Sonia O'Sullivan: 'Every time I go home to Ireland now I realise I didn't appreciate it enough before'
From her house in Melbourne, the legendary athlete opens up about life after competing, her daughters and why she loves Ireland more than ever.
Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30
It's winter in Melbourne. But in a sports-mad city, that's no excuse to put one's feet up. "There's a huge fitness boom going on here," Sonia O'Sullivan enthuses, speaking on the phone from her adopted hometown. "It's not just elite athletes. Everyone is looking after their health and fitness here."
The former World Champion and Olympic 5,000m silver medallist has just collected one of her daughters from evening soccer training, when I call. They were surprised to find dozens of joggers still out, after dark, using head torches to guide their way. "We couldn't believe it," she laughs. "It's a totally new craze here."
Not that O'Sullivan (45) is a mere spectator in all of this. "Sport is still a really important part of my life," she admits. "I have to get out there and do my daily run. If it wasn't winter, I'd put in a bike ride every day as well. It's really important that I do something active to feel alive."
The Cobh native first visited Melbourne in the mid-1990s, with one eye on preparing for the Sydney Olympics. "I came here to train, but also to get accustomed to the long flight, which seemed beyond me at the time. Now I fly back and forth between here and Dublin about four times a year, without any bother at all."
Today she shares her suburban home with her running coach husband Nic Bideau, daughters Ciara (16) and Sophie (13) and their dog Snowy. "I met Nic in 1995, when I first came to Australia. He helped a group of us set up a training camp here in Melbourne," she says.
The pair had the spotlight turned on their private life thanks to a bitter spat with fellow Olympian, and Australian darling, Cathy Freeman. Freeman had been in both a personal and professional relationship with Nic for 10 years and claimed that O'Sullivan had stolen him. O'Sullivan has always maintained that they only began dating in 1996 after his relationship with Freeman had ended.
She and Nic were married in 2006, the same year that O'Sullivan became an Australian citizen. Both her daughters, she says, have inherited their mother's competitive instincts. "Sophie likes to run. She's very competitive. Whether it's soccer or basketball, she'll do anything to get the ball. Whereas Ciara is more competitive academically, that's the priority for her."
Initially, the family based themselves in London, but gravitated back toward Nic's home country after Sonia's running career wound down.
"We never really moved to Melbourne officially. It just evolved into us spending more and more time here. The girls go to school here now, which is what keeps me here most of the time. But I tend to divide my time between Australia and Ireland - I've never spent a full year in Australia."
So how does she spend her days? "I do a fair bit of cooking and I quite enjoy that. I've certainly got a lot more ingredients in my fridge now than I did when I was an athlete. I'm more willing to experiment now, to use a bit more butter and cream.
"And of course, I'm involved with my kids and whatever they're doing. In some ways, going to kids' sports events, I probably have a greater connection with that right now than I do with international athletics." Back in Ireland, of course, O'Sullivan is still revered as one of our greatest ever stars of track and field.
The Irish public was with Sonia for all her greatest triumphs (world championship golds on the track and in cross country, three European titles and that unforgettable silver medal at Sydney 2000) as well as the odd disaster (crashing out of the 5,000m final in Atlanta 1996, when she was favourite to win).
Those episodes remain vivid in the public memory. What's a little hazier to recall, after all this time, is where exactly we parted company? When did the nation's favourite athlete hang up her spikes for the last time? Well, officially, she never did.
When the Cork woman finished last in the 5,000m final at the 2004 Olympics, the crowd in the Athens stadium gave O'Sullivan a very appreciative reception. Some might have regarded that as a fitting swansong. But the (then) 34-year-old O'Sullivan had other ideas.
This determination to persevere, despite diminishing returns, was inspired in part, she says, by the obliquity of joggers on the streets of London and Melbourne.
"When I walked off the track in Athens," she says, "I never thought that was going to be my last Olympic race. I tried to qualify for the marathon in Beijing in 2008. I thought that would be a nice way to finish, for me to run into the Olympic stadium. But that didn't work out.
"I had injuries too, of course. But I'd see people running on the street and I'd think, well, why can't I run too?" So there was never a final bow? "There wasn't one final race, no. I continued at a very high level for a number of years. Eventually, I would have run races where the results were not deserving of the training I was putting in. Where it didn't add up anymore.
"It didn't make sense to be training so hard and running races and not getting the results you would hope for, or expect, or even accept. That's when I realised, I've got to change things."
Was it difficult letting go? "You miss the energy and adrenaline that comes with training at such a high level. For a long time afterwards, I never wore a watch to measure my time and speed and distance. I didn't want to know how slow I was going. Generally though, there isn't time to look back and reflect. You just move on to the next stage of life and all that brings."
That has included, amongst other things, working as an RTÉ commentator at World and European Athletics Championships, acting as Chef de Mission for the Irish Olympic team at London 2012, and (potentially) serving as Ireland's first ever representative on the international athletics governing body, the IAAF, when elections are held in Beijing later this month.
