She may go into teaching, has dreamt of delivering post, but Sonia O’Sullivan will always be a runner — and an iconic sporting figure in this country. Liam Mackey kept lap times.
SONIA O’ Sullivan is sitting in a Dublin hotel contemplating just what it is for her that makes the act of running so pleasurable, rewarding and perhaps even addictive. By way of defining the buzz, it would be easy for her to offer up as thrilling evidence any one of her many world-class accomplishments in a career which has made her one of Ireland’s best-known and, it’s fair to say, most beloved sports people. But to locate the fundamental truth, all she actually has to do is go back just a few hours to the start of another domestic day at the home in London which she shares with her husband Nic and daughters Ciara and Sophie.
“I was only thinking about this when I went for a run for morning,” she reflects. “It was early — for me anyway. Ciara had to get up for school at seven and so I got her up and told her I’d be leaving before she went to school. So then I had to get Nic up to make sure she went out the door with her hair brushed and looking well. Then I went out the door and it was freezing cold — I had tights, jacket, a hat and gloves on. I went over the bridge and into the park and the wind was against me and the rain was coming down — it was brutal. But then I turned a corner and the wind was behind me and, even though it was raining, there was a nice feel about the place. And I just thought, I like this...”
There may be a world of difference between a run in the park and a race at the Olympic Games but, stripped down to its absolute essence, it seems that the attraction is the same for the 39-year-old now as it was in the beginning.
“I always felt good after I’d been for a run,” she remembers. “If I ran after school I was all geared up and ready to do my homework. It was more important for me to go for a run than to have my dinner. I didn’t need an hour for my dinner. I needed five minutes for my dinner and an hour to run. And it’s always been that way.”
Sonia is on a flying visit back to Ireland to promote her autobiography (‘Sonia — My Story’, published by Penguin), an always fascinating and often moving warts-and-all account of a life which has touched some of the highest highs and lowest lows elite sport can offer. If the book, skilfully put together by Tom Humphries, has one obvious blemish, it’s in the too literal title. With apologies to Mr Springsteen, ‘Born To Run’ would surely have been a better bet for a story which opens with images of a gangly young kid racing from lamp post to lamp post on the streets of Cobh and who just kept “putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as I could and feeling the same thrill”.
Her father John might have played in goal for Cobh Ramblers — and his daughter grew up a Liverpool fan — but team sport, for all its enviable camaraderie, was never going to be enough to quell her racing heart.
“I do remember running laps around the field after school and seeing the girls playing camogie and kind of wanting to be a part of it,” she says. “And I did join in a bit because I used to feel that there was I, running around by myself, and they all seemed to be having a lot of fun. So I’d do my five or six miles and then come in and have a game with them in the end. But then I was always paranoid that I’d get hit and injured so that’s when I started to weigh things up.”
And there was only ever going to be one winner.
“A race is so much more measurable than a team game,” she suggests. “You could play really well in a team game but if you don’t win there’s no measure of that. Whereas if you’re in a race, the answer is there for you, clear as day, black or white. You can also test yourself every day if you want to, you don’t have to wait for a game. And you can test yourself against anything — the clock or the road or the field or the wind or the rain.”
Most of all, perhaps, you can test yourself against yourself. Sonia O’Sullivan, recognised both for her brilliance and her vulnerability, is arguably unique in Irish sport for being cherished equally for her successes and her failures. The public’s heart rose with her in celebration when she won gold at the World Championships, European Championships and World Cross Country Championships and a silver medal at the Olympics in Sydney, and that same heart went out to her when, physically and psychologically ill-prepared, she sensationally dropped out of the 5,000 metres final at the Atlanta games in 1996 and, again, when lathered in sweat after contracting food poisoning, she finished last in the same event in Athens in 2004, a wave of emotion from the Irish fans helping carry her to the line.
Revisiting those crushing disappointments in detail in her book was not easy for Sonia who admits that, for 11 years after Atlanta, she could not bring herself to watch a recording of the race and then, when she did finally sit down to watch a DVD of the TV programme ‘20 Moments That Shook Irish Sport’, was surprised to find herself still moved to tears.
“Like watching a sad movie,” is how she describes that experience now. In similar vein, she mentions the RTÉ documentary, ‘Sonia’s Last Lap’.
“I have real difficulty watching that,” she says. “I was doing a talk recently for the Paralympic team in Limerick and I was showing them some races and I was trying to boost the spirit. But I included everything, the highs and the lows. As in: what if it all goes wrong? Well, I’m still standing and I’m alive and happy. Atlanta wasn’t on it but Athens was, because I think I can come to terms a lot better with Athens than with Atlanta. One, because I finished and two because I knew exactly why it went wrong. I came out the following week and I ran pretty good so the proof was there. It wasn’t like I shouldn’t have been in Athens. So I could make sense of all that. But watching it really touches a nerve every time. So I showed this DVD and then I had to get up and talk. And...I couldn’t speak. It was quite hard.”
