© Copyright – 2009 – Christopher Kelsall
Three time Olympian Kevin “Sully” Sullivan has run 32 sub-four minute miles. He currently holds the NCAA indoor championship record of 3:55.33. During his varsity career at the University of Michigan, he accomplished 14 All-American honours and currently holds the Canadian records for the mile and 1500m distances.
Sully was very close to medalling in the Sydney Olympic Games, finishing fifth in the 1500m final. He has competed in at least 10 IAAF World Cross-Country Championships, Commonwealth Games and many other international competitions.
At age 35 Sullivan, as you will read below, continues to be committed to his athletics career. Meanwhile he is a volunteer coach at Florida State University where his wife Karen Harvey is the women’s athletics head coach. She too enjoys a winning record. She had a distinguished athletics career, which included setting the Canadian 3000m steeple chase record of 10:14.27 and a world number one ranking in 1998. Her alma-mater is also the University of Michigan.
Sully grew up in Brantford, Ontario, a small hockey town, that produces a high level of quality athletes form a variety of sports.
Christopher Kelsall: At what age did you begin to seriously focus on athletics?
Kevin Sullivan: I first got involved in my local track club at age 12, but it wasn’t until I was about 14-15 that I started to get serious about athletics.
CK: You ran a 2:15, 800m at the age of 12 and 1:53 two years later. Those must be close to world age-group records. Are you aware of how those times stand up?
KS: I have no idea how the 2:15 stacks up, but at the time the 1:53 was a world record for 14 year old’s. (editor’s note: in 1978, Kent Whilmhurst of Victoria, BC may have had the 12 year-old record with a 2:18).
CK: Running heroes?
KS: Sebastian Coe.
CK: You have been involved with Athletics Canada as an Athlete Representative.
Now that you are in the latter years of your track career, are you considering moving into coaching or perhaps sport administration?
KS: I’ve considered both career avenues, but it is still somewhat difficult to gauge how realistic either one of those career avenues are given my wife’s current coaching situation. I’ve been an athlete rep with Athletics Canada for the past 8 years, which also gives me a seat on the Board of Directors, so I have been very fortunate to be able to see and experience some of the administrative side of sport. That could be another possible avenue, but, to be honest I would much rather be directly involved in developing and mentoring athletes rather than being in an administrative role. Being an administrator can be a very thankless job and our administrators deserve a lot more respect than what they are given.
CK: When you say that the administrators do not get the respect they deserve, how for example, is that manifested?
KS: I see it all the time with Athletics Canada. Being an athlete rep and board member I have two distinct and sometimes-conflicting roles. But what I see more is that Athletics Canada administrators in particular are berated in the media and other public forums to no end. However, in dealing with those said administrators I think they do very much with not a whole lot in terms of resources, both manpower and financial. While I don’t agree with every decision that is made, those administrators are looking for the same thing the rest of the Athletics public is: increased participation, improved results, and ultimately more resources going directly to athletes and coaches.
And it seems that those who shout the loudest just shout about how AC is ruining the sport, without really providing feasible options for solving some of the problems or understanding the reasoning behind the decision, or without stepping up themselves to fill positions for athlete rep or other important committees within the governance structure of Athletics Canada.
CK: Being as you are involved in coaching, are you getting a good taste of life as a coach?
KS: Yes, I am a volunteer coach here at Florida State University, and before that filled the same role at Illinois and Michigan. I also have a small group of four post collegiate athletes that I am coaching at the moment. So I do have a taste for coaching. The highs and lows are completely different. No matter how confident you are in how you prepare your athletes, at the end of the day, when they step to the line it is on them to compete and replicate what they have been producing in practice. It is difficult to stand on the sideline and know that you have no control over the way athletes are going to react once they get into the heat of the competition.
CK: Interesting comment in the latter part of your answer. It is often said that great athletes do not always make great coaches partly because they cannot always relate to the athlete’s inability to create the same magic they did during their own heyday.
