Sonia O’Sullivan: I don’t go around with a badge saying ‘I’m an Olympian’

"I wouldn’t tell them what I’ve done, I would just say, ‘My name is Sonia’"
Sonia O’Sullivan: I don’t go around with a badge saying ‘I’m an Olympian’

Sonia O’Sullivan is pictured at St. Stephen’s Green Park in 2016. 

Sonia O’Sullivan is coming down the home straight again, just seven more days left as a 50-year-old before the calendar resets itself.

Life as a quinquagenarian looks a lot different for the Cobh native whose two daughters, Ciara and Sophie, have flown the nest, often leaving the former world champion at home on her own in Melbourne.

Well, not quite alone.

There are her two dogs for starters, Snowy, who is 11, and the younger Winnie, just two and “a bit mad”, capable of running “for up to an hour or so”, and often asked to.

“A lot of the time in my life with my husband, his work means we can be split between Europe and Australia a lot of the year,” O’Sullivan revealed in a fascinating life and times interview on the Sleep Eat Perform Repeat podcast.

“If you’re there by yourself, it’s great to have the dogs for company. The past few years, my two daughters, Ciara and Sophie, have kept me busy but now they’re both finished school, so life has been changing a lot for the past couple of years.

“Definitely it revolves around... it was for a while Ciara and Sophie going to school and all of their sporting activities. The dogs are now a big part of it. When you get up in the morning that’s the first thing you have to do, take them out for a walk.”

Coffee has found its way into the life of the Olympian too, and not just any coffee. Ever heard of a ‘Magic’?

“It’s a double espresso and then it’s a three-quarter level of cappuccino. You fill the cup three it’s more coffee than milk, is how you would explain.” There’s a coffee shop in Dublin that does a mean Magic but even a lot of baristas that O’Sullivan encounters haven’t heard of it.

“It’s one of the coffees that I have quite good fun with because not a lot of people know what it is,” she smiled. “Sometimes I ask for a Magic just to get the reaction and see what people think. It’s basically, and they do it very well in 3fe (coffee shop in Dublin), it’s actually a double espresso macchiato.”

Once, in Abu Dhabi, O’Sullivan tried her Magic trick and was met with equal mischief.

“I said to the fella behind the counter, ‘Do you do a Magic?’ And he said, ‘Do I look like a magician?’ He was very quick. We had a bit of a laugh over that.”

The familiar smell of her favourite coffee beans got her through a challenging period a few weeks back when essentially locked up.

She’d spent much of the summer in Ireland, from July to late October, and upon returning to Australia was required to quarantine alone for two weeks in a hotel. With no international arrivals into Melbourne at that stage, she flew into Brisbane Airport and was taken to a local hotel.

The first big problem? No windows that actually opened.

“It kind of freaked me out a bit initially because I would generally spend a good few hours of my day outside,” she said, explaining how escaping for socially distance exercise in a small courtyard meant getting your name on a list and waiting for a police officer to come and escort you. If your name’s not down, you’re not getting out.

“It could be 15 minutes or it could be a couple of hours depending on how busy they are.”

Neither fame nor fortune could expedite the process. Not that she would have dared throw a reference to her silver medal from the Sydney Olympics 20 years ago into the conversation, to grease the wheels of due process a little.

Likewise, whenever she comes across someone new in Australia, she simply tells them she’s Sonia from Ireland.

“I wouldn’t tell them what I’ve done, I would just say, ‘My name is Sonia’,” she responded to the hypothetical question of how she might introduce herself to, say, a farmer in Fremantle. “They’d say: ‘Where are you from?’ And I’d say: ‘I’m from Ireland, I’m from Cobh’. I’d say, ‘It’s a town where many people left from many years ago, many people came to Australia’. I think I’d be more likely to speak about my Irish heritage and the history and connection of Ireland to Australia. I would let them work me out.

I don’t go around with a badge on me saying: ‘I’m an Olympic athlete’. I don’t think I need to do that and I would rather not do that.

"I don’t think it’s important to have that as a label.”

At the peak of her powers, O’Sullivan churned out 100 miles a week in training. When that became routine, the challenge was to do a ‘better’ 100.

And so on went the pursuit of perfection. The challenges are different these days and the strong sense is that O’Sullivan is working out which ones she wants to take on and embrace as she navigates her early 50s.

“It’s pretty difficult at the moment, in a way my life has changed a lot the past few years, just from a family perspective,” she said. “My oldest daughter, Ciara, is going to Melbourne University and she moved out of home as well. It’ll be just myself and Nic (Bideau, husband) and the two dogs.

"In some ways you’re free to do what you like but in other ways you’re still hovering and waiting because Ciara and Sophie are still...they’ve gone off doing their own thing but there’ll be times when they’ll still come back home and need you there for them. Yeah, I’m not 100% sure where I’m going at the moment.

“I will definitely have a lot more time to myself because there’ll be no school drop-offs and pick-ups and all the different sporting events to attend but I always find that no matter how much time you think you have, it’s still hard to find the time to do everything you want to do.”

The full interview with Sonia O’Sullivan is available on the Sleep Eat Perform Repeat podcast series, hosted by David Clancy and Ciarán Dunne. The series is closing in on 100 episodes, each with a theme of high performance at their core.

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