Silver 5000m (Sydney, 2000).
Gold 5000m (Gothenburg, 1995)
Silver 1500m (Stuttgart, 1993)
Gold 3000m (Helsinki, 1994)
Gold 10000m (Budapest, 1998)
Gold 5000m (Budapest, 1998)
Silver 10000m (Munich, 2002)
Silver 5000m (Munich, 2002)
World Cross-Country Championships
Gold 8km (Marrakesh,1998)
Gold 4km (Marrakesh,1998)
Bronze(Team) 8km (Turin,1997)
Bronze(Team) 4km (Dublin, 2002)
World Indoor Championships
Silver 3000m (Paris, 1997)
European Athlete of the Year 1994.
RTÉ Sports Person of the Year 2000.
Texaco Sportstar Awards: 6 (Supreme, 1993).
ESB/Rehab People of the Year 2004
Honoroary Doctor of the Arts
University College Cork.
It is just over 17,000km from Sonia O’Sullivan’s adopted home in Melbourne, Australia, to the hotel in Howth, Co. Dublin, where we meet. Trundling up the rain-swept drive to meet her, I do some idle calculations. 17,000km divided by 5,000m, Sonia’s favourite running distance. So that means Sonia would have to run her favourite distance 3,400 times to get from here to Melbourne. And then I get to thinking, I bet she’s run 5000m at least 3,400 times. I mean, she runs twice that distance every day just to stay in shape. My goodness, this dame has run all the way from Dublin to Australia. And probably back again too.
But on this occasion she has journeyed by plane. She’s back in Ireland for a few weeks, to keep an eye on what Europe has in store for the athletes of the world this summer. The moment her plane touched down, she slipped into her runners and went for a jog. ‘Whenever I’ve flown in from somewhere, I always try and go for a run. You feel so much better after, almost rejuvenated.’
There is a hint of an Australian twang to her voice these days. But she remains very much the idol of Ireland at large and her native Co. Cork in particular. As we talk, a series of men of varying vintage approach to commend her various achievements. The first rather gingerly says his piece, about turns and flees. Another stays a while longer and starts reeling off names of people from Cobh whom she might know. Sonia nods and smiles in her own bashful manner and he departs feeling much the better for his encounter.
Sonia was born on 28 November 1969, 31 days before the Swinging Sixties came to an end. Her grandfather Paddy O’Sullivan was a Dubliner who worked as a driver, delivering bottles of the black stuff all over Ireland for the Guinness Brewery. During his early years at the brewery, he met Josie Callanan, a young lady from the musical village of Doonbeg, Co. Clare. She was working in the dining hall at the Rupert Guinness Hall in Watling Street, where the annual Christmas concerts and variety shows were held.[i]
When Paddy retired in 1975, the couple took on the lease of the Barge Inn in Robertstown, Co. Kildare. Sonia frequently visited the pub during her childhood, recalling it as a lively venue stuffed with people playing accordions and bodhrans. In 1998, when Mick O’Dwyer’s Kildare footballers reached the All-Ireland final, she was amused to see that Robertstown had adopted her as one of their own pure-bred winners as part of their ‘Up Kildare’ campaign.
Sonia’s father John Sullivan joined the Irish Navy and was stationed at the island harbour of Cobh, Co. Cork. ‘He would go away for a week, or maybe two weeks at a time’, recalls Sonia. ‘Killybegs was a name we used to hear a lot’. When the big naval vessels were docked in Haulbowline, John would take Sonia, her younger sister Gillian and younger brother Tony on board for an exploratory adventure. ‘The Christmas party was always a big event’. That said, while she is a keen swimmer, she confesses that she did not inherit her father’s sea-legs and prefers to lub it on the land. John left the Navy in February 1978, with the rank of chief petty officier ERA.
Sonia’s mother was born Mary Shealy and grew up in Cobh. Her father Michael was the youngest of nine children born to Jimmy Shealy, a farmer from Kilbehenny, a quiet rural community in the Galtee Mountains, close to Mitchelstown. During the last decade of the 19th century, Jimmy was amongst the more prominent players on the Galtee Gaels football team.
Michael’s mother passed away when he was a baby and the Shealy family appear to have scattered in later life, with many of the daughters becoming nuns and settling in America. Sonia recalls visiting cousins in Kilbehenny in her childhood. ‘My grandparents sometimes took me to visit the relations, which was great because that meant I’d get some orange and other treats on the journey’. At the Shealy’s farmhouse, she was mesmerized by an ancient wheel their great-aunt would turn to fan the kitchen fire.
Sonia was the eldest of three children. She was not particularly quick to start walking as a toddler. Nor did she commence running properly until she was at her secondary school, Cobh Vocational. Like many an athlete, she developed her passion by running to and from school.
