Sunday 17 December 2017

Sonia leads Olympians to home away from home

In good days and bad the track at St Mary's University in south-west London was like a home to Sonia O'Sullivan and in the run-up to next summer's Olympics it will serve a similar purpose for the majority of Irish athletes competing at London 2012.

Earlier this year, the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) announced it would be using the Twickenham-based university with strong Irish connections as a pre-Olympic training base and according to Professor Dick Fisher the decision had much to do with O'Sullivan.

Prof Fisher, who is head of the 2012 preparations at St Mary's recalls: "In the case of the Irish team we'd already agreed to take athletes from South Africa and then one day on the track Sonia O'Sullivan came up to me and said, 'Oh you've got South Africa, that's really good, but is there still room for the Irish?'

"So I replied 'of course there's room for the Irish'."

Before moving to Melbourne,O'Sullivan lived in neighbouring leafy Teddington and still uses the facilities at St Mary's whenever she's in town.

And as the chef de mission for the Irish team at London 2012 she felt strongly that Irish competitors needed to be based here in the days before their events, rather than at home in Ireland.

At present St Mary's expect to welcome Irish competitors in athletics, triathlon, sprint canoeing, cycling and, possibly, badminton.

Though specific dates are yet to be confirmed with the OCI, the competitors are likely to arrive here on July 23 and remain until August 4.

While they will train in the state-of-the-art facilities at St Mary's, including a new sports centre to be opened today at a cost of €9.75m (£8.25m), the teams and back-up staff will stay at the impressive Lensbury Hotel, conference and training centre, just 10 minutes away from the university training grounds.

The former home of World 5000-metre champion Mo Farrah for nine years, St Mary's has a long and proud history of working with some of the world's top athletes.

Prof Fisher says the team will want for nothing.

"We have rehabilitation suites, sports injuries clinics, specialised staff, and top-class facilities.

"Anything the Irish team need, we'll be able to provide," added Prof Fisher.

The Irish Olympians won't have St Mary's all to themselves next summer though as the university will also host various athletes from China, South Africa and one other nation whose name has not yet been revealed.

But according to Prof Fisher getting the Irish to commit has given the Catholic university -- which hosted Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010 -- a huge lift.

He said, "Over the decades we've had so many physical education teachers now based in Ireland who trained at St Mary's and we've always had Irish staff and a healthy contingent of Irish students here.

"We always had in our mind that if the Irish didn't approach us, we would have approached them."

Irish Independent

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