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'It was like a step back to being an athlete again. You re-appreciate it, and pass on that knowledge'

21 years on from her Olympic silver medal in Sydney, Sonia O’Sullivan talks to The42 about passing the baton on, and much more.

team-ireland-olympic-home-tour-cork Pictured is Sydney 2000 Olympics Silver Medallist Sonia O’Sullivan, working with the Olympics Federation of Ireland and FBD to show support for Team Ireland athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Source: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

“IT’S NON-STOP,” Sonia O’Sullivan laughs at one point during the interview. Still, to this day, the Irish athletics legend is living life in the fast lane. You could hazard a guess that she always will be.

Enjoying the beautiful sunshine in Cork with a fine, big bruschetta in front of her as she takes time out for lunch, her break is at a minimum as media duties continue.

She laughs that she’s an hour behind everything after waking up late, but this is Olympics month. Let the Games begin.

On that, her excitement shines through with each and every word she utters, memories of her stunning 5,000m silver at Sydney 2000 never too far away.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” she tells The42 on a sunny Thursday afternoon Zoom call.

“It kind of comes up quick on me because I always think the Olympics starts next week when the track and field gets going. I’ve still got a week to prepare and get myself organised before I have to go in and do a bit of analysis in RTÉ.

“It will be exciting to see things kicking off. It’s been a long time coming, this Olympics, but then all of a sudden it’s kind of crept up on us really quickly. I’m really, really looking forward to it and looking forward to seeing the first Irish athletes get out there and start performing.”

Encouraging people to keep an eye on Thomas Barr and Ciara Mageean in particular in the athletics, another Irish runner O’Sullivan is really willing on is Aoife Cooke.

A fellow Cork woman, the pair recently joined forces and ran together at Atkinson Trail in Park City, Utah, as Cooke took her Olympic marathon training to altitude.

O’Sullivan, a former world and European champion, was there as part of her work with Nike, having taken up a coaching role in Portland, Oregon, ahead of the Tokyo Games.

Assistant coach to Pete Julian with a Nike training group featuring some of the world’s top distance runners, the Cobh native has really enjoyed her new venture, spreading her wings from her base in Melbourne.

“It’s been great. It was kind of like a step back to being an athlete again. You step into that whole training camp environment. That’s what we have been doing the past two months, there’s been a lot of training camps. We went to Park City in Utah as well and that’s how I connected up with Aoife. I wasn’t staying too far away from her.

“It’s a tough environment to put yourself in for a long time. At one point, we had to come down from altitude and give the athletes a break. That’s probably part of my role of being there; you’re with the athletes and you’re trying to see how they’re coping and managing with the training and then also with the location that we’re in.

sonia-osullivan-2592000 O'Sullivan with her silver medal at Sydney 2000. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Sometimes you have to change things, you have to be open to change. It was a big learning experience for me to see things like that because as athletes, you see your training programme, and the sessions are all down on paper and you feel like you have to do them and tick all the boxes.

“Whereas that’s why you need coaches on the ground with the athletes to help them to reassess and change things if you need to, because sometimes, things change, and you have to be able to adapt.

In the past, she’s spoken about needing time and distance away from athletics before coming back, immersing herself in it again and passing the baton on.

“It took some distance from it all before I could say, ‘Okay, I want to help someone be better than I was,’” she explained in a recent in-depth feature with The Irish Independent about finding her purpose in running again.

She’s comfortable, and at peace, with that relationship now, happily giving back to a sport that gave her so much.

“It’s great now,” she smiles. “I think you kind of re-appreciate being a part of the lifestyle of an athlete and the training environment, to be able to be there on the other side, and to see the value of you being there.

“Whereas, when you retire, sometimes you kind of feel yourself slowing down and you’re not able to be involved anymore. You can feel that your role is over and you have to step away, and you have to go and do other things. Maybe you do for a while, but then it’s so nice to be able to come back into it and to have that understanding and the experience, you never forget that.

“To be able to share that and to relate to athletes today, and how they’re training and to be able to pass on that knowledge and to help them to make decisions based on maybe mistakes that I’ve made in the past…

“You view things differently as the years go on, and you understand things differently, and you learn things as well, so your knowledge is greater.”

It’s fair to say that O’Sullivan will never lose touch with the elite athlete she once was.

She still runs almost every day, and that was a welcome outlet at times during her work with Nike.

“When you’re away at a training camp, there’s only so many hours in the day that the athletes can be training, so you have to fill in the hours somehow,” she grins.

“I’m just grateful that I am running at a level at the moment that I can get myself out for an hour most days and enjoy the really nice environment that you find yourself in when you’re at training camp.