Do you find you have to remind yourself on occasion of your own level of talent versus theirs – or is it even necessary in the individualistic sport of athletics?
KS: Sure, it can be difficult at times when you watch an athlete race or even do a workout and they don’t react the way you might react if you were in the same situation. It’s important as a coach to really try to put yourself in your athlete’s shoes and recognize that each individual athlete has different strengths and weaknesses than you may have had as an athlete and learn how to adapt workouts and race planning to suit the individual’s needs, not your own. I don’t think you necessarily have to remind yourself as to the talent differences. That really should be obvious already and taken into account when setting up individual training plans.
CK: What about your civil engineering degree, are you going to be able to make use of it?
KS: I would love to be able to answer yes to that question, but in all likelihood I will not make use of the degree in the sense of being employed in the civil engineering field per se. Having been out of school now for 11 years without working in the field is going to mean a lot of re-education if I go that route. I’m not ruling it out, but it is not my first choice of a post-running career. That being said, so many of the skills that were required in pursuing that degree transfer over into so many other fields that I feel very comfortable if I choose not to go in the engineering direction when I am done competing.
On Brantford, Ontario
CK: Who is the greatest athlete to ever come out of Brantford, Ontario?
KS: Wayne Gretzky. Unfortunately for me, he is also the greatest athlete to come out of my elementary school, Greenbier Elementary!
CK: That is humbling. You came along way from second best in the school, to fifth in the Olympic 1500m final.
OK second best, then!
KS: Brantford and Brant County has a pretty impressive list of sportsmen/women including:
Syl Apps (hockey)
Todd Brooker (downhill ski)
Tom Fergus (hockey)
Juli Howard (swimming)
Doug Jarvis (hockey)
Keith Jones (hockey)
Nick Kaczur (football)
Angela Kelly (soccer)
Tom Longboat (running)
John Muckler (hockey coach/GM)
Gaylord Powless (lacrosse)
Ross Powless (lacrosse)
Greg Stephan (hockey)
John, Gary, & Terry Summerhays (boxing)
I probably belong somewhere in that list as well, but maybe not even at second best.
CK: I didn’t know the list from Brant County was that extensive. Some of those names are legendary. I suggest you are number 2 or 3, but that’s up to the masses to debate. Tom Longboat would be pretty difficult to unseat given the worldwide competitiveness of running compared to the big team sports.
Gretzky was very good at several sports, such as lacrosse, track and field, and baseball. It seems great athletes tend to excel at several sports, for instance Steve Nash is an excellent soccer player. When do you think is an ideal age to begin moving kids into sports that they appear to excel at?
KS: I don’t think there is an “ideal” age to start moving into specific sports, but it takes a pretty physically and mentally mature kid to get too specific about any sport. At the very least, specialization should not happen until sometime during high school.
CK: Did you play a lot of hockey and lacrosse growing up in Brantford?
KS: I played a lot of hockey, but I never played any lacrosse. I was always active growing up though. I was on the ice in the winter, played soccer and golf in the summer and flag football in the fall.
CK: Favourite position in hockey?
CK: Did your brothers Colin and Darren get into running?
KS: Darren not so much. He ran a couple of years in high school but nothing very serious. He was more into snowboarding at the time and eventually moved out to Banff and started working as a snowboard instructor.
Colin was a very good runner in high school and also balanced that with a lot of hockey. He was drafted by the Barrie Colts of the OHL, and ended up playing some Jr. B in Brantford. But he did run 1:53 as a 16 year-old, but battled a lot of injuries. He ended up going to UT-Chattanooga on a track scholarship and is still down there working on his masters degree in education. He has again been battling injuries the past couple of years but did run 3:46 for 1500m.
CK: Are you going to seriously run a marathon while still young enough to run standard?
KS: I’ve run two road 10kms. As for a marathon, I don’t know. I will run one someday, but how seriously is another question. Somehow I think I probably will run one at least “semi-seriously” just because it is not in my competitive nature to not take a competition seriously.
