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'That was my final track race. She didn't even try to win the race, she just tried to beat me'

Sonia O’Sullivan speaks to The42 as she reflects on life after turning 50.
Dec 4th 2019, 8:01 AM 70,746 7

SONIA O’SULLIVAN’S relationship with running has changed over the years.

sonia-osullivan-celebrates-winning-1995 Sonia O'Sullivan after winning the women's 5,000m final at the 1995 World Championships. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

Once an elite competitor with international ambitions on her mind, there was always a ready-made purpose behind her reason for running in those days.

Success, medals, testing the limits, setting new race records and surpassing them. O’Sullivan measured herself against the best long-distance runners the world had to offer. Sometimes she had their number, sometimes they had her’s.

She never had to contemplate the targets that were worth chasing. They were already cast in stone for her. She just had to put one foot in front of the other and grab them.

But things are different now. O’Sullivan turned 50 last week, and those high-flyer objectives have long since drifted out of her sight. 

These days, it’s not about running at top speed with a goal in mind. Her motivation for lacing up the shoes is much purer than that. It’s about running for the sake of running.

“I just really enjoy it,” O’Sullivan explains to The42.

On the day we speak, the four-time Olympian is on her way to meet long-time friend and physical therapist, Gerard Hartmann. The plan is to pick up some coffee beans at a roastery and head out together for 10km run.

The purpose? Just for the sheer enjoyment of putting one leg in front of the other and taking in the fresh air. O’Sullivan doesn’t require anything more from her running now.

It really annoys me when people ask, ‘what are you training for?’ I’m like, ‘well I’m not training, I’m just exercising.’ I don’t see it as training. Even though I might sit down on a Sunday night to work out what days I can run or where will I be. It’s really kind of a scheduling thing and being more efficient with my time throughout the week.”

“I don’t just like going for a run around the block, I like to go to a park or a forest or a lake. Somewhere that’s away from the traffic and where you can relax and enjoy the run.”

sonia-osullivan-and-gerard-hartmann-2032003 O'Sullivan and Gerard Hartmann. Source: INPHO

O’Sulivan is content in her new running regime, but that wasn’t always the case.

Those competitive urges don’t just slip away into the night. The body endures the aches and pains over the years, but the mind doesn’t forget what the body is capable of doing.

It’s hard to let go.

That change in her life sometimes led to strained relations between O’Sullivan and her running. She didn’t always like it but she never lost her love of the sport.

And she found a way to adjust and run in a way that suited her body’s new abilities.

I never got to the point where I didn’t want to do it but I definitely had plenty of times when I didn’t enjoy it. I think even when I was competing, it wasn’t something you enjoy. You did it because you were good at it and enjoyed the success. You didn’t enjoy the times when you weren’t successful.

“It was enjoyment for how so many people enjoy running now.

“So there was definitely a transition period where I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I wasn’t able to run fast enough or compete. I didn’t want to run slow either, I wanted to have some purpose for my running and for a while, there was no purpose.

“It took a bit of time and effort to do that. And to realise that health and fitness aren’t just for elite athletes, it’s for everybody. You get that when you have kids as well and you try to be a good role model for them.

“The thing is balance and that it doesn’t become all about you and your exercise. That’s just a small part of your day.”

sophie-osullivan-is-presented-with-her-silver-medal-by-her-mother-sonia-osullivan Sophie O'Sullivan pictured with her mother Sonia after winning a silver medal at the U18 European Championships last year. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

The end of her time on the track neatly dovetails with the progression of her daughter Sophie’s running career. The two have raced against each other a few times and their final encounter was a real nail-biter.

The lioness almost caught her cub over the last few strides, but youth edged out experience that day.

“That was my final track race I think,” O’Sullivan recalls.

“We ran a 1,500m and it was one of these things pace races in Australia, a miler’s club race. That was my last chance to beat her.

“I was coming into the straight and she was ahead of me and I was thinking I could catch up to her and then she looked over her shoulder and saw me and that was the end,” she laughs.

We were kind of in the middle of the race. It was funny because she didn’t even try to win the race she just tried to beat me. Even the commentators in the stadium were more focused on the two of us than they were on the race.”

O’Sullivan was inducted into the Irish Athletics Hall of Fame last week. She was honoured at the Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards on the same day as her 50th birthday.

There was a cake at the ceremony to mark the occasion as O’Sullivan smiled for some pictures, and stood alongside the 2019 Irish Athlete of the Year Ciara Mageean. The pair have been in contact ever since the Down native first arrived onto the international scene as a junior.

The greatest and the latest sharing the stage together.

ciara-mageean-with-sonia-osullivan O'Sullivan and Ciara Mageean at the Irish Life Health Athletics Awards. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Many felt the Hall of Fame award was a long overdue recognition of O’Sullivan’s distinguished career in athletics.

After achieving so much at European, World and Olympic level, the Irish public pondered as to why the Cork woman had to wait this long for the prestigious accolade. 

But the delay is not down to an oversight on the part of Irish athletics hierarchy.

O’Sullivan explains that she was offered a place in the Hall of Fame before but the Olympic silver medalist declined the invitation. She felt there were other Irish athletes who were more deserving of the award at the time.

“I thought I was too young,” she recalls of that first attempt to give her the inaugural Hall of Fame award in 2007.

I was only recently retired and there was every chance I would come back out and run again. I didn’t think I was old enough to go into the Hall of Fame so I suppose when you’re 50, you’re old enough.

