Marcus O’Sullivan: ‘You never put things in front of you that let you think you’ve arrived’

Twenty years ago today, Marcus O’Sullivan ran his 100th sub-four-minute mile, the last major milestone in a career that ranks among the greats of Irish sport. But as the three-time world champion tells Cathal Dennehy, true fulfilment was only found once he stepped off the track

Marcus O’Sullivan: ‘You never put things in front of you that let you think you’ve arrived’

Three decades on, the sound still lingers – the deep, droning din of air horns echoing around the arena. It bounced off the walls, ricocheted down onto the track and breached the focused cocoon of Marcus O’Sullivan’s mind, a gentle reminder at a pivotal time that there are no supporters quite like the Irish.

It was Sunday night in Budapest, March 1989, and the Cork athlete had just stepped on the track for the men’s 1,500m final at the IAAF World Indoor Championships.

O’Sullivan, the defending champion, was already feeling the heat, which was cranked up several notches when he saw the collage of tricolours draped over the railings on the final bend.

The Irish soccer team, as it turned out, was playing Hungary in a World Cup qualifier just three days later, so a few hundred of the travelling fans decided to make a night of it at the Sportcsarnok arena – green jerseys on, scarves held high, air horns at the ready.

“They were a rebellious group in the midst of the track and field fans,” says O’Sullivan with a laugh.

“I remember thinking: Jesus, I’m under pressure now, these guys are expecting a show.”

And they got one.

O’Sullivan torched to the front from the gun, but was delighted to see American Sydney Maree soon hurtling past on his outside, willing to make the pace an honest one. O’Sullivan didn’t possess the knockout speed that could end his rivals in a flicker, but he had an ability to steadily drain the life from their legs with repeated accelerations.

He waited, coasting behind Maree for six laps as the Irish fans increased the racket, and then another sound – the bell – finally set him alight. With one lap to go O’Sullivan surged past Maree, quickly stealing a five-metre lead, then took off down the back straight. Arms firing like pistons, feet skidding off the track in great, giant strides that belied his build, O’Sullivan had never felt so good.

When he reached the line, he was so far ahead that he could no longer hear his rivals, and then a fresh sound came gushing through the arena: Olé… Olé, Olé, Olé… Olé, Olé.

Relief was the overwhelming emotion, the previous panic dissipating about those who’d come to watch him run, to watch him win.

Ask O’Sullivan the fondest memories of his career and the answers might surprise you – it’s not the four Olympic appearances or the 101 sub-four-minute miles he turns to first, but moments like Budapest, where he was running for something more than himself.

Like the evening in 1985 when he teamed up with three Irish greats to set a 4x1-mile relay world record at a GOAL charity meeting in Belfield, or the time he paced an unknown college kid to his first sub-four-minute mile, then watched his joyous reaction as he was carted around the track in celebration by his classmates.

“It was a moment when it’s not about me, it was about him,” says O’Sullivan. “They’re the moments that resonate with you so much.” He had no idea then, of course, that there was something in that feeling, something even more rewarding than running – a path that would make him miserable at first but ultimately, over the years, allow him to be more content than ever.

It could so easily have been different. Marcus O’Sullivan thinks back to what he was as a teenager – a short waif of a kid from Turner’s Cross who showed no trace of the world-class ability that lay within.

“If you were a betting man, you wouldn’t have put anything on me,” he says. “I was very small, very light, but I had willpower to do something well. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, but I knew I wanted to be the best at something.”

Marcus O’Sullivan, Hall of Fame inductee, at the Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards 2016 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Santry, Dublin.
Marcus O’Sullivan, Hall of Fame inductee, at the Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards 2016 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Santry, Dublin.

He was tough, dedicated and would certainly fill a place on a cross-country team but that was about all. In his final year at school, though, he began working with Donie Walsh, an Olympic marathoner whose old-school, common-sense coaching is renowned in Cork running circles.

O’Sullivan had no good times to his name after school, so any decent college in America would have laughed him off the stage if he came looking for a scholarship. But he had something – that he knew – so he took a job as a sail-maker in Kinsale and continued to train hard. Each morning he’d leave Cork at 7am and fall in the door around 5.30pm, collapse into bed for an hour then head to Leevale AC where he’d log 10-12 miles at club training. He’d be back home at 10, a cup of tea and a sandwich, then bed – day after monotonous day, until it made him fast.

