Yesterday Gillian O’Sullivan became only the third Irish athlete in history to win a medal at the world track and field championships following Eamonn Coghlan’s 5,000m gold in 1983 and Sonia O’Sullivan’s 5,000m gold in 1995.
In one fell swoop she claimed the silver medal behind the European and former Olympic champion, Yelena Nikolayeva, and the $30,000 prizethat goes with it as well as another $30,000 as winner of the Grand Prix series.
The fact that she claimed her silver medal in the discipline of race walking makes it even more historic. Adding to the moment was the fact that Ireland’s Olive Loughnane finished 12th in yesterday’s race.
The new heroine of Irish athletics, who comes from the tiny townland of Minish, some three miles from Killarney, had no difficulty expressing her delight to the media masses who awaited her entrance to the Mixed Zone after the race.
“I might be repeating myself but it’s just great. It’s fantastic. I’m absolutely delighted for myself, my coach, my family and friends because I had so much support out there today it was just unbelievable,” she said.
It is only four years since she made her debut at the world championships in Seville where she finished 32nd but since then she has become something of a national treasure.
Finishing 10th in the Sydney Olympics and fourth in last year’s European championships, she took race walking to a new level back home even before yesterday’s spectacular performance. Now it is already looking good for next year’s Olympic Games in Athens and she admitted this openly yesterday when she had time to reflect on her performance.
“It is looking good,” she said. “Once I put in the work again next year. But this will give me a lot of confidence as well.
“Next year is a different year but I know now that I have the confidence to know that I can do it and that I can be up there.”
At 27 she celebrated her birthday in Paris on Thursday she is just coming into her prime and while a lot of people will now see her as one of the favourites for the gold medal at next year’s Olympics yesterday’s winner, Yelena Nikolayeva, insisted that she will be involved in that particular contest although she will be 38 years old then.
Asked if she saw Gillian O’Sullivan as her successor, Nikolayeva, who is arguably the most successful woman walker in history, was reticent. “Not necessarily,” she said. “I was second in Barcelona and first in Atlanta and I was injured for Sydney. For me the Olympic Games are still a very big possibility.”
Clearly it will be difficult to stop Gillian O’Sullivan’s march forward for she is now regarded as the ultimate professional following a programme that has been carefully planned by her coach, Michael Lane, with an Olympic medal as the target.
A former international walker himself, Michael Lane, played a big role in yesterday’s success. They went around the course on Friday along with Olive Loughnane. “We talked everything over on Saturday night,” Gillian said. “We went through the different ways the race could go and I felt it was going to be a good day. I woke up this morning feeling good and I was ready for this. I prepared well for this and trained really well all year. I had some good races, won two Grand Prix races and was second in another, so I had met most of those competitors as some stage.
“The race went out fast and that is just what I wanted,” she said admitting that she got something of a boost when the defending champion, Olympiada Ivanova of Russia, retired after just a 1,500m.
“She had not competed all season so I did not really know what to expect from her,” she said. “I noticed that she was rubbing the back of her left leg early on as if there was some problem with her hamstring. Then she walked off the course. I was delighted. Another one bites the dust, I thought.”
At that point war was already being waged between Nikoleyeva, O’Sullivan and Elisabetta Perrone of Italy who would later retire as Valentina Tsybulskaya of Belarus came through to take the bronze medal.