“When you look at people like Ronnie Delany, Eamonn Coughlan, John Treacy, Frank O’Mara, Marcus O’Sullivan – these are all athletes that I looked up to. Even though, in the grand scheme of things, I probably achieved more success than them in medals. [But] they were still the pioneers of Irish sport for me to look up.

“I didn’t want to step over the mark there. I thought they should also lead the way in filling up the history books and keep a reminder of their achievements.”

O’Sullivan has never lingered on her achievements in sport for too long. She gives the past nothing more than a backward glance, preferring to look ahead to the future instead.

Memories of a race or a training session might pop up now and again before slipping back into the recesses of her mind once more. As her former athletics coach Seán Kennedy told The42 as part of our ‘Sonia Week’ series, everything is geared towards the next race.

“I’m always looking forward. I never really look back,” says O’Sullivan, echoing her old coach’s advice.

“You don’t really dwell on things you did before and I think you get on with life. It’s just another part of my life that I put to the side and it pops up every now and then.”

But O’Sullivan has taken time to reflect lately. A combination of turning 50, the Irish Athletics awards, and ‘Sonia Week’ on The42 has enabled her to reminisce. 

sonia-osullivan-after-receiving-a-birthday-cake-on-the-occasion-of-her-50th-birthday A birthday cake for the birthday girl. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Reading the accounts of those who were with her throughout her athletics career was a pleasant experience for her.

It was quite funny because [Irish runner] Sinéad Diver had just come back from New York after the marathon and she was sending me a message wishing me a happy birthday and she said ‘are we having a Sonia week in Australia as well?’ she laughs.

“I really enjoyed it, seeing different people and their perspective. It was great to see my sister [Gillian] get on as well.

“I sent Marty Stern a message as well. It was a nice way to reconnect with people. You see them on Facebook but you’re really not always messaging back and forth so this gave [me] a reason to send a message and connect up again.

It was really good, you could see the reaction. The first morning I walked out the door at home in Cobh. Everyone was saying happy birthday even though it was a day later. Never did so many people know it was my birthday.”

Looking back at her athletics career involves taking in the good and bad days. Those who lived through O’Sullivan’s career will recall her painful end at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when she failed to finish the final of the women’s 5,000m.

sonia-osullivan-olympics-1996 O'Sullivan in action at the 1996 Olympics. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

O’Sullivan has often remarked that a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney would have erased the hurt from the previous Games. However, that didn’t materialise as she came home with a silver medal instead.

Thinking back now, she concedes that she still considers the ‘what if’ scenarios, but adds that the elusive top podium spot might not have been the best outcome for her.

“You do kind of wonder ‘what if?’ but there’s so many other things in my life that were probably affected by that happening. Everything would probably change. You do wonder sometimes about what if you did things differently or if your results were different but then everything else would be different as well.

It would be a whole chain reaction of things. It could be good, could be better or it could be worse. It’s hard to know but I’m sure my life would be a lot different if I was Olympic gold medalist.

“And even if I was Olympic gold medalist in ’96, maybe it would have been different. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the same motivation that I had in 2000 that I did.”

O’Sullivan’s daughter Sophie is a much different athlete to the Cobh girl who we watched run in Gothenburg, Helsinki and beyond.

Sophie enjoys “the social side” of athletics.

And she doesn’t feel any pressure when people identify her as Sonia’s daughter rather than seeing her as the individual who won a silver medal for Ireland in the 800m at last year’s U18 European Championships.

She went round and told everyone she’d changed her name to daughter of Sonia- ‘DOS’ she was calling herself,” O’Sullivan laughs, knowing that her daughter is well-equipped to carve out her own path in sport.

“She’s quite funny. She sees the humour in these things and I think she doesn’t even pay attention or listen to it. It’s water off a duck’s back with her. She’s on her own agenda.

“And I’m happy to encourage that as much as possible. As much as she will be compared to me we try not to do that, and just enjoy athletics.

sophie-osullivan Sophie is very much her own person, according to her mother. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“The fact that she’s been successful so far has been fantastic but there’s a long way to go from when you’re a school girl and winning national medals and going to European Youths.”

Similar to her mother, Sophie is considering going to college in America where she can develop her athletics career further. O’Sullivan famously attended Villanova University in Pennsylvania, but that won’t necessarily be Sophie’s destination as well.

“I think she’s a little bit reluctant to go to Villanova,” says O’Sullivan “If she goes there and she likes it then of course that would be great. There’s so many good colleges with good programmes for athletes academically and athletically.”

While Sophie works through that decision in her own time, her sister Ciara is also making her way throughout life, and is studying at Melbourne University. The pair didn’t travel to Ireland with O’Sullivan for the Hall of Fame award, but they’ll all be reunited back in Australia for the Christmas holidays. 

O’Sullivan’s achievements are firmly cemented in the annals of Irish sporting history, even if she can’t rhyme them all off from memory. She sometimes wonders how she managed to accomplish what she did during the height of her career.

Running remains a cornerstone part of her life. The only difference now is she’s running solely for the sake of enjoyable running.

That’s all she needs now.

I am able to get out and run pain-free and enjoy it. It took a long time to adjust the level of running to be able to do that. Your instinct is just to get out and run as fast as you know you can run.

“Over time I’ve just retrained my body to run comfortably and know what I can do and know when I have to take a day off.”

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