Still in the running: Sonia O’Sullivan on overcoming life's setbacks

From Atlanta in 1996 to her elimination from Celebrity Masterchef, running has always helped Sonia O’Sullivan overcome her setbacks. She tells Esther McCarthy why she reaches for her running shoes to deal with life’s challenges.

RUNNING has provided her with an international career and a packed trophy cabinet.

But, most of all, running has given Sonia O’Sullivan peace of mind.

She is one of the greatest athletes Ireland has ever produced. Throughout her life, putting on her running shoes has helped her gather her thoughts and deal with life’s toughest setbacks.

O’Sullivan has often had to play out those setbacks in full glare on the world stage, most memorably in Atlanta, in 1996, when illness left her Olympics dreams in tatters.

By far the fastest and most dominant female athlete in the world over her distances that year, having to bow out of the 5,000-metre final was a crushing blow.

She left the stadium in tears, and went for a run.

“It does help, yeah. Especially if you walk out and people are asking you questions, and they want answers and you don’t have answers for yourself,” she says, recalling that night.

“Sometimes, you can run quite fast, because you’re really just trying to work things out.”

Just recently, she put on her shoes again, when an early elimination from Celebrity Masterchef came as a greater knock than even she had anticipated.

“When I got thrown off Masterchef, I went for a run that night!” she smiles.

“I was devastated immediately afterwards. I didn’t think I would be, I didn’t think it meant so much to me.

“When you’re no longer able to try and go out and win something, you’re all of a sudden…you’re cast aside and you’re like: ‘Well what do I do now?’

“I went for a run out along the pier in Dun Laoghaire. I came back and I was ready to go again. It makes you feel better, I think. Sometimes, you can’t talk about things, if you’re a bit upset or bothered about them. It’s difficult to talk to people.

“But if you go out and you shake yourself up, go in and get a shower, you just feel better again.” Over the years, she says, she grew better at dealing with disappointments and coming to terms with them.

“It’s only when you go back to what you know, everything falls back into place again, everything works again. And then you say to yourself: ‘Why did I waste those few days?’

“I think, maybe, you need those days, you need the bad days to absorb something you’re not happy about. To really allow yourself to come to terms with it. Because everything can’t be perfect all the time.”

Though she comes home to Ireland as often as she can, her adopted city of Melbourne has been kind to her, and she embraces its outdoors lifestyle.

“People ask me when I moved. I never moved — I just kind of ended up there. I first went in 1995, training for the Olympics, and then gradually kind of spent more time there. It was a change of scenery, a different environment.”

When she’s not indulging another passion — visiting coffee shops — she’ll be found outdoors, not least because of the demands of the family dog, Snowy.

“I spend most of my day outside. I have a dog who demands a lot of walking. He walks twice a day. He trains like an Olympic athlete — there’s no getting away from it,” she laughs.

“I can’t run as much as I used to, so I do a bit of cycling and swimming. I use that to help me keep fit.”

Running is part of Sonia’s DNA, ever since her talent shone, as she ran the hills of her home town of Cobh, setting herself new targets and challenges.

While she’s enjoyed more low-impact sports as she’s grown older, it remains a central part of her life.

“I think if it is part of who you are then it’s impossible to get rid of it, no matter what you do.

“I would have had plenty of injuries and reasons not to run, down through the years, and found other things to do — cycling, swimming, walking. But always, in the back of your mind, you want to get back and run.”

Her daughters, Ciara (17) and Sophie (15), have responded differently to growing up in an athletics-mad home.

Sonia’s husband is top Australian athletics coach, Nic Bideau.

“Sophie likes to run. Ciara doesn’t like to run — she doesn’t want to have anything to do with it! Probably because we took her to the track too much when she was a child.

“We always say, when she gets a little bit older she’ll figure out the fitness of it and how it makes her feel good. As much as she denies it, she’s bound to run just for fun, and enjoyment, at some point.”

Sophie is a truly talented athlete, winning her first national under-17 title in Australia earlier this year, and competing in the Irish national championships this summer.

