Tuesday 24 October 2017

Sonia's Cobh run helps to revive many great memories

Robert Heffernan, Robert Heffernan and David Matthews at the Sonia O'Sullivan 3k Celebration Run in Cobh
Robert Heffernan, Robert Heffernan and David Matthews at the Sonia O'Sullivan 3k Celebration Run in Cobh

Frank Greally

I was the very final finisher to cross the line in last Monday night's 3k Sonia O'Sullivan Celebration Run, organised by Ballymore Athletic AC - the club where the Cobh Express first discovered her exceptional talent.

It was a rainy night in Cobh but there was a lively atmosphere in the east Cork town, with lots of spectator support for the event, organised to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the evening in 1994 when O'Sullivan set a European 3,000m record of 8:21.64 at London's Crystal Palace - a year when she also won 3,000m gold in the European Championships.

An hour before the races got underway I met up with guest of honour, Sonia O'Sullivan, and World 50km Race Walk Champion Robert Heffernan. Both athletes have experienced exceptional highs and lows during their athletics careers and as a result have great mutual empathy.

Robert is still struggling to come to terms with his disappointing performance at the recent European Track and Field Championships in Zurich where he had been among the favourites.

Sonia understands better than most what it is like to under-perform on the big stage as she had her own nightmare experience in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, before demonstrating her resilience when returning to win an Olympic silver medal at 5,000m in Sydney.

"Sometimes you just try too hard and then everything falls apart on you," Sonia said, as Robert Heffernan nodded in agreement. Later on in the evening, Sonia talked about her training build-up to the ill-fated Atlanta Olympics and admitted that she probably over-trained during that period of her career.

"Back then, I wanted every training session to be the best one ever and I learned the hard way that is not a good way to train," she said.

Because she tends to wear her heart on her sleeve, Sonia's joys and sorrows have usually been very clear, not only to herself but to others. Few athletes would have been capable of bouncing back from that nightmare experience in Atlanta, when all her best laid plans of success disintegrated.

I was in Atlanta when the Cobh woman's world came apart at the seams and I was also in Sydney to see her smile again and celebrate her Olympic silver success with her family and close friends.

It was also nice to see former Olympian and Irish 800m record holder David Matthews lining up at the start of the men's race in Cobh. It is also 20 years since Matthews first broke the Irish 800m record and 19 years have slipped by since he set the still-standing record of 1:44.82 in Rieti.

Like Robert Heffernan, David Matthews has found it necessary to hit the pause button over the past couple of weeks as he contemplates what went wrong with the Cork hurling team that was dusted down by Tipperary in the All-Ireland Semi- Final in Croke Park; a team that he had been training for the past three years. Could this be a case of a team that was trying too hard to achieve success?

There too on this night of special celebration was Father Liam Kelleher, who has faithfully followed and recorded all the highlights of Sonia O'Sullivan's career since her early days as a juvenile athlete. "Sonia is a real national treasure and we will not see her likes again in our lifetime," Fr Kelleher said.

I enjoyed the experience of running around the streets of Cobh. I started out too fast and paid the penalty for that before the first kilometre mark. Even at the age of 63, I still find it hard to curb the competitive instincts of yesteryear and I was greatly relieved when Feidhlim Kelly came back out on the course to pace me over the final half-kilometre.

It was an evening to savour and enjoy while remembering some of the wonderful days of track and cross-country glory that Sonia has treated us to - a lovely time to share precious memories with a true icon of Irish Athletics.


Health & Living

Editors Choice

Also in Life