© Copyright – 2013 – Athletics Illustrated
Sonia O’Sullivan represented Ireland on the international athletics stage for 19 years between 1988 and 2007. In that time she competed in four Olympic Games, six World Cross Country Championships, six World Track and Field Championships and five European Championships, medalling 11 times, including double gold during the 1998 World Cross Country Championships. She also won a silver medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games 5000 metre race and gold in the 5000 metre event at the 1995 World Championships. She set an Olympic 5000 metre record in Atlanta with her 15:15.80 semi-final win.
Her range as a top-level athlete stretched from 800 metres, where her best at that distance is an international quality 2:00:69 to the marathon, where she has run as fast as 2:29.01. She set at least seven national records from the 1000 metre distance to the half-marathon. She also owns three world records in the 2000 metre and 2 mile distances as well as taking the world indoor 5000m record at the age of 22, by finishing in 15:17.28.
The mother of two grew up in Cobh, Country Cork, Ireland and has recently moved to Australia. O’Sullivan retired before the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games, and has started a new venture called AgRith; an athlete mentoring service.
800 m – 2:00.69
1500 m – 3:58.85 NR (July 1995)
Mile run – 4:17.25 NR
3000 m – 8:21.64 NR
5000 m – 14:41.02 NR
10,000 m – 30:47.59 NR
Half marathon – 67:19 NR
Marathon – 2:29:01
Christopher Kelsall: Growing up in Cobh, was the environment encouraging for a sport-minded person?
Sonia O’Sullivan: Cobh is a very sporting town, primarily soccer when I was growing up and a thriving athletics club with some very motivational and encouraging people involved. Though I did a lot of my training alone as I was in my last few years at Cobh vocational school, my achievements did not go unnoticed and I was well respected throughout the town. My parents and grandparents were very encouraging and supportive and think the main thing was that I enjoyed what I was doing and this was probably helped by having a taste of success from an early age so the motivation to do better was always within me.
CK: When did you decide that you wanted to pursue athletics with seriousness?
SO: I suppose when I decided to go to college at Villanova, I was treating my college education and athletics life on an equal basis. I never really looked on athletics as a career until after finishing fourth at the Olympics in 1992 where I started to earn some money and also had a shoe contract and the bonuses were stacking up as I continued to break Irish records.
CK: Do either of your two daughters show interest in running?
SO: Yes my youngest daughter Sophie likes to run cross country at school and takes part in little athletics in Australia now in the summer season.
Last summer before the London Olympics Sophie took part in the all-Ireland juvenile championships and won a gold medal in the high jump for the under 12s.
CK: What precipitated the move to Australia?
SO: I have been spending time in Australia since 1995, while training for the Sydney Olympics. As a result I began to spend more and more time here and as my children reached school age we had to make a decision on a more stable lifestyle for both Ciara 14 and Sophie 11. I still split my time between Ireland and Australia, but the girls don’t travel as much now due to their school commitments.
CK: It has been a few years since you retired from competitive running, after such a long and successful athletics career, how was the initial adjustment?
SO: It took a few years for me to drop the full time athletes training and just enjoy the sport. I kept trying for a few years to train at a high level and had the Beijing Olympic marathon as a goal, it seemed all the years of hard training were catching up with me and all the niggling injuries never gave me a smooth run towards Beijing, once this dream was gone that’s when I eased off on the training and just maintained a normal level of fitness….so the twice a day running schedule was over and I was able to maintain a healthier lifestyle balance at home rather than being tied down with two runs each day.
It took a while to move away from high level athletics and be able to set myself more realistic goals which I do now and really enjoy the challenges that I set out for myself. Trail running, cycling, swimming have all become a part of my routine and they each complement each other and I get that great positive lift that running gives each day even on a non-running day. I have made some great friends across all fitness levels and enjoy the company of cyclists and runners of all levels and feel a connection as I am also new to cycling and learning as I go. My pb’s are so far out of reach in running but the running fitness allows me to chase pb’s and goals in swimming and cycling. It’s not enough to just run around casually I need a goal and target to get me out the door everyday whatever the event. I have been welcomed in so many charity events in Ireland and enjoy every minute of these events and inspired by people who are out there doing a sport for the first time and challenging themselves each day to lead a fit and healthy lifestyle.