“You can be in the most beautiful places, but you need a little bit of purpose to get yourself out there and to want to go out and run or ride the bike or whatever every day, and just get that little bit of time for yourself to escape and to get away from it all.”

There’s certainly escaping athletics, that’s for sure, the O’Sullivan family still steeped in the sport with Sonia’s daughter, Sophie, just finished her first year at the University of Washington on scholarship.

sophie-osullivan-celebrates-coming-second-with-her-mother-sonia Sonia and Sophie O’Sullivan celebrate at the European Athletics Under 18 Championships in Gyor. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

The 19-year-old, who has represented Ireland since making her debut at the U18 European Championships in 2018, followed in her mother’s footsteps by developing her athletics career further Stateside.

Sophie first shot to prominence on these shores in July 2017 when she stormed to 800m victory at the Morton Games at the age of just 15. Days later, she impressed once again at the National Juvenile Championships.

On her Ireland debut a year later, she won her 800m heat at the European U18 Championships in Gyor before coasting through to the final and taking silver there. She also wore the green vest at the 2018 European Cross Country Championships, and has impressed in Australia and now, the US, through the years since.

“She’s not too far away from where I am based when I’m at home over there, I suppose, in Portland. She’s a couple of hours up the road in Seattle. We were able to meet up a few times.

“She had a bit of an injury towards the end of her track season in America, so she’s just recovering from that now. She’s hoping to get herself back fit and ready to run cross country at the end of the year.

“Hopefully she can get herself fit enough and possibly come and run at the U23 European Cross Country in Dublin in December. That would be the perfect plan but you have to wait to see how these things evolve and how she recovers and gets back in shape again.”

She’s enjoying herself anyway, and that’s what’s most important.

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“She is. She loves it out there, she keeps herself busy no matter what. That’s the main thing, I think, that she can keep herself occupied and busy, and just to be happy where she is. She does miss her friends in Australia a bit, she’s been away for nearly a year now.

“It’s very difficult to just go back to Australia on a short notice now, you still have to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel, it kind of eats into your time, so hopefully things will change a bit more for the positive in the not too distant future.”

That element has certainly been difficult for 51-year-old O’Sullivan, with family spread across the globe between Ireland, America and Australia.

Delighted to be spending some time with her parents in Cobh after a tricky time apart due to the pandemic, there’s still some faces missing with her sister, Gillian, living in Brisbane, and her brother, Tony, based in Chicago.

It’s a nice opportunity to slow down and spend time with loved ones, ahead of what should be another hectic few weeks and months. That’s where the “non-stop” statement comes in, as she tries to figure out what’s coming down the tracks.

“That’s part of the reason coming back to Cobh for a few weeks, to spend a bit of time with my mother and father,” she beams. “I’m just home here at the moment, mainly to have a break myself.

athletics-osullivan-wins O Sullivan storming to victory in the 1500m at the 1997 World Championships in Athens. Source: PA

“It was never a consideration that I would go to Tokyo [with Nike] because there was limited accreditation and access, and it was just gonna be too difficult to get around and have all the coaches and backroom staff out there, particularly because the athletes are involved with their national teams so they have all that support there.

“I did everything to get the athletes ready to go. They’ll be heading to Tokyo this week, and then I’ll reconnect with them later in August when the athletics season gets back going again.

“There’s a big track meeting in Eugene called the Prefontaine Track Meet and a lot of the athletes will come directly from Tokyo to there. I’ll go back out and meet them there, and then come with them back over to Europe for a few late-season races around Europe, in the Diamond League and things like that.”

But the entire focus, for now, is on the Games in Tokyo.

O’Sullivan will be watching the athletics with a keen eye from Montrose alongside Derval O’Rourke and Rob Heffernan, with David Gillick in situ in Tokyo.

That’s to name but a few familiar faces who will be gracing our television screens over the coming weeks, in a different capacity than they so memorably did a few years back.

That’s the way the world works, O’Sullivan concludes with a smile, excited to experience it all from the opposite side of the lens once again.

“It’s like having a mini Olympics,” she concludes. “You have all the old athletes across different sports passing through the hallways in RTÉ. It’s kind of nice to reconnect like that.

“I think we all get a buzz out of watching the Irish athletes and new athletes get out there and compete, and then trying to analyse and share our memories and experiences of the Olympics, and the expectation people have for the athletes who are competing this year.”

***

Olympics Silver Medallist Sonia O’Sullivan, working with the Olympics Federation of Ireland and FBD to show support for Team Ireland athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games. FBD Insurance is a principal sponsor to Team Ireland since September 2018. It is this same spirit of support and protection that sees FBD as Ireland’s largest homegrown insurer support more than 500,000 policyholders for over 50 years.

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Emma Duffy

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