Saturday, March 27, 2010

Catching Up with Sonia O'Sullivan

Sonia O'Sullivan is passing her experience onto a new generation for London 2012

Thursday, 25 March 2010
By Mike Rowbottom

There is just a little suggestion of poacher-turned-gamekeeper about the overall team coach/manager for the Australian team at this weekend’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz.

Twelve years ago, this team manager went directly against team orders in going for the double at the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakesh - and won both her events.

Among those advising Sonia O’Sullivan - for it was she - not to go for the short course title after outsprinting Paula Radcliffe to win the long course gold was her own coach, Alan Storey.

In the wake of that audacious double she chuckled as she recalled their disagreement. "Everybody was telling me not to run again," she said. "But in the end I went with my gut feeling."

The young lady from Cobh, County Cork, had "previous" in this regard.

As a talented 17-year-old, O’Sullivan had defied the instruction of her coach at the time, Sean Kennedy, that she should miss the Irish Junior Championships in order to produce a fast time in the Cork City event two days later.

"I argued with him," she admitted. "I said if I was capable of winning an all-Ireland medal it wasn’t right to throw the chance away."

She went to the Junior Championships, winning the gold. She then returned to Cork and reduced her 3,000 metres personal best from 9min 38sec to 9:01.

"It was one of the most important decisions I ever made," she maintained. "I said to Sean: 'It didn’t make any difference, did it?' He said: 'Maybe you would have run faster.'"

So the obvious questions for O’Sullivan, whom Ireland have already bagged as team Chef de Mission for the 2012 Olympics even though she took Australian citizenship in 2006, are: As a team chief, would you have recommended going for the double in 1998? And how would you deal now with a "determined" athlete who was going against your advice?

"Looking back, that’s is an easy question to answer," she says. "Of course I would have allowed my self to run - in fact I did take the decision myself, though I did have the backing of my manager, Kim McDonald, so I wasn’t alone in the perceived madness. I felt that there was nothing to lose and everything to gain.

"So in a similar situation with a determined athlete I would have to weigh up the positive and negative and come to a decision that would have a positive outcome no matter what.

"When an athlete takes a risk then they are trying to achieve greatness and it isn’t always a good idea to put road blocks in the way of such an athlete. I think a coach or team management will have an instinct of what each athlete is capable of and if the athlete is determined and has belief in their ability and what they want to try to achieve then they will be strong enough to get this message across."

O’Sullivan has spent much of the last few years dealing with the challenge of determined young things - not least from her two daughters, Ciara and Sophie, whom she has had with her Australian husband Nic Bideau.

As well as managing the Australian cross country team for the last three years, she also acted as Deputy Chef de Mission for the Irish team at last year’s European Youth Olympics Festival.

After helping Australia’s senior women beat the United States to the team bronze at the 2008 World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Benita Johnson (now Willis) paid tribute to the experience and influence of the team manager. "Sonia's a fantastic inspiration for any team and most countries would give their eye teeth for that," she said.

Those sentiments were endorsed in January this year by another talented young runner, Ireland’s European Indoor 3,000m bronze medallist Mary Cullen, after her runaway win in the Antrim International IAAF Cross Country event, which did much to banish her disappointment at only finishing 12th in the previous month’s European Cross Country Championships in Dublin.

Cullen attributed her motivation in the race to a talk she had had with O’Sullivan, who drew a parallel with how she had underperformed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, partly through the pressure of feeling she had to deliver.

"I wanted it so badly in Dublin that I think I might just have stepped it too far thinking that more, more, more instead of thinking less is more maybe." Cullen said. "I just couldn't get my head around what happened. I was searching for answers and talking to people and sometimes you just don't have an answer.

"But then I talked to Sonia and she explained about the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and how it went for her. You have to be just feisty going into a race and I just felt going into Dublin that I was almost tired and a little bit drained going in and you aren't going to get your best out then unfortunately."

O’Sullivan is glad to be in a position where she can positively influence runners who can benefit from her experience.