But right now, she's promoting the Great Pink Run, which takes place in aid of Breast Cancer Ireland in Dublin on August 29. "This is the third year now I've been involved," she says. "It's a great opportunity to talk to people with breast cancer, their families and their friends. You never know who you'll end up running alongside. But they'll always tell you why they're running and why this charity is close to their heart. So it's great to be involved.
"It's one of those things, running, you can open up a lot more and connect with people when you run together." For O'Sullivan, the event is also an excuse to reconnect with a sport she still clearly loves. "I do most of my running these days with my dog. People say, 'How are you keeping?' and I say 'I'm dog fit'," she laughs. "Granted, the Great Pink Run is not the most competitive race out there, but I still prepare for it the same way I would an Olympics or a World Championships. I say, 'Right, I'm going to run 10k on August 29. What time am I going to run it in? And how do I make sure I achieve that goal?'
"I know that I can't run as fast as I did before. So I move the goalposts. I accept what I can do and work out how best to accomplish that."
Having lived in America, London and Australia since she first left Cork for a scholarship at the University of Villanova in Pennsylvania at age 17, the run also gives O'Sullivan an excuse to come home to a country she feels she is only now really getting to know well.
She talks of renting out Dublin Bikes and being recognised by the pedestrians as she explores the capital. But she prefers the solitude of the countryside. On one recent visit, she cycled out to Glendalough on a whim, just because she spotted it on a signpost and realised she'd never been there before.
"Every time I go home now, I see so much that I love. And I realise I probably didn't appreciate it enough before. Growing up, I was always running away from things. But now Ireland is my favourite place in the world to spend time."
She's regularly invited to visit primary schools, where children far too young ever to have seen her race in her prime, clamour around for autographs. In schools, she's often treated to a reprise screening of the race that was both her greatest triumph and most agonising near-miss.
Every time a video of the 5,000m final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics is shown for a new generation of children, O'Sullivan is forced to relive her own doomed attempt to overtake the Romanian Gabriela Szabo, on the outside in final bend, and reflect that if she'd only waited for the final straight to make her move, she might well have taken gold.
"People still say, 'If you were to do it all again, what would you do differently?' I always say, 'If I knew it was going to be that close, of course, I would have. Of course, I'd have made sure that I won.' But you don't know these things at the time.
"A lot of times, the action you take late in the race is totally instinctive. Whoever gets it right is the one who wins the race. And that's probably where luck comes into it."
Throughout O'Sullivan's career, however, there may have been more than luck conspiring against her. For example, of the athletes who pushed Sonia into fourth place in the 3,000m final in Barcelona in 1992, Ukrainian silver medallist Tetyana Dorovskikh tested positive for drug use a year later. Her case is just the tip of the doping iceberg.
O'Sullivan claims to be philosophical about all of this. "Um... I try not to dwell on it," she squirms. "It's not going to achieve anything."
But deep down, this must really drive her mad?
"Not really," she insists. "It's just wasted energy. It's like holding a grudge. It just takes a lot of energy from you, when you need to keep as much of that energy as you can in order to get the best out of yourself."
A big eye-opener though, she admits, were the revelations about Lance Armstrong's doping programme in cycling. "The whole Tour de France thing, Lance Armstrong and all the books and revelations that came out. That made a lot of people stop and think 'Wow, if they were doing that in the Tour de France, what the hell were they doing in our sport?'"
For O'Sullivan, the logistics of Armstrong's doping programme alone were mind-boggling.
"It's hard to believe that athletes in the middle of such an unbelievable endurance event, on their day off, would be going over the border into another country to top up their red blood cells.
"In our sport, athletes just turn up for one race and then head back to God knows where. They'd have far more opportunity to be doing that sort of cheating. So it's very possible that was going on for all those years I raced. And there are lots of names in the record books you'd have your doubts about."
The main consolation, she insists, is peace of mind. "I think it was Colin Jackson who said, 'At least, when I was on the starting line, I never had to worry about getting caught.' I feel the same way. When you know all you've done is worked hard and trained right, at least you never have that to worry about getting found out."
The highlight of her forthcoming visit home will be the unveiling of a statue in her honour in her hometown of Cobh. And this time she's bringing the entire family. "I've been taking note of all my favourite little places to go and things to do. You always want to share these things with your family. You want them to love them as much as you do.
"Hopefully, this time the weather won't be too cold. I'm always telling them the weather in Ireland is fantastic. But nobody believes me!"
Will it be strange to see herself immortalised like that? "Hopefully, it won't be a major shock. I trust the guys who are doing it. The only thing I said to them was, 'I want to be up there looking like it's me running around in 1995 and not 2015'." In truth, most of us would scarcely notice the difference.
The Great Pink Run takes place in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, on August 29, with all monies raised going to Breast Cancer Ireland. See greatpinkrun.ie