“She does 800 metres and 1,500 metres. She loves it. I don’t coach her, or anything, I just encourage her to enjoy it. If she can come over here and run in Ireland every so often, it’s nice to have the link,” O’Sullivan says.

Sophie is a member of Ballymore Cobh Running Club, the same club for which her mum ran as a youngster. The club has grown greatly and that may partly be due to the town’s famous daughter.

“When I was growing up, there would have been very few people I ran with. I did a lot of my training myself. Now, they’re the fastest-growing club in Munster; they have over 200 adult members. It’s amazing; there’s a big community spirit.

“They look after me, whenever I’m home, and I’m always invited to anything that’s going on,” O’Sullivan says.

In September, she’ll be coming home for The Great Pink Run, which is organised by Breast Cancer Ireland, and will be leading the race in Kilkenny, for the first time this year. She was introduced to the event by her friend, fellow Corkonian and olympic rower, Gearoid Tuohy.

“I was staying with him in Sydney and he was running in one of their t-shirts. He told me about it and introduced me to everybody involved with it.

“It started off that, to me, it was a race. I wanted to come and see how fast I could run for 10k. Even though, at the time, I wasn’t running competitively, I still wanted to try to break forty minutes. It was all about running fast.

“As the years went on, I think the whole meaning of the event I understood a bit more.

“You meet more people over time, people like Paula McClean, who’s an ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland and she’s had breast cancer.

“Just to see someone like that take a run and make it part of their lives, making a positive thing out of a negative. I think that’s what something like The Great Pink run does. It brings something positive, something to look forward to, to people who’ve had the negative impact of it.

“Breast cancer is one of those cancers that’s touched everybody’s life, really. As well as raising funds, these events raise awareness, allow people to talk about it. They can share stories, and people don’t feel alone. They create a very positive atmosphere.”

Recently, there has been speculation that Sonia could be awarded two gold medals, more than two decades after being pipped to the podium by Chinese runners, who emerged from nowhere at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993.

They were among nine runners who have since signed a letter saying they were part of a regime of state-sponsored doping, according to media reports.

“There was a letter written by them. But I don’t think they’ve moved on any further from that. I think it’s just nice to know that there was definitely something fishy going on, a bit more than the turtle juice,” she says.

“It’s just nice to know, I suppose, that my best was the best on the day and the others were being assisted.

“It’s hard to be angry about it now, because, in a way, they were probably taken advantage of, as well. If you talk to any of the girls, I don’t think it was in their heart to do it. I think it was a state-run thing and they had no choice.

“You just hope that it helps to clean up the sport for the future, that it’s harder and harder for athletes to cheat, that you see more cleaner performances, and opportunities for Irish athletes to win medals again.”

Sonia O’Sullivan will take part in the Great Pink Run, with Avonmore Slimline Milk, on September 9 in the Pheonix Park, and September 10 in Kilkenny Castle.

All monies raised will support Breast Cancer Ireland’s pioneering research and awareness programmes.

To register, go to www.greatpinkrun.ie

Sonia’s makeup was by Annie Gribbin, creative director of makeup, For Ever Pro Boutique, using the UltraHD collection for flawless skin; www.makeupforever.ie, 38 Clarendon St, Dublin 2. 01-6799043 for appointments

Sonia’s hair, by Katie O’Callaghan, Zeba Hairdressing, Manor Mills SC, Maynooth, Co Kildare, using Loreal Tec Ni Art styling products

Sonia’s wardrobe was selected by personal shopper, Albina Kuzmetova, Debenhams, Blackrock, Dublin

Butterfly, by Matthew Williamson, dress, €300

Nine, by Savannah Miller, blouse €58, Red Herring jeans, €38



Breaking Stories

This is how to stay healthy as a new parent – according to The Body Coach

A question of taste: Sinead Dunphy

Ten to see at Cork Film Festival

Women’s Enterprise Day: Go forth and be successful

More From The Irish Examiner