"I feel that my role as the Australian cross country team manager in 2008 demonstrated the ability to transfer my belief and positive energy to a team that I was sure could challenge for a bronze medal," she says.

"I knew we had the talent and four quality athletes that could achieve success if they believed in it. I was able to transfer that positive energy to the girls without any added pressure that might have created last minute nerves and poor performance.

"The challenge is to get the athletes to deliver a top performance on the day. So many athletes arrive at the Olympic Games in the best shape of their lives but are unable to allow themselves to run to the level they should.

"This is the area where I feel I can get Irish athletes to perform on the day when it is obvious that they have arrived at the Games in good condition. I will be honest and I will expect athletes to rise to the challenge and not rest easy once they have achieved the initial goal of making the team for London 2012.

"The recent European Youth Olympics Festival (EYOF) was definitely a tester for me on a small scale. It gave me the opportunity to see what is involved with preparing the team for departure and ensuring a positive team spirit throughout the festival and dealing with success and disappointment within the team but ensuring that the positive momentum remained throughout the week.

"Ireland won at least one medal each day at the EYOF, so it was a most successful team to be a part of in what was my first outing in Olympic management.

"I think that I will be able to provide a closer bridge of communication and understanding to the athletes in 2012. I am not so far away from my time as an Olympic athlete so I believe that I still have a close understanding of the needs of the athletes as they get closer to the Olympic Games."

In the meantime O’Sullivan has had to do a little work on bolstering her own image with her eldest daughter, Ciara, whose favourite athlete is Kelly Holmes, the 800 and 1500m champion of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

"I told Ciara I used to beat Kelly regularly when I was running, but she didn’t believe me," O’Sullivan said. "So I had to show her videos of some of the races.

"It was definitely a surprise when Kelly won the double, but it was a message to all talented young athletes out there to never ever give up on your dreams because every now and then opportunities come your way and unless you are in a position to take the opportunities then they will pass you by.

"Kelly had so many problems in the years before Athens that she could easily have thrown it all away. But she persisted and did everything to try and get back on track every time she was derailed with injury."

O’Sullivan well knows the heady experience of achieving her highest ambitions on the track. Some years ago she said that running in championship track races, when really fit and ready, was "just a different feeling that takes over your whole body and a different energy system. You start to feel like you can do anything. It’s not always easy to get yourself to that level, but when you do, it’s the greatest feeling."

She readily recalls the quote, adding: "This is exactly the message that I will be trying to communicate to Irish athletes, this is the final message that an athlete needs to understand and believe to achieve success on the greatest sporting stage. You can only try to deliver the message. The athlete must believe in themselves and put the final pieces in the jigsaw puzzle by themselves during the competition."

So does she believe anything can match that high in an athlete’s subsequent experience?

"Occasionally you achieve something in your life after sport that gives you a buzz or a lift," she reflects. "But nothing compares to the elation and joy of crossing the line first at the end of a race.

"It was more relief than anything in Gothenburg when I won the 1995 world 5,000m title as so much was expected of me by myself and so many others. At the Sydney [Olympic] Games [in 2000], even though I didn’t win the 5,000m, I had the joy and elation of knowing that I gave it everything on the night and I walked away content with an Olympic silver medal. That was my third Olympics so to achieve some success was enough for me to be happy and for me on that Monday night in Sydney, silver was as good as gold."

While O’Sullivan has had an illustrious and successful career, it is generally recognised that she might have had more medals, or maybe medals in some cases of a different hue, if she had not been racing against opponents who had either failed dope tests subsequently, or fallen under grave suspicion.

Does she still believe, as she said some years ago, that doping cheats "are really only cheating themselves?"

"Ultimately yes," she replies. "But when athletes get away with cheating of course they are also cheating the athletes that they are competing against who can never be compensated retrospectively as even if medals get taken away or re-distributed that moment in time when crossing the line first, the elation and joy mentioned before has been stolen and can never be replaced.