‘I tried to join in with the camogie because I felt that, being fit from running, I could assist the team and have fun doing it. But I wasn't very coordinated with stop start running, or picking up the sliotair on the hurley. I just wasn’t very good at team sports. I found it difficult being constrained by rules and other players. I felt so much freer running. I was also bit scared that I’d get injured and be unable to run. And then I worked out that I was winning races, and that I could probably win a few more if I actually trained a little.’[ii]
Together with some friends, she joined the Ballymore-Cobh Athletics Club and began to train. And she hasn’t stopped since. ‘I don’t like to go a day without running’, she says. ‘If you keep doing it every day, you enjoy it a lot more. You go to bed knowing you’re going to run the next day and you have it in your mind where you are going to run.’[iii]
Her success earned her a scholarship to Pennsylvania’s Villanova University where she studied accountancy. In 1990, the 21-year-old became the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s 3,000m champion. She then ran the 3000m at the European Championships in Split and finished 11th. Her track record improved radically thereafter and the following year, she set her first world indoor record winning the 5000m in Boston. At the World Student Games in Sheffield that summer she scored a Gold in the 1500m and Silver in the 3000m.
And so her extraordinary story moved into a new phase, as she scaled the ranks to become the greatest female athlete in Irish history. At one point she set five new national records in the space of eleven days.
‘When I was growing up, I didn’t know you could do sport as a job’, she says. ‘It wasn’t about money. I used to run races where the prize was a tracksuit or a pair of runners’. [iv]
At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, she hit the lead in the final lap of the 3000m but was ultimately outsprinted to finish fourth. An 11th place in the 1500m semi-final also disappointed but she made amends by winning the 5000m in the 1992 Grand Prix Final. At the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, she won Silver in the 1500m.[v]
1994 and 1995 were golden years and Sonia emerged as a true world champion, running the 1500m, 1 mile, 2000m and 3000m faster than any other female athletes during both of those years. An upset stomach kyboshed her Olympic dreams at Atlanta in 1996 and she went adrift for a while before bouncing back at the 1998 World Cross-Country Championships in Marrakesh to win two cross-country Golds over the 4km and 8km courses. At the European Athletics Championship, she blew the opposition away with her Gold-winning debut in the 10,000m.
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Sonia won a well-deserved Silver in the 5000m. That was arguably the zenith of her running career. Few could doubt that she was extremely unlucky not to come away with a Gold after her participation in four separate Olympic games, not least when taken ill on the eve of the 5000m final at Athens in 2004.
‘We all want to do our best’, she says. ‘If you’re having people around for dinner, you want it to be really good. But there are always going to be a lot of little steps to take along the way. And sometimes it doesn’t go as you planned. You can’t look too far ahead. You can’t put the cart before the horse.’
These days, Sonia reckons she runs up to 70 miles every week. ‘I went for a short run the other day and it was 50 minutes long so I was questioned afterwards on my definition of a short run!’ She continues to compete frequently. In 2008, Sonia managed the Australian team for the 2008 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, and was Deputy Chef de Mission of the highly successful European Youth Olympic squad in 2009. She returns to Ireland two or three times a year and is otherwise based between Melbourne and London. She adores the dull moments on the rare occasions that they come along, where she gets to kick back with a newspaper or play with her two daughters.
She will be Chef de Mission of Team Ireland's 2012 Olympic campaign.
[i] Paddy joined as a driver at the end of the Second World War, initially as a labourer in the Engineers Department. In 1947, he was transferred to the Traffic Department where he remained as a driver, delivering bottles of the black stuff all over Ireland until his retirement in 1975. Josephine Callanan was born on 14th May 1920. They lived in Kevin's St, and then Corrib Rd and then Wainsfort Gr [sic?]. Patrick passed away on 26 October 1994.
[ii] As a girl, she loved running cross-country in her bare feet which she holds is the freest feeling of all, although she cautions that so much pounding does ultimately weaken the feet. ‘I like the independence of running. In London, I live next to a boat club. If one of eight people doesn’t turn up, they can’t go out. If I’m meeting someone for a run and they don’t turn up, I can still go for my run’.
[iii] ‘If you’ve had a late night, and you go out and run, you get into it. And you’ll always think “I’m glad I did this”.’
[iv] ‘ But now people get things too easily. Things are much cheaper. I saw a id yesterday with a 1.5l bottle of coke and you think, wow, we used to get that once a year’. Now in sport, it seems that you’re either up there or you’re nowhere. What is missing is the middle ground. We need to push the middle ground because really good people would never have been good if there wasn’t people behind pushing them. People don’t have the same motivation and drive to be the best. There used to be so many people who wanted to be the best. So if you let up or didn’t run well, there’d be someone who would pass you by. There are loads of fun runs now but of course everyone is running for fun and they’re not going very fast. It would be easy enough to get in the Top 15. Beforehand that was very difficult to do. People have everything they need so why kill yourself to get €100?’
[v] Five days after the championships, she recorded the season's quickest 5000m in Berlin with 14:45.92, a time that moved her to third on the all-time world list.