Sonia: you have to block out the negative voices
Elaine Byrne chats with Sonia O'Sullivan in Melbourne about how the former athlete learnt to cope with self-doubt and her plans to return to live in Ireland.
It is a winter's day in Melbourne and Sonia O'Sullivan is wearing an Aran jumper. She texted to say she might be late for our coffee but was early. That is Ireland's greatest ever athlete in a nutshell, wearing her country on her sleeve and compulsively obsessed about time.
Her daughter Ciara walked the mile to school this morning because the 15-year-old was not ready in time. "I leave the house at exactly eight every morning, maybe three minutes past, at a stretch," she explains. This is Sonia's way of teaching her two teenage daughters about responsibility, hunger and drive. Life with a four time Olympian, three time World Champion and Irish and World record holder is all about the psychological.
Sonia turns 45 in November. It's 14 years since the silver at the Sydney Olympics. Ten since the determination etched on her face in Athens gave way to tears as she finished a lonely last to a standing ovation.
The Cobh woman became a national institution. A conduit for our expectations and hopes. We became emotionally invested in her personal struggles and public vulnerabilities. Sonia is more relaxed since she retired. She lets people in now. What does inside the mind of an elite athlete look like?
There was a moment in 1998 when "things changed." Sonia was walking down a street in Marrakech on the eve of the World Cross-Country Championships "and there was the usual suspects - the Irish journalists - Tom O'Riordan, Peter Byrne and Brendan Mooney.
"I just walked up and said hello and they didn't even recognise me. I was calm as anything, and they were like, 'are you not worried about the heat.' I was like, it's not very hot, it's grand!" This innocuous exchange was actually the moment Sonia discovered that the psychological was as important as the physical preparation. The regimental routine of her training life could not control everything.
"That was when I realised that to be the best that you can be, you don't need to be afraid of the media and people asking you questions but you have to use them to your benefit. I wanted it put out there that all is good."
It worked. The 28-year-old won double world gold at the 4km and 8km. A rare achievement for an athlete at those distances, particularly when racing on successive days.
Sonia was "devastated" when she ran badly in London, a month out from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. "I couldn't believe how bad I felt." So she used the same mind tricks she had learnt in Marrakech. She told herself that she would win by telling the Irish public that she would.
"Somebody said to me, just call up some journalist you know and tell them you are really looking forward to it. All of a sudden it changes how you feel. It was all mental, the whole thing. You are obviously fit enough but it's how you get your mind to believe that you're actually going to out and do well." She did, smashing a season's best in the heats, 15 months after giving birth to Ciara.
"I was trying to explain this to my oldest daughter last week, Ciara. You can do anything if you believe you can do it, if you have the ability to do it and you are talented."
These mental strategies of self-belief and absolute confidence quelled the voices in her head that told her to stop when her body was physically exhausted.
Even now, looking at that Sydney Olympic 5000m final on YouTube, there is a sense that Sonia was not a contender. The three Ethiopians had set an electrifying pace which left her drifting at the back of the pack in 11th spot at the halfway mark.
"There was definitely a moment in that race where it could have gone either way," Sonia recalls. As Ireland took a collective breath with eight laps to go, Sonia remembered a book she had just read, "that kind of said there are voices in your head and sometimes you have to block them out." What kind of voices? "Where you feel tired don't you, you feel like, I don't know if I can keep up here, this is pretty tough. A negative thing rather than a positive thing. You have to turn it around as quick as you can."
She did, scraping from the back to Gabriela Szabo's shoulder with 200m to go. Gregg Allen in the RTE commentary box breathlessly described it as a "tremendous comeback." Sonia won silver, 23 hundredths of a second behind her Romanian nemesis in an Olympic record as yet unbroken. Mind over matter made her the best she could be that balmy Sydney night.
Szabo was appointed as Romania's Minister of Youth and Sport this year. Does Sonia have political ambitions? "Not really, no. I'm not very political, at all. I'm structured in my own life but I don't like to be told what to do. I wouldn't like to be restricted in what I could say."
But Sonia is determined to have an "impact" in Ireland and is on the lookout for a home with the intention of returning to Ireland permanently. She wants to create professional mentoring structures for athletics through her "Ag Rith" initiative.
Just as Roisin McGettigan, Derval O'Rourke and Rob Heffernan have been upgraded because of retrospective banning of athletes for doping offences, Sonia "absolutely" believes her medal score was depleted because of others' use of performance-enhancing drugs. She wishes athletics had received the same scrutiny as cycling.
Any regrets? "Definitely in Athens. I really wish I could have finished up better than I did." Mental discipline could not overcome food poisoning. Sonia broke down in the 2004 Olympic final and the world watched as her father embraced his daughter, sheltering her under his arms.
"I've done that with my own kids if they get upset. It's just that everybody sees the Olympics but not everybody sees when you're down at the local track" she says. "You can't win everything. You can't always be the best that you want to be. You can't always have what you want. You have to take the bad with the good." There is a lesson for Ireland in that somewhere, too.