"I do feel now that drug testing is not very far behind the cheats, but I will never understand or accept the mindset of athletes who cheat and justify to themselves that it is OK to cheat and get away with it.

"An athlete who cheats to achieve success doesn’t know the real meaning of sport and the feeling you get from achieving your dreams and goals. They will never understand the journey to an Olympic Games that tells the story whether you win or lose."

So which of the Irish team does O’Sullivan think we should watch out for in 2012?

"At this stage I am only familiar with athletics, so can only pinpoint the obvious athletes to watch for based on the great performances at the most recent World Championships in Berlin," she says.

"Derval O’Rourke [in the 100m hurdles] is a championship runner and showed her ability to rise to the occasion by finishing fourth in Berlin.

"She knows how close she is now and just needs to get a clean run in the lead up to London without any time out due to injury. Derval has the belief and the desire to win. She is also from Cork!

"Olive Loughnane [in the 20km walk] showed she belongs in the Olympic race with her silver medal in Berlin. Olive knows that London is her best opportunity of Olympic success.

"You should look out for Joanne Cuddihy, if she returns from injury this year, Paul Hession and David Gillick,. New faces will also appear - Ciara Mageean is a very talented athlete with huge potential and it will be interesting to see how she develops in the build-up to London 2012.

"One very interesting athlete from boxing is Katie Taylor, the current world women’s boxing champion. She will be expected to get a medal with the introduction of women’s boxing in London."

For many years, O’Sullivan has been a wandering spirit as she has travelled between her native Ireland and adopted Australia. You wonder if she still feels Irish…

"I have never not felt Irish, even though I have lived in the UK, Australia and USA," she responds. "Ireland is the one place that I feel like I belong and this is a feeling that you don’t have when you live in another country. Whilst I enjoy living in Australia and my children go to school here I definitely miss the sense of belonging that I get whenever I set foot in Ireland.

"If anything I have felt more Irish since retiring as I appreciate my achievements more and have met so many people who like to tell me how much joy and happiness I brought to their lives when they cheered for me throughout the 90’s into the Noughties!!

"I have felt the other side of being Irish when I have attended sporting events, I remember running into the stadium in Melbourne during the 2003 Rugby World Cup, as I got to my seat everyone was standing up as the Irish national anthem was being played, it was a warm evening as I could feel goose bumps and hair standing on back of my neck as I could feel the nervous energy in the stadium and could understand what was about to happen from an athletes point of view and at the same time about to experience from a supporters side. The anticipation and nervousness and the positive energy you tried to force onto the field of play made me believe that being Irish is very special as the supporters know their sport and they will cheer till the death to try and get the winning result even when all is obviously lost.

"Irish people are passionate and love their sports heroes and heroines. It is this passion that brings out the best in Irish people everywhere around the world that allows the fans to connect with the athletes.

"There are more Irish people outside Ireland than in Ireland and not a week goes by that I don’t meet at least one Irish person in the street. Irish sport is huge and when Irish athletes are successful, there is no better place you can be to see the pure elation and uplifting spirits that people get from seeing their own people be successful."

That said, O’Sullivan’s favourite moment from the 2008 Beijing Olympics was provided by a lanky and charismatic sprinter from Jamaica…

"Usain Bolt brought athletics into everyone’s living room in Beijing and came back for an encore in Berlin last summer," O’Sullivan says.

"For the men’s 100m Final, I was in a shopping centre in Dublin - I was working for RTE but this was the one day off I had so shopping had to be done. I joined a huge crowd in a TV shop to watch Bolt as this was an event I had to to see live.

"It was a great atmosphere a million miles from Beijing - but you could feel the energy and buzz of the world record run ripple through the crowd. Everyone went back to their shopping with a spring in their step…"

Now that she has stopped providing such life-enhancing experiences for the Irish public herself, it is good for O’Sullivan to know that the same effect can be produced by a new generation of athletes…

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames

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