Thursday 23 November 2017

Sonia's on a heartfelt mission

Having tasted both glory and disappointment in her athletics career, O'Sullivan is now using her wealth of experience to mentor others, writes Tanya Sweeney

Ninety-two percent of Cobh residents successfully lowered their cholesterol as part of the Flora pro.activ ‘It Takes a Town’ three-week cholesterol-lowering challenge led by Sonia O'Sullivan. Clare Keogh
Ninety-two percent of Cobh residents successfully lowered their cholesterol as part of the Flora pro.activ ‘It Takes a Town’ three-week cholesterol-lowering challenge led by Sonia O'Sullivan. Clare Keogh
Sonia O'Sullivan

Tanya Sweeney

Good news for anybody who has woken at 7am and suffered a crisis of conscience about a morning run: sometimes, even world champions get the exercise blues.

Sonia O'Sullivan may be adorned of medals and decorated with national treasure status, but even she needs to talk herself into a workout these days.

"I still run quite a bit, and I like to do something every day, but sometimes I get a few aches and pains and need to change things up, as a change is as good as a rest," says the 44-year-old down the phone from her base in Melbourne.

"I know some fellas who go swimming in the mornings at about 5.30am, and I try to do that with them . . . but you do try to talk yourself out of it, too. But when you go swimming, you feel amazing afterwards. You can miss out on the opportunity (to exercise) so quickly. You really do have to focus on how good you will feel afterwards."

Now that she is in her 40s, Sonia is keenly aware that her days as a marathon master may well be behind her. Yet, as with most people in their 40s, it's a question of tuning in to what's expected of the body.

"Towards the end of my career (Sonia retired from professional athletics in 2007) I continued to do the same amount of training every day because it was what I'd always known. But then, I was too tired to do the races. I was putting in huge effort and not getting the result. It's all about balance and pace and enjoying what you do," she says.

These days, however, Sonia is putting her 'elder stateswoman of Irish sport' status to extremely good use. Though she doesn't coach younger athletes per se, Sonia has set up a mentoring service – Sonia ag Rith – to provide support to young Irish athletes.

Famously, she took up the mantle of chef de mission for Team Ireland during the 2012 Olympics. As somebody who tasted glory and bittersweet defeat at the Games, it was a summer of revisiting past memories . . . and supporting competitors.

Reflecting on London 2012, she says: "It was relaxed to a degree, and there was no pressure on me to perform, but you have to be there for athletes across all the different sports, so you have to learn a lot."

Among her highlights of the summer, predictably, was a private moment shared with Katie Taylor right after her win against Russia's Sofya Ochigava in the women's lightweight final. Before Katie collected her gold medal, Sonia happened upon her in a quiet room, where the boxing champion was letting her Olympic victory sink in.

"That was pretty special," reflects Sonia. "The noise in that stadium was like nothing I'd experienced before. Then she was in that room afterwards, there was a real sense for her of 'is this real?' It was great to share that moment with her."

And, when sailor Annalise Murphy narrowly missed out on a medal during her crucial race, Sonia – who had tasted disappointment at the 1996 Atlanta Games – was on hand.

"There was a huge expectation that (Annalise) would do well, and she had performed well all week," she reflects. "I could understand how she felt after the race; she wanted to be left alone, but at the time it's easier as an athlete if you speak to somebody. All you can do really is speak to the athlete and remind them that, as much as (winning or losing) matters, they've done their best."

Recently, Sonia had cause to reflect on her misfire in Atlanta when – plagued by illness – she stunned fans by dropping out two laps from home in the 5,000m. The Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin is currently staging its 'Fail Better' exhibit. Among the items on display is Sonia's accreditation pass from the 1996 Olympics.

Last month, and in tandem with the exhibit, Sonia returned to Dublin to speak about what she now deems her most successful failure.

"I think some people don't want to be associated with failing, and it's what people often want to put behind them. But the key is definitely 'fail' better, and you get something out of it. I learnt a lot from that experience, and it was amazing to be there in Trinity and talking about it."

While back in Ireland last month, Sonia also got to enjoy three weeks in her native Cobh, where she spearheaded a Flora pro.activ health and fitness campaign.

Some 92pc of participating Cobh residents successfully lowered their cholesterol as part of the Flora pro.activ 'It Takes a Town' three-week cholesterol-lowering challenge.

"I do notice a big difference (in the amount of Irish people running) when I come home. Years ago I'd go for a run and never meet a soul . . . Once I was the exception on the road, and now I blend in."

Certainly, winds of 160km/h and an Atlantic superstorm didn't knock her off stride when she was in Cork. However, it's usually a very different story in Australia. "Sometimes, the heat gets to a point where you'd think 'I'd rather be in Cobh'," she notes.

But for now, Melbourne is home to Sonia, her Australian coach husband Nic Bideau and daughters Ciara (14) and Sophie (11). Sophie in particular is showing an interest in running; she runs cross-country at school and took part in the All-Ireland juvenile championships in the summer of 2012, where she won a gold medal for the high jump.

While Sonia's myriad successes have brought their fair share of celebrity and media attention, she concedes that elite female athletes these days face a different kind of beast. There's the threat not only of social media and trolls, but an increasing emphasis on appearance and a media-driven bodily ideal. While Team GB athletes like Rebecca Adlington, Jessica Ennis and Victoria Pendleton felt the sharp end of intense media focus after London 2012, Irish athletes have been left relatively unscathed.

"Fortunately, I haven't seen too much of that (focus on appearance), but if that happens, you probably just need to get rid of those people," says Sonia.

"In a way I was glad that I was out there before the time of the internet. There's too much information about yourself and your competitors out there, and athletes do tend to live in a bubble.

"That said, I did see in London that (social media) brought athletes together as a team and they really supported each other."

To take part in the Flora pro.activ cholesterol challenge, apply for a starter kit by visiting For more information on the mentoring service Sonia ag Rith please visit:

Irish Independent

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