word.

“What it was, it was crickets! That was the first night she was there, and there wasn’t anyone around. She heard these crickets all night and she couldn’t figure out what they were. I guess they don’t have them in Ireland, but we always joked about that.”

Back in O’Sullivan’s native Cobh, Stern is the type of man who may have been labeled a ‘character’. Distinctive in his glasses and bowler hat, Stern claims that ever since he was a little boy attending the famous Penn Relays at Franklin Field, he only ever wanted to be a coach. So that was exactly what he did. Having worked his way up the coaching ladder, he took charge of the women’s athletics programme at Pennsylvania’s Villanova University in the mid-1980s, where he would end up playing a major role in the development of a young Sonia O’Sullivan.

Stern watched plenty of athletes come and go at Villanova University, but few made as big an impression as O’Sullivan. At 83, Stern admits his memory is not what it used to be, but he can still remember the first time he ever heard her name. He paints a vivid scene of searching out a payphone near the beach while on vacation over 30 years ago, keen to check his messages in case anything interesting was happening back home. One message was from Irish middle-distance runner and Villanova athlete Gerry O’Reilly. Stern was struck by the excitement in O’Reilly’s voice as he listed of the times he had just watched a promising young runner clock at a meet in Cork. Stern wanted this girl on his athletics team. 

Calls were made and flights were booked. O’Sullivan was given a full tour of the Villanova campus and brought to see Franklin Fields. It was here where she first met Vicki Huber (now Huber-Rudawsky), one of the most promising rising stars in American athletics at the time.

“Marty Stern liked to bring out the big guns when he had recruits that he really wanted to come,” explains Huber-Rudawsky.

“I remember one of the biggest things we did was we took her to Franklin Fields, the Penn Relays Stadium, and Marty was like ‘This is where it all happens!’… ‘This is where Villanova makes history!’… all that kind of stuff.”

O’Sullivan would later admit that only something serious would have swayed her from Villanova. While she may not have showed it, she wanted them as much as they wanted her. The college had a long history of recruiting top-class Irish athletes. Ronnie Delany and Eamon Coughlan had both worn the blue and white of Villanova, but more pertinent to O’Sullivan was the fact that fellow Cork native Marcus O’Sullivan also called the college home. As it happened, Marcus O’Sullivan had recently finished at Villanova but still lived near the campus, so the pair arranged to meet up. That conversation helped to seal the deal.

While in some ways O’Sullivan was following a well-worn path, in others she was breaking new ground. For all Villanova’s links to Irish athletics, they had never recruited a female Irish track-and-field athlete before. Stern quickly got a sense that there was something different about her. He points out that no other Irish athlete had even sought a tour before agreeing to join. That immediately impressed him.

eamonn-coghlan-at-home Villanova star Eamonn Coghlan at home with his parents Source: ©INPHO

“She was very mature for her age,” he remembers.”She wasn’t like a giggly girl or anything. She fit in very comfortably right away. She spoke well, was a good communicator, she was intelligent. I’m sure she wasn’t relaxed but she appeared to be, and they are the things you look at when you first meet someone.

“She got on well with everyone, everyone liked her, and so did the coaches.”

Not only was she a hugely talented athlete, Stern recalls how she also excelled in her studies, graduating with a degree in Accounting after joining on an athletic scholarship.

Yet her early days at Villanova represented one of the most frustrating periods of O’Sullivan’s career. On the day she left Ireland in 1987, Stern’s wife, Sharon, made the three hour drive to New York to pick her up from the airport. O’Sullivan threw her crutches into the back of the car and hopped into the passenger seat. It took longer than expected for her stress fracture to heal, but the other athletes were keen to keep her involved as she settled into her new surroundings. If adjusting to life in a new city wasn’t tough enough, it was safe to assume she had never worked with a coach like Stern before.

“Marty must have threw her for a loop, as far as ‘This guy is going to be my coach?,” says Huber-Rudawsky.

“She was very, very quiet, she was shy, and even the first year when she had a stress fracture, she did a lot of her workouts on the grassy fields by herself while we were doing track workouts and stuff.”

The path to success was clear at Villanova. In 1988 Huber became the first female Villanova runner to make the United States Olympic team. O’Sullivan and her team-mates gathered round the television to watch Huber take to the track in Seoul. This was the level O’Sullivan wanted to reach, but her injuries had been holding her back. She was frustrated that the college wasn’t seeing the best of her. Her parents worried when she returned home with her hair dyed different colours, having put on weight. Her friends joked about the new American twang in her accent.

“Her father, John, was concerned,” explains Stern. “He called me one day and said that we could send her home if we wanted. He thought that it wasn’t right for her to come over the United States, come to Villanova, and get all these things that we were providing like education and expense money, and he didn’t think that was fair to us. I told him it didn’t matter and not to worry about it. We never had that conversation again.”

As her injuries healed O’Sullivan became increasingly determined to make an impact. She spent hours and hours out on the grass training by herself. The hard work began to pay off as her times steadily improved. Even in a college bursting with promising athletes, her appetite for work stood out.