CK: Typically athletes feel they could have done better, regardless of their level of achievement. Is there any distance or discipline you feel you could have bettered?
SO: I would like to think that maybe could have done better at the marathon, but I also think if I hadn’t run the marathon, maybe I would have had a few extra years running on the track, so all the decisions we make change the next stage in our careers and sometimes you make decisions without weighing up the likely outcomes and where that may lead you next.
CK: Will you continue to run marathons as a master?
SO: I ran five marathons and walked one due to injury in Cork a few years ago. My best time is 2:29 from London in 2005; I won the Dublin Marathon in 2000 and ran the rest for charity. I really enjoyed running New York in 2006 and Boston in 2008.
I rather not run marathons now as I feel they cause too much wear and tear on the body and require too much recovery time after. I like to take part in Parkrun 5km runs, a few local 10km runs and the odd half-marathon. I don’t run every day but like to get out on the bike a few times a week and feel that this allows me to run about five times a week without too many aches and pains and the risk of injury. I run for fun, fitness and enjoyment now wherever I am in the world.
CK: Have you taken up coaching others?
SO: I don’t coach any athletes but I have advised and mentored numerous athletes down through the years. I am currently involved in setting up a more formal mentoring group in Ireland called Sonia AgRith. The aim is to provide a support system and bridge for young Irish athletes as they progress from junior to senior athletics.
CK: Is “AgRith” Gaelic? I know it has something to do with your twitter handle.
SO: AgRith, simply means running, when I was younger I often let my thoughts ramble through my head in Irish while out for a run, it all started while practicing for an Oral Irish exam in secondary school. I always wanted to promote this name and hopefully I can be a leading light for young Irish athletes and help direct them on the right path to fulfill their dreams.
CK: Do you find that there is a high rate of loss of participation from junior to senior? And is this bridge, there to empower them to continue?
SO: There has been so much success over the years in Irish athletics of young athletes at European level! There doesn’t seem to be the ability to concert this talent and ability to a higher level and see a large number of athletes compete on the world stage and achieve greatness. It takes a huge commitment and possibly success at a young age provides too much expectation and not enough persistence to fulfill the potential and expectation.
CK: How does the model work in terms of funding and are the outcomes about getting athletes to compete in the NCAA for example?
SO: At the moment I am just self-funded and in time I hope to deliver sponsors to help provide support and services when we will get together for weekend training camps. The ideas are there I just need to make connections with athletes and their coaches, gain their trust and work together to get the best result possible for each athlete as the grow and develop.
CK: Regarding the 31Turkish and half a dozen Jamaican athletes recently having tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, do you feel that this is an indication that WADA is getting somewhere on the fight on drugs?
SO: Obviously there is some progress being made in the fight against drugs in sport, but it always amazes me that there are athletes who continue to cheat and try to take short cuts and if we are making inroads now and you would expect deterring athletes then you don’t really want to think about the cheating that went on in the past. You just have to shake your head and let it go as people got away with it but are they really happy in themselves, happy that their success is not their own but pharmaceutically enhanced.
CK: You were recently quoted as saying the following, “Irish athletes need to be made more accountable for their performances, their fitness and their funding.”
Often it is said that great athletes have trouble coaching others because of the inability to relate to the lack of commitment or competitiveness compared to their own, any chance that you are afflicted with this?
SO: I don’t ever look at athletes and compare to myself. I look at what they have, what they are capable of and how they are managing their lifestyle. It doesn’t take much to see that many athletes enjoy the lifestyle of an athlete and if you can survive on that for a few years then possibly you will enjoy it more than if you try to strike out on your own take some risks and operate outside the comfort zone that allows you to be a big fish in a small pond but unable to fight to find your way in the Ocean. It may be harsh but it is realistic and I think there are so many gadgets and gimmicks and extra things that athletes fill their time with these days that if you just look at things simply and focus on the basics you will be a better athlete and achieve greater success. I definitely believe success comes with a level of risk, but you have to back yourself and really go after what you want and not always play within the parameters of the scientists who do have a part to play in an athlete’s guidance but should not be the driving force that holds the athlete back at the slightest irregularity in a scientific test. Practice will always win out over theory and no more so than in athletics.