“Those mundane portions of life, staying focused on the things you have to do, I was good at that,” he says. “I enjoyed boredom.”

The following summer he clocked 3:47 for 1,500m, which drew the attention of college scouts across the Atlantic, and O’Sullivan decided to follow the path of his coach, and several Irish greats before him, to Villanova University in Pennsylvania. The coach there, Jumbo Elliott, was a mythical figure, a straight-talking guru whose words of advice were passed around the sport like trade secrets.

“Live like a clock,” was a favourite, referring to the need for rigorous routine in an athlete’s life, and with incoming freshman like O’Sullivan, Elliott always made them make a choice early in their career. “You can do two out of three things well in college,” he’d explain, referring to running, studying and socialising, “now pick two of the three.”

Elliott had a reputation for being harsh on freshmen, but O’Sullivan connected with him within weeks. The relationship was short-lived, however, as Elliott passed away after a heart attack the following spring. Years later a good friend of Elliott’s, Dr Ted Barry, revealed to O’Sullivan that after watching him run in those first weeks, the great coach turned to him and said: “This kid will be one of our great ones.” It left a deep mark.

“If he believed in me that much then I believed I had a destiny and I must fulfil it,” says O’Sullivan. “It gave me this incredible psychological confidence. It was a revelation of his eye that could see something beyond, and that stayed with me forever, to the point where sometimes I felt like I didn’t fulfil it.”

After turning professional O’Sullivan bought a house near the Villanova campus and came under the tutelage of Tom Donnelly, who coached him for the best part of 15 years. Donnelly impressed on him the value of simplicity, how success in athletics is best served by an ascetic life.

For all the success that followed, O’Sullivan stayed true to that belief, and when a writer from Track and Field News visited his home to do a profile, he couldn’t get over how there was nothing around the house to mark any of his achievements.

“I lived a very humble life,” says O’Sullivan. “I got a lot of that humility from Tom whereby you never put things in front of you that let you think you’ve arrived, to always have that level of deprivation so you know there’s more to be done.”

His first Olympics, in Los Angeles in 1984, was the most enjoyable. O’Sullivan was 22, reached the semi-final in the 800m and 1,500m and had a great time doing it. Four years later in Seoul he reached the 1,500m final, but timing is everything in sport and that year, he made the rookie mistake of peaking too soon.

“If ever there was a year I should have got it right it was then,” he says. “But I missed that window.”

In 1987, O’Sullivan enjoyed the first global success of his career, taking 1,500m gold at the World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis, a day before his close friend Frank O’Mara claimed the 3,000m title.

The two were teenage rivals who became lifelong friends, and at their peak O’Sullivan and O’Mara would travel the circuit and pass away the hours with conversations that seem so mundane at the time, but so special in hindsight.

Inevitably, given the scale of doping among their East German, American and Soviet rivals, they’d occasionally chat about the darker side of their sport, which would become a bigger issue in the years ahead.

“We had discussions, but for us it was almost irrelevant,” says O’Sullivan. “We were never built in such a way that we were discussing the inclination to do anything of that nature. Maybe that can be construed as we didn’t want it that bad. There’s a certain empathy that goes to people who [dope] because it’s a psychological directive they’ve given themselves because they want to win it that bad.

“But from our standpoint, it was always about the ethics of how we want to do it. Knowing we did it on our terms was important to us.”

AT the age of 32, O’Sullivan figured he was done with athletics. By then he’d won three world indoor 1,500m titles, finished fourth in the outdoor World Championships, been to three Olympic Games and racked up countless sub-four-minute miles.

“What the hell are you stopping for?” asked his agent, aware of how well he was running, but O’Sullivan was tired, so very tired.

Around the same time he re-connected with Gerard Hartmann, the world-class triathlete from Limerick who was starting to make waves as a physical therapist. On the treatment table one day, O’Sullivan confided to Hartmann that he was thinking of retiring, but Hartmann stopped him mid-sentence.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” he said.

Having become well-versed in heart-rate training, Hartmann took out a sheet and began drawing graphs, explaining to O’Sullivan exercise physiology concepts that are widespread today but were still considered new-age in the ’80s.

“You’ll get more bang for your buck if you find a way to tap into this kind of training,” said Hartmann.

His curiosity stoked, O’Sullivan went home and reviewed his old training diaries, realising where he’d been going wrong. He also counted up his sub-four-minute miles, topping out at just over 60.

Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, to take that number over 100 before walking away from the sport?

In the years that followed O’Sullivan trained religiously with a heart rate monitor, keeping every effort in a highly specific zone which, as Hartmann promised, gave him a much better return on investment. He clocked his fastest ever time for 1,500m at the age of 35, just a few weeks after his fourth and final Olympics in Atlanta.

And 20 years ago today, he reeled off that 100th sub-four-minute mile. It arrived at the Millrose Games in New York, and stepping to the line that night in Madison Square Garden, O’Sullivan felt the same weight of expectation as he did nine years earlier in Budapest.

“I felt a sense of: ‘what if I don’t do it? It’ll be embarrassing.’ It’s easy to win when people aren’t expecting it, but it’s much harder when it’s expected.”

He needn’t have worried. He finished third in 3:58.10 to dip well under four and a couple of weeks later he ran another one – just to be sure – before taking a long, contented walk into retirement.

“The last six years of my career were the most fascinating and enjoyable. I left with a much deeper understanding of the art of coaching. But I never had any ambition to coach – none whatsoever.”

In retirement, many athletes struggle to let go of their sport – the object of their affection for so long – but for O’Sullivan the inner turmoil was not about the past, but the future.

With a degree in accounting, his long-term ambition was always to work in finance so he arranged some informal meetings with friends in the industry to chart a path into their world. But they all said the same thing.

“Everyone encouraged me to do coaching,” he recalls. “They said I’d be good at it and that it isn’t all about money; it’s about a way of life, a deeper sense of contribution.”

O’Sullivan gave it a try, taking a coaching job at Villanova. He hated it.

“It was the most depressing year I’ve ever had, the darkest period of my life. I had abandoned the dreams I had about business and finance and I felt absolutely depressed about why I did what I was doing.”

But one moment changed everything. It was mid-winter in Pennsylvania, a thick blanket of snow coating the ground, and O’Sullivan was standing in a church at the funeral of one of his students’ mothers who had lost her fight with cancer. He looked around and saw the grieving family, the young man in floods of tears, and the horde of teammates who were there to support him in his darkest hour.

“The emotional aspect of the sport’s endeavour and its social aspect hit me,” says O’Sullivan.

“Something struck me and I realised: this is something I can do. I wasn’t as interested in the athleticism of coaching, but the non-athletic portion in developing boys and girls – I could buy into that.

“That was what was bothering me: I had committed to doing a vocation and it was going to take everything out of me to complete it, but I let it grow. And as the years moved forward I didn’t regret any of it.”

O’Sullivan made friends with renowned exercise physiologists and coaches around the world, leaned on them for advice over the years, and while his training philosophy today is highly scientific, it is applied with an artist’s touch.

“I look at coaching as a holistic thing. It’s about helping people to grow, to provide them with an environment to develop. I was at the highest level athletically, working with the best out there, and I get to train 15-20 kids every day, but with all that opportunity to learn, I still realise how little I know.”

Though still living in Pennsylvania, O’Sullivan returns to Ireland several times a year, and he doesn’t need telling about the decline in distance running. His solution would be to implement a centralised system that has athletes working together in one location and regional coaches cooperating, and ultimately deferring, to a single overall coach.

“It’s done by educating the coaches, getting them on board, and having one person orchestrating. Coaches have to put their ego aside and buy into whatever system that one person is doing.

“Everyone spends too much time on the athletic procedure and doesn’t take enough time to consider the environment, the attitude, the psychological approach.”

O’Sullivan has given many talks to college athletes down through the years, and his advice is usually the same. “It’s a short period of time in your life and after that the window has passed,” he says.

“Athletics has to be done with a complete sense of immersion and commitment for it to work.”

And he, more than anyone, knows why. After all he was the longest of shots to make it as a world-class miler, but he did, and in his current role as Head Coach at Villanova he has turned many an also-ran into winners.

But how does success as a coach compare to that an athlete? When you soared so high, how can anything that came after be anything but a let-down?

“It’s better,” he says. “The rewards and fulfilment in this journey are more than they were as an athlete.

“To help someone arrive at a victory is even more rewarding than if you do it yourself.”

In the end, the great irony is that by pursuing this most benevolent of professions, he is, in a roundabout way, now serving himself.

To find an even greater reason to care, long after the roar of the crowd has gone silent – that’s all you can ask for.

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