Still, the passage of time and new life experiences have all helped Sonia O’Sullivan come to terms with the balance of agony and ecstasy which has defined her career.
“I can see how all that has made me who I am,” she reflects. “In order to show how great something like the World Cross Country and European Championship golds in ‘98 were, you have to know how low down I went, how far back up I had to get. I think it’s all a part of me, you can’t have one without the other. And in a way, that really helps me a lot now because, when I talk to other athletes who are in their prime and running in the Olympics, when things are going bad for them I can help them put it in perspective a lot better than I would have been able to myself when I was in that situation. I can see now that it doesn’t have to be the end of the road and that you can come out of it in a good way if you put your mind to it.”
Ironically, in her book, Sonia writes that if she could change one thing in her career, it would be Sydney, rather than Atlanta. Her Olympic silver medal in the 5,000 metres was a stunning achievement and one the country and the athlete herself, justly celebrated at the time, yet the closeness to the ultimate prize left a yearning for what might have been.
“In Sydney, if I had known I was going to be that close to winning then I would have done things differently or at least been able to do things differently,” she says. “I knew I was going to run well but it wasn’t like ‘95 when I had the confidence of being head and shoulders above everyone else. In Sydney I was good enough that if, tactically, I’d run differently I could possibly have won that race.”
INSTEAD, it was Gabriela Szabo won the gold that day but, retrospectively, eyebrows were raised when, three years later, she was forced to deny any knowledge of how a quantity of the performance-enhancing drug EPO turned up in the boot of her car. In her book, O’Sullivan says that she has never thought of her rival in that way “because she never ran or achieved anything I believed I couldn’t match”. Similarly, while she revisits at length the dubious nature of the Chinese victories which had restricted her to silver in the 1,500 metres at the 1993 World Championship in Stuttgart, her essential philosophical view seems to be that you can’t rewrite history. Or, more to the point, her story.
“If something were to come out tomorrow about the Chinese, Szabo or anyone who ever finished in front of me, it really wouldn’t make any difference to me because it would just mean a different colour medal in my drawer at home,” she says. “It wouldn’t change anything. You still wouldn’t have that feeling of crossing the finish line first and the celebration afterwards. That’s all on the day and you can never have that back. Even when Ben Johnson was disqualified in ‘88 and Carl Lewis got the medal, did he really feel like he’d won the race? Probably not.”
Writing her book, which was “like looking back on another lifetime,” has helped her to accept where she is now. “I’ve come to terms with actually enjoying running,” she smiles. “I run now but it’s not for the same purpose or the same reason.”
Still she recoils at the mention of the ‘r’ word — and I don’t mean recession.
“If someone asks am I retired, I find it really difficult to say I am. I see retirement as something for when you’re 65 or older. I’m not even 40 but there seem to be people who want to put you on the shelf very quickly. I’ve been retired in the papers without me knowing and then taken out of retirement again without me knowing. A lot of the people I run with in London are older than me so mention retirement to them and they all start laughing. So I just think I should continue as I am. The difficulty is that if I take part in a fun run or go training, people look at you as who you were and assume that’s still who you are. Whereas I just want to be out there having fun and doing it because I like it. You don’t want to be measured all the time and have people saying, ‘oh, but you’re about 200 slower than you were last year’. Things like that can annoy you because you know that you didn’t go out with the purpose of doing that. Some people don’t seem to be able to move with you.”
Not that her competitive urge has simply disappeared. Indeed, she reveals that she hasn’t ruled out going for next year’s European Cross Country Championships which will be held in Dublin. “I’d say I have a 50-50 chance,” she says, “but I would have to be able to score points on the team. I wouldn’t want to go out there just to run around and wave.”
But what of the longer term?
In her book she talks of being “at a crossroads” in her life. She mentions a friend who has done a teaching diploma in Trinity and how she herself is attracted to the idea of becoming a primary school teacher. After all the years on the roller-coaster, she admits to something of a craving for a normal life, one that would be more wedded to a routine. A smile is never far from Sonia’s face and she starts to laugh as she remembers one of her most recent notions.
“There would have been a time there, not so long ago, when I would have been frustrated with stuff and things mightn’t be going right, and I’d think, ‘I wish I was something else,’” she says. “I remember saying to Nic one day — and I’m sure he thinks I’m totally mad — that I wished I was a postman. Y’know, you could just sort of run around with the post, start early in the morning, finish early...”
Even amidst the infectious laughter, you can’t help noting that this is one postie who wouldn’t have need of a bike. Running might no longer be her life, but it seems Sonia O’ Sullivan could never imagine a life without running.
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