Saturday 22 September 2018

'It's just running in circles with random people' - Mum knows best for rising star Sophie O'Sullivan

Sonia’s daughter Sophie all set for her international debut

Sophie O’Sullivan with her mother Sonia after finishing second in the women’s 800m at the Irish Life Health National Junior and U-23 Track and Field Championships in Tullamore. Photo: Sportsfile
Sophie O’Sullivan with her mother Sonia after finishing second in the women’s 800m at the Irish Life Health National Junior and U-23 Track and Field Championships in Tullamore. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

When your mother is the greatest Irish athlete in history, and your father is one of the world's leading athletics coaches, you'd think that could add up to a whole heap of pressure for a 16-year-old as she prepares to represent Ireland for the first time.

However, Sophie O'Sullivan doesn't really do nerves, or indeed get too hung up about what is, at its foundation, a very simple sport.

"I just think, 'it's just running in circles with random people'. I don't get nervous. Before races I'm just hanging around laughing with people and they're like, 'you need to concentrate'."

And so, when she thinks ahead to this week's European U-18 Championships in Gyor, Hungary, her thoughts aren't preoccupied with medals or what people might expect from 'Sonia's daughter' (who is ranked third fastest of 49 competitors), just a giddy teenage anticipation about pulling on an Irish vest for the first time.

"It's very exciting, it's fun," she says. "I love looking at the stats, making lists of things, but while it's good to see, you can't focus on it too much. You need to understand that's not how it's going to be, it's a race and it can change. How they run it is what makes it interesting."

O'Sullivan will race the 800m heats on Thursday. She should advance to the semi-final the following day and, if she gets through that, Saturday night's final will offer a chance to measure herself against Europe's best.

Watching trackside, as always, will be her mother.

"I don't get very nervous when watching," says Sonia. "I love watching Sophie racing and you just know as long as she gets in the right position, she'll be as competitive as she can be and that's all you can hope for. You just want her to be happy afterwards and satisfied with what she did."

Off the track, Sophie is as casual as they come about the sport, but that all changes once the gun fires, and Sonia can see a little bit of herself in that.

"She gets very determined and she'll give it her best," she says. "She's fairly relaxed, but she's very competitive so the two of those combine very well."

Sophie was born in December 2001, a little over a year after Sonia won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics, and growing up in Melbourne, Australia, sport was an ever-present in her life. Basketball, soccer, badminton, athletics, whatever it was, it was for fun, for health; the antithesis to the expectation that sometimes stalked her mother's career.

She knew of Sonia's achievements, alright, but chances are you've watched more of her races than Sophie.

"I've seen a couple of videos and I know about it, but not that much," she says. "I wouldn't have watched every race, just the main ones."

Sophie's father, Nic Bideau, is coach and agent to a horde of world-class athletes as head of the Melbourne Track Club, but when it comes to their daughter's fledgling career, he and Sonia are anything but pushy parents.

Sophie got into athletics at school, trying every event at first before finding - no surprises here - that her talent was in the middle distances.

Under the guidance of coach Tim O'Shaughnessy, she trains with a group of girls the same age where the premium is on enjoyment, and even for an athlete as young as 16, her training is conservative.

"It's three main days and the other days are just kind of… hanging around," says Sophie with a laugh.

Breakthrough

But her ability is undeniable. In the early years Sophie would get to Australian Nationals and get dumped out in the heats, but last year she made a big breakthrough, taking the U-17 gold medal in 2:10.00, then later, on her 16th birthday, clocking a huge PB of 2:06.29.

On Saturday afternoon in Tullamore, in what was her first track race in three months, she towed the field through the first 600m at the Irish U-20 Championships, before eventually being out-sprinted by Jo Keane of Ennis - a talented athlete two years Sophie's senior who will compete at the World U-20 Championships in Finland next week.

"She wants to win, but when she doesn't she'll wonder why," says Sonia. "But there's loads of reasons and you just have to put it in perspective, move on to the next race. That will blow out the cobwebs and that was the idea - get a blowout and see where you were at."

As a duel citizen - Sophie lives in Australia but visits Ireland at least once a year - she can represent both countries up to U-18 level, after which she'll have to make a choice, but that's a discussion for another day.

For this week, at least, she'll be running in green, and whether there's a medal at the end of it is almost irrelevant - there is a need to enjoy it, to give your best and write the first chapter of what will be, whatever way it goes, very much her own story.

"This is my first international and it's exciting, a new thing," says Sophie. "So I'll just have fun."

Irish Independent

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