Why So­nia will never stop run­ning

From At­lanta in 1996 to her elim­i­na­tion from Celebrity Masterchef, run­ning has al­ways helped So­nia O’Sul­li­van over­come her set­backs. She tells Es­ther McCarthy why she reaches for her run­ning shoes to deal with life’s chal­lenges

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside -

RUN­NING has pro­vided her with an in­ter­na­tional ca­reer and a packed tro­phy cabi­net. But, most of all, run­ning has given So­nia O’Sul­li­van peace of mind.

She is one of the great­est ath­letes Ire­land has ever pro­duced. Through­out her life, putting on her run­ning shoes has helped her gather her thoughts and deal with life’s tough­est set­backs.

O’Sul­li­van has of­ten had to play out those set­backs in full glare on the world stage, most mem­o­rably in At­lanta, in 1996, when ill­ness left her Olympics dreams in tat­ters.

By far the fastest and most dom­i­nant fe­male ath­lete in the world over her dis­tances that year, hav­ing to bow out of the 5,000-me­tre fi­nal was a crush­ing blow.

She left the sta­dium in tears, and went for a run.

“It does help, yeah. Es­pe­cially if you walk out and peo­ple are ask­ing you ques­tions, and they want an­swers and you don’t have an­swers for your­self,” she says, re­call­ing that night.

“Some­times, you can run quite fast, be­cause you’re re­ally just try­ing to work things out.”

Just re­cently, she put on her shoes again, when an early elim­i­na­tion from Celebrity Masterchef came as a greater knock than even she had an­tic­i­pated.

“When I got thrown off Masterchef, I went for a run that night!” she smiles.

“I was dev­as­tated im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards. I didn’t think I would be, I didn’t think it meant so much to me.

“When you’re no longer able to try and go out and win some­thing, you’re all of a sud­den…you’re cast aside and you’re like: ‘Well what do I do now?’

“I went for a run out along the pier in Dun Laoghaire. I came back and I was ready to go again. It makes you feel bet­ter, I think. Some­times, you can’t talk about things, if you’re a bit up­set or both­ered about them. It’s dif­fi­cult to talk to peo­ple.

“But if you go out and you shake your­self up, go in and get a shower, you just feel bet­ter again.” Over the years, she says, she grew bet­ter at deal­ing with dis­ap­point­ments and com­ing to terms with them.

“It’s only when you go back to what you know, ev­ery­thing falls back into place again, ev­ery­thing works again. And then you

say to your­self: ‘Why did I waste those few days?’

“I think, maybe, you need those days, you need the bad days to ab­sorb some­thing you’re not happy about. To re­ally al­low your­self to come to terms with it. Be­cause ev­ery­thing can’t be per­fect all the time.”

Though she comes home to Ire­land as of­ten as she can, her adopted city of Mel­bourne has been kind to her, and she em­braces its out­doors life­style.

“Peo­ple ask me when I moved. I never moved — I just kind of ended up there. I first went in 1995, train­ing for the Olympics, and then grad­u­ally kind of spent more time there. It was a change of scenery, a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment.”

When she’s not in­dulging an­other pas­sion — vis­it­ing cof­fee shops — she’ll be found out­doors, not least be­cause of the de­mands of the fam­ily dog, Snowy.

“I spend most of my day out­side. I have a dog who de­mands a lot of walk­ing. He walks twice a day. He trains like an Olympic ath­lete — there’s no get­ting away from it,” she laughs.

“I can’t run as much as I used to, so I do a bit of cy­cling and swim­ming. I use that to help me keep fit.”

Run­ning is part of So­nia’s DNA, ever since her tal­ent shone, as she ran the hills of her home town of Cobh, set­ting her­self new tar­gets and chal­lenges.

While she’s en­joyed more low-im­pact sports as she’s grown older, it re­mains a cen­tral part of her life.

“I think if it is part of who you are then it’s im­pos­si­ble to get rid of it, no mat­ter what you do.