CK: You have gone to school and coached in Michigan, Illinois and Florida, but you are from Ontario. I am going to hazard a guess that you are a big Detroit Red Wings fan.
KS: NO! I am most definitely not a Red Wings fan. I grew up an Edmonton (Oilers) and Montreal (Canadiens) fan, and have slowly gravitated towards being a Toronto fan (I know, how can you be a Toronto and Montreal fan? It makes no sense). Really though, when it comes down to it, I am a fan of Canadian based teams. I certainly am not a hard-core fan of any one team, more just a fan of the sport in general.
CK: Are you following the drama between the NHL, or perhaps more accurately Commissioner Bettman, and Blackberry owner Jim Balsillie in his attempts to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes? If so, what are your thoughts on Jim wanting to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario and Mr. Bettman going as far as bidding for the team so it can be run by the league to keep them in Phoenix?
KS: I really haven’t followed the drama too closely. My dad keeps me updated whenever we talk. I would love to see a team in Hamilton. There is certainly a big enough market to handle having a team in Hamilton and Toronto. Will it happen? Probably not. I certainly don’t understand the logic of keeping the team in Phoenix. How much money does a franchise have to lose before it becomes apparent that hockey is not going to take in Phoenix the way it has in L.A., Dallas, and Tampa?
The Tragically Hip
CK: No kidding. Let’s talk about one of my favourite musical subjects, The Tragically Hip. You’re a fan. What do you think of their latest two releases, World Container and We are the Same versus their classics, Road Apples and Fully Completely?
KS: Road Apples and Fully Completely are very different from World Container and We are the Same. I like all four albums, but I have found that it has taken longer for the latter two albums to grow on me. Road Apples and Fully Completely were instant hits with me and many of my favourite Hip songs are from those two albums.
CK: Well said. Being situated in the US, are you not as exposed to the Hip as you were when you were in Brantford? Perhaps this has something to do with the time it takes their newer releases to grow on you?
KS: I think it is more just the artistic differences between the earlier albums and the last couple. I still love their work, but if I were forced to choose, it would definitely be from some earlier Hip albums.
CK: Ever have a chance to seem them live?
KS: I’ve seen them live four times: Cayuga Speedway, Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre, Air Canada Centre on New Year’s Eve 1999, and The Rivieria in Chicago.
CK: So have you converted Karen, to a Hip fan?
KS: She’s come to a couple of concerts with me, but not sure I would call her a true “fan”.
Back on Track
CK: Was it important for the sport for Usain Bolt to come along to inject interest in Track & Field? Seeing that he transcends the sport.
KS: Sure, but we can’t rely on Bolt to save the sport beyond his time in it. Now that the IAAF has the world’s attention on the sport they need to capitalize on this opportunity to hold interest when the day comes when Usain Bolt is no longer running mind-boggling times.
CK: When you say that the IAAF need to capitalize on the attention Track & Field is getting now to hold interest in the sport. What could they do to create more loyal fans? Also, would better performances (which is starting to happen now), be enough to bring the public back?
KS: I don’t think it is necessarily all about better performances. Sure, Usain Bolt is going to electrify the fans when he steps on the track, but we need to make the entire event interesting to the fans. Just in Canada, we had the public paying $250 to watch Bolt run in Toronto, which was more expensive than any Golden League ticket (or the final of the World Championships for that matter) and the stands were packed. Yet our own National Championships were sparsely attended again.
CK: Do you think the public is justifiably jaded when excellent performances happen? PEDs seem to garner the big media headlines nearly as much as Bolt’s incredible performances. How do we get around that obstacle?