In an interview with Runner’s World at the time, Stern was effusive in his praise for her.

“Sonia is as talented as any runner I’ve ever coached, and she loves to run,” he told the magazine. “That’s a tough combination to beat. Sometimes, she actually has a smile on her face when she’s running a workout.”

“There was an intensity about her,” Huber-Rudawsky says. “I mean, I know I couldn’t do my workouts just looping around a field. Anybody that can just run loops and loops around a hockey field or a soccer field, they have an intensity and a focus that is pretty amazing. She definitely had a stubbornness to her with that determination, but in a good way when it came to training. She set her goals and she was going to go after it. That was her attitude.”

sonia-osullivan Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

She forced her way into the Villanova team, named the Wildcats, and the medals quickly began to trickle in. In 1990 O’Sullivan won two NCAA 3,000 meters titles, and played a central role in a team that went on to record unprecedented success under the leadership of Stern, more commonly known as ‘Uncle Marty’. 

Philadelphia born and bred, Stern used to pray for each one of his 40-plus student athletes on the way to and from work every day. On the way home he would reflect on the sessions, and then as soon as he got in the door he would ring any athlete with whom he didn’t feel he had had a satisfactory relationship with that day. He still prays for O’Sullivan, and has been keeping track on the progress of her daughter, Sophie, another promising young athlete. She gets a prayer too now.

“Marty was colourful, if that’s the right word,” Huber-Rudawsky laughs.

“He was fairly new, so I think I was part of maybe his first or second recruiting classes, and he ended up with really good talent. That started building a really strong team, and of course adding Sonia to the mix was amazing. But he was tough. I read an article Sonia recently wrote in response to the Mary Cain story, and it’s funny that she brought up that we got weighed every Monday on a scale. I mean, Marty wouldn’t tell you that you were fat, but you know, everybody thought it was them. He was a hard coach and he could be tough on you. He made a lot of girls cry, but he also hugged a lot of girls too.”

Now retired, Stern remains hugely proud of the college’s achievements, and can quickly list off the various titles won under his tenure as the Villanova Wildcats dominated women’s athletics. In her time at Villanova O’Sullivan was a three-time NCAA champion, led Villanova to three straight national titles in cross-country, and was the NCAA individual champion in 1990 and 1991.

“If you could imagine the work-outs that we had, I’m looking at a picture here on the wall where I am sitting,” Stern says down the phone, speaking from his Philadelphia home. 

“It’s a picture of an NCAA championship team in cross-country, and on the picture are one, two, three, four… five Olympians, including Sonia. So that’s the kind of people she worked out with, and she was a member of all these great championship teams that we had, and we still hold the record in the Unites States for the most NCAA Championships won by a women’s team. She’s part of all of that. She was part of a lot of winning.  

“She had her problems. She would get hurt once in a while, but she was fine, it all worked out really well and she was a credit to Ireland. We always made it clear, the Irish athlete at Villanova, that’s a big thing. The men had great runners like Ron Delany, Coughlan, Donald Walsh and so many others. She had a lot of backing from those. Some of them would call and talk to her on the phone, help her understand us and us understand her, and she was always very welcome and loved at Villanova. I’m sure that was mutual.” 

Her success also reignited the link between Villanova and Ireland. Stern traveled to Ireland a number of times over the next few years, watching O’Sullivan race in front of her home crowd and visiting the family home in Cobh. On another visit he had a reception with the Lord Mayor in Dublin, and hosted some coaching clinics. He still keeps occasional contact with O’Sullivan via email.

ronnie-delany Former Olympic gold medal winner Ronnie Delany. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Huber and O’Sullivan would continue to cross paths on the professional circuit, where their rivalry intensified.

“I don’t know how much we actually raced against each other [in college], but maybe I didn’t really sense any rivalry at that stage because I was exiting out and Sonia was maybe working towards me and what I had achieved at Villanova,” Huber adds.

“She was probably thinking ‘Yeah, I’m going to be NCAA champion, and I’m going to do this and that’. So maybe she felt it a little bit more, and I just wasn’t as focused on that. I wasn’t turning around at that stage and looking at who was chasing me. Maybe I wasn’t feeling the rivalry, just more of a camaraderie. But then afterwards, post-college and everything, I definitely felt a little rivalry, because we raced each other at the World Cross Country Championships in Boston [1992], and we raced each other in Atlanta [1996 Olympics], so there was a couple of times where we came across each other as professionals.”

Huber battled a number of injuries across a distinguished career that included a fourth-place finish at the 1992 World Cross County Championships and an American road record at 5k. She watched on as her old shy college team-mate won a litter of medals which included Olympic silver, three European gold and one World Championship gold, becoming one of only three Wildcats to qualify for four Olympic Games.

“I was definitely amazed by what Sonia did,” she admits. “You know, a runner’s career can go any way at any time with injuries and just life. Some people burn out, or who knows… I was a little envious of the way she was able to put everything together just at the right times and do so well at Worlds and Olympics.

“But then I thought back to the fact that she was just a really darn stubborn person at Villanova, so of course that happened for her!”

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