Sonia O’Sullivan, woman of speed, talks withabout slow cooking, her relationship with that statue in Cobh, and why we should never let fear stop us.
As national treasures go, few are more cherished in Ireland than Cork woman Sonia O’Sullivan. Because of her magnificence on the track, I presume when I’m waiting to meet her that physically she’s some sort of giant, as in long-limbed in a tall and towering way.
I was surprised then to be greeted by an entirely petite woman, one who presents in a refreshingly natural way.
In conversation, she’s frank, quietly spoken, and entirely likeable, and I get the impression that physical prowess and mental strength aside, her inherent warmth must have played a role in the global success that made her both an Olympian and a world champion athlete.
#MeToo in sport. Is it a time-bomb waiting to explode?
I haven’t seen it. I didn’t know it was even a thing in sport. If it was, it wouldn’t be just a woman’s thing. It would most likely be about the power somebody has over a young athlete; that somebody being a coach, manager or someone else of influence.
Is it something she has experienced?
“No. Not at all. When you’re an athlete you don’t really know anything that goes on. You’re so focused on what you’re doing yourself and having all you need to be the best you can.
“Not knowing what’s going on can be a selfish thing. It’s not great for the big picture. In a small country like Ireland, it’s difficult as if you’re the best athlete you get everything you need but others may not and if that’s happening, it’s not something you realise as you’re not thinking about it.”
She comes across as bolshie and fearless.
I try not to fear things. Often I say things I know others wouldn’t say. If you’re honest, you say what you’ve got to say. You never let fear stop you.
O’Sullivan learned confidence through sport. “You know what you need to do and you just do it. I never wait for someone to tell me it’s OK to do something. If there’s something I need to do, I go do it.
To demonstrate her point, she shares a memory: “One day, I went to the track in Cork to train. When I arrived, the track was closing. They were trying to throw me off the track. I wouldn’t leave until I was finished.”
We talk about the regulations being introduced by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) under which the testosterone levels of female athletes will be limited in certain instances. “It’s a very sensitive matter, because there are people involved who are, well, different,” says O’Sullivan.
“And in being different they’ve probably had to deal with a lot already in their lives.
I’m talking here particularly about the girls who are really good, really dominant, and very successful. Now all of a sudden, we’re going to try and make them less successful because they’re too successful.
That said, O’Sullivan’s in favour of the move: “The IAAF put a lot of time and effort in before deciding there needs to be a distinction as to what qualifies as a man and what qualifies as a woman in these events, and how that should be determined. To be fair, something has to be done. A line has to be drawn somewhere.”
She herself has experienced unfairness first-hand. In the 1993 World Championships, she finished 4th behind three Chinese athletes and second behind a Chinese runner. In February 2016, a whistleblower asserted that the Chinese against whom she competed had been forced to take performance-enhancing drugs.
Despite the doping acknowledgement, O’Sullivan doesn’t think she’ll be awarded gold medals for those races. “It happened too long ago. But for me, it’s enough that it’s known that there was cheating.”
Despite the prevalence of doping in athletics, O’Sullivan says it wasn’t something she ruminated on in her competing days. “Lots of stuff was going on, but I wouldn’t let stuff distract me when there was nothing I could do about it.”
Given her track-record of success, I suspect distraction-blocking is something at which she excels. “The only time I get distracted is if something’s bothering me, as then lots of things can filter into the mind.”
She’s wearing an Apple Watch but that time-teller is no time-thief in her life. “I plug it in in a cupboard and leave it there. I turn it off at night time, won’t keep it beside my bed. I’d never have my sleep interrupted by a phone call.”
We chat then about the statue in her likeness that stands proudly in Cobh. It’s her go-to landmark when meeting friends. But instead of waiting beside it, she waits in her car across the street. Why doesn’t she just wait at the statue?
“I couldn’t,” she says, laughing and we both laugh happily at the daftness of the very notion.
She’s full of pride for her hometown of Cobh: “When things went downhill in the recession, the people pulled together and helped one another. They saw then what they had. Now, there’s a great air of confidence about the place.”
O’Sullivan typically exercises for an hour a day, either running or biking.
Just for the fun of it, I enquire whether she gallops along on her daily runs.
“I’m very slow these days,” she says. “I get aches and pains…” Before, during or after? “All the time. So, I try get into some kind of a stride where everything feels good. Once I find that rhythm, I stay in it.”
What’s in her head when she’s running? “I listen to podcasts.”
She then lists her favourites and I learn they’re all Ireland linked.
Now living in Australia, she travels home to Ireland around four times a year. In April she did so to complete her 100th parkrun, an event about which she speaks with pride.
In describing life in Oz, she paints a pretty picture, talking with fondness of her dog Snowy, who’s now getting too old to enjoy running with her.
We both laugh at the notion of any dog keeping up with the speedy streak of lightening sitting opposite me. Had she mentioned a cheetah, maybe, or a gazelle, perhaps…
I enquire whether she has participated in parents’ races at her daughters’ schools. “Of course.”
Did she win? “No. I never won the bottle of wine. The distance was too short for me, and all requests to lengthen the distance for the race fell on deaf ears.”
She’s only half-kidding, I suspect, and I can only imagine the craic at the start-up line, given the global champion competing among them.
She’s a happy lady and paints a sunny picture of her husband Nic out walking near their home, and of their daughters’ growing independence.
In doing so, she doesn’t whitewash her own truth:
Sometimes I get myself in some kind of a state when I’m not sure what I’m doing. Last week I felt like that for a while and I knew I needed to get myself motivated, get out of the house and get doing something.
O’Sullivan found solace that day in hopping on her bike, cycling to a local coffee shop, and perusing a Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook, before returning home for a bout of healing, slow-cooking.
That sort of cooking is an act of love. Would she agree? She does.
“Sometimes I really love to take my time cooking …”
It’s funny, but as she says the words ‘take my time’, they slow, and I can well imagine her working in her kitchen, slowly, taking her time; something most of us would never associate with this woman of speed, this national treasure of ours.