KS: I think the public is jaded when any athlete in any sport has excellent performances, and rightly so. I don’t think we will ever get around that obstacle, unless there ever comes a day where we have a drug testing program that can guarantee every athlete lining up in their respective sports are clean. As a track fan, I have to believe that those performances are clean until they are proven otherwise, for the sake of the sport. But as a realist I understand that greed, ego, and jealously, are entirely human traits that are going to lead some down the path of PEDs. I can only hope that testing continues to get better and more athletes decide to compete with honour, integrity, and only with their God given abilities and hard work as their performance enhancer’s.
CK: Can you take us through your fifth place finish from the 2000 Olympics? I remember watching the race and thinking that for sure, you were in the hunt. Hicham El Gerrouj took off and it seems that it appeared like you could go too, was it all in the timing when coming out into the straight?
KS: I remember being very calm going into that final. At that point the hard work was done. I had a wonderful season up to that point with 2 Canadian records and strong runs in both the heats and semis at the Olympics so I really wasn’t feeling much in the way of pressure or nerves. I also knew exactly how the race was going to go. With Yousef Baba being in the final we knew that he was going to rabbit El Gerrouj.
I was lined second on the line with El Gerrouj on the inside up against the rail. Just before they brought us out from the tunnel onto the track, El Gerrouj turned to me and said, “First one hundred metres, no pushing, ok?” At that point I really didn’t know how to react. I just smiled and nodded my head, but in the back of my mind I was thinking that if I needed the spot I was going shove him off the track!
My goal going into that race was to run for a medal. And based on the semi-finals I really thought there were five guys running for the three medals. After each round Wynn Gmitroski and myself would go to the video library in the village and watch each heat and semi. Based on what we saw in those races we felt the guys who looked the best were El Gerrouj, Ngeny, Lagat, Baala, and myself. As it turned out those were the first 5 guys with Ngeny pulling one of the great upsets of those Games.
The race itself went pretty much how we expected. Baba took out the pace and things strung out very early. But he slowed to a 60 second lap on the second lap and the whole field bunched up again. El Gerrouj went to the front with about 600m to go and the field was strung out once again. At that point I made my one mistake of the Games. I allowed Andres Diaz to get by me with 600m to go, and as El Gerrouj ramped up the over the next 100m I lost contact with Baala who was in fourth. I was able to maintain my composure and get myself back to 5th, but at that point there was too much room to make up to really make a run at a medal.
CK: We talked a little about possible post-athlete career; I would guess you still have some unfinished business to tend to internationally as an athlete? Any specific goals you would like to tackle in the next few years?
KS: Firstly, I need to get healthy. But beyond that I am really looking at Commonwealth Games next year (2010). I really feel like had the 2006 Commonwealth Games been in July/Aug, instead of March, I would have been standing on the podium. My coach and I probably didn’t do enough real specific work going into that championship and it showed on the final lap of the race. Just based on my 3:32 and 3:33 from later that summer, I feel like I had a legitimate shot at challenging for the win. But, I was also only with my coach for less than 6 months at that point and we were still figuring a lot of things out. And on top of that my father was having surgery for kidney cancer the day before the 1500m, so my mind was probably not 100% on the competition.
CK: When you say your coach and you did not do enough specific work as evident by your better times later that summer, can you elaborate on the specificity?
KS: We didn’t focus much on specific 1500m repetition pace work in our build-up towards Melbourne. In hindsight, I was much more prepared to run a great 5k (as evidenced by my short course WXC finish the following week) than I was to run a 1500m. I think we underestimated how much pace work I needed in the build-up to really feel comfortable racing a championship type 1500m race.
CK: How about racing going-forward?
KS: Beyond next year I cannot make a commitment at this point. When I was younger it was certainly easier to plan on 4-year cycles culminating with an Olympic Games, but at 35 I don’t know that it is fair to make that commitment. Certainly, with missing out on this year’s World Champs after having competed in every Championship since 1993, I would love to be back and competing for a spot on the team in 2011, but that is a decision I will make at the end of the year next year.
So for now I can confirm that I am committed fully to the 2010 season and beyond that, much will depend on how well I compete next summer as well as my desire and commitment to train at the level needed to compete with the best in the world.