independent

Wednesday 30 July 2014

I finally caught up with one of my all time heroes - Sonia O'sullivan

A lifelong fan of athletics Weeshie Fogarty fulfilled a dream when he spoke to Sonia O'Sullivan

Published 28/11/2012|09:15

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SONIA O'Sullivan. The mere mention of the name itself invokes a multitude of magical memories.

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We watched her on the box, enthralled, as she plundered gold, silver and bronze medals in the premier championship races around the world. This slip of a girl from county Cork took on and defeated the best the world could offer as she blazed a trail of glory in the great athletics stadiums of Europe and beyond, Athens, Oslo, Goteburg, Stuttgart, Helsinki, Budapest, Munich, Turin Paris, Dublin, Sydney and many more. It was a golden era for Irish athletics and Sonia was the queen of them all. We probably will never see her likes again.

This amazing Cobh born lady must be regarded as the greatest athlete this country has ever produced. Just a brief examination of her career in middle distance running spanning the 1990s and culminating with an Olympic silver medal in the 5,000m in Sydney bears this out. Her trophy cabinet amassed a multitude of titles including the World Athletics Championship (1995), the European Championship (1994 and double gold in 1998), (double silver in 1992), the World Cross-country Championships in Marrakesh, double gold in 1998 and the World Championships (gold in 1997). And not to be overlooked a host of magnificent Grand Prix wins as she broke, equalled and smashed Irish, European and world records leaving world class fields trailing in her wake.

As an avid follower of athletics in this county I, like thousands of others, had followed Sonia's career as she thrilled households up and down the country for the best part of a decade, captivating and inspiring a nation. Little did I think that one day I would sit down and have the privilege of interviewing her in what was I must admit a slightly daunting but fascinating experience?

And so it was last Saturday week that I arrived back at Inch strand - the most unlikely of places - to conduct a ninety minute interview with this legend of world sport. It was here that Sonia chose to relax and unwind following her recent hectic schedule as Chef de Mission to the Irish Olympic team in London. Her family now shares their time between London, Melbourne and, of course, Cobh.

Here, overlooking the beach is Sammy's Café where Mahmood, the owner of this superb establishment, facilitated us with a room upstairs and it was from here I was then transported all around the world as Sonia re-lived all the great athletic events of her magical career.

In the previous week I had familiarised myself with her entire career in order to cover everything and indeed it would take a full week of interviews to capture every aspect of Sonia's career.

It was 1993 and the World Championships had been held in Stuttgart and I had always been fascinated by the success of the Chinese ladies in the 3,000m. They had come first, second and third. Sonia was fourth. I put this one race to her and she laughed and said: "Oh the big Chinese take-away, they came, saw, conquered and disappeared."

I then asked her if she believed they were on some enhancing performing drugs?

"I believed that they trained very hard," she replied, "running a marathon a day and doing all their tough sessions. I thought, 'well I haven't trained like that so how can I be as good as them?'

"Anyway, after the World Championships the Chinese went home and I was able to resume winning on the European circuit. Then I was at a mile road race in Edinburgh and somebody came up and said that Wang Junxia had run 8.06 for the 3,000m. I didn't believe them.

"Then I thought that I had to train harder so I started training really hard. It was the first year that I started running 100 mile weeks. I was training three times a day. Were they on drugs? I don't know."

Our interview ranged far and wide. Courteous, pleasant, relaxed, so willing to talk, no airs or graces, no sign of an ego so evident in many sports stars today, she was the dream interviewee.

Her four Olympic Games, the shocking disappointment of Atlanta and the massive effect it left when she failed to finish in the final of the 5,000m and then in the 1,500m badly effected by a stomach upset she faded away and failed to finish.

She speaks openly and honestly of how she had been unwell for weeks in the run up to those Games but refused to confide in even one person. But the Sonia story is really all about success, and her amazing single-mindness, total focus and sheer determination to be the best in the world comes shining through more than any other aspect of our interview.

Growing up in Cobh, running from one telegraph pole to another as she just wanted to run and run. Her family life is openly discussed, working in the pubs of Cobh and the big Killarney "Human Race" that gave her a ticket to college in America.

Hers must be one of the greatest Irish athletic success stories ever told and thanks to my great friends Ger Hartmann and Ger Keane of the Hartmann Sports Injury Clinic in Limerick I had achieved a burning ambition to meet Sonia and capture in a very small way the remarkable story of her magnificent athletic career. Another beautiful obsession fulfilled.

Fogra: You can hear Sonia tell her story with commentary of her big wins in a special two hour Terrace Talk program, Monday December 10 between 68pm on Radio Kerry. Surely one not to be missed.

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