“I would have had plenty of in­juries and rea­sons not to run, down through the years, and found other things to do — cy­cling, swim­ming, walk­ing. But al­ways, in the back of your mind, you want to get back and run.”

Her daugh­ters, Ciara (17) and So­phie (15), have re­sponded dif­fer­ently to grow­ing up in an ath­let­ics-mad home. So­nia’s hus­band is top Aus­tralian ath­let­ics coach, Nic Bideau.

“So­phie likes to run. Ciara doesn’t like to run — she doesn’t want to have any­thing to do with it! Prob­a­bly be­cause we took her to the track too much when she was a child.

“We al­ways say, when she gets a lit­tle bit older she’ll fig­ure out the fit­ness of it and how it makes her feel good. As much as she de­nies it, she’s bound to run just for fun, and en­joy­ment, at some point.”

So­phie is a truly tal­ented ath­lete, win­ning her first na­tional un­der-17 ti­tle in Aus­tralia ear­lier this year, and com­pet­ing in the Ir­ish na­tional cham­pi­onships this sum­mer.

“She does 800 me­tres and 1,500 me­tres. She loves it. I don’t coach her, or any­thing, I just en­cour­age her to en­joy it. If she can come over here and run in Ire­land ev­ery so of­ten, it’s nice to have the link,” O’Sul­li­van says.

So­phie is a mem­ber of Bal­ly­more Cobh Run­ning Club, the same club for which her mum ran as a young­ster. The club has grown greatly and that may partly be due to the town’s fa­mous daugh­ter.

“When I was grow­ing up,

there would have been very few peo­ple I ran with. I did a lot of my train­ing my­self. Now, they’re the fastest­grow­ing club in Mun­ster; they have over 200 adult mem­bers. It’s amaz­ing; there’s a big com­mu­nity spirit.

“They look af­ter me, when­ever I’m home, and I’m al­ways in­vited to any­thing that’s go­ing on,” O’Sul­li­van says.

In Septem­ber, she’ll be com­ing home for The Great Pink Run, which is or­gan­ised by Breast Can­cer Ire­land, and will be lead­ing the race in Kilkenny, for the first time this year. She was in­tro­duced to the event by her friend, fel­low Corko­nian and olympic rower, Gearoid Tuohy.

“I was stay­ing with him in Sydney and he was run­ning in one of their t-shirts. He told me about it and in­tro­duced me to ev­ery­body in­volved with it.

“It started off that, to me, it was a race. I wanted to come and see how fast I could run for 10k. Even though, at the time, I wasn’t run­ning com­pet­i­tively, I still wanted to try to break forty min­utes. It was all about run­ning fast.

“As the years went on, I think the whole mean­ing of the event I un­der­stood a bit more.

“You meet more peo­ple over time, peo­ple like Paula McClean, who’s an am­bas­sador for Breast Can­cer Ire­land and she’s had breast can­cer.

“Just to see some­one like that take a run and make it part of their lives, mak­ing a pos­i­tive thing out of a neg­a­tive. I think that’s what some­thing like The Great

Pink run does. It brings some­thing pos­i­tive, some­thing to look for­ward to, to peo­ple who’ve had the neg­a­tive im­pact of it.

“Breast can­cer is one of those can­cers that’s touched ev­ery­body’s life, re­ally. As well as rais­ing funds, th­ese events raise aware­ness, al­low peo­ple to talk about it. They can share sto­ries, and peo­ple don’t feel alone. They cre­ate a very pos­i­tive at­mos­phere.”

Re­cently, there has been spec­u­la­tion that So­nia could be awarded two gold medals, more than two decades af­ter be­ing pipped to the podium by Chi­nese run­ners, who emerged from nowhere at the World Cham­pi­onships in Stuttgart in 1993.

They were among nine run­ners who have since signed a let­ter say­ing they were part of a regime of state-spon­sored dop­ing, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports.

“There was a let­ter writ­ten by them. But I don’t think they’ve moved on any fur­ther from that. I think it’s just nice to know that there was def­i­nitely some­thing fishy go­ing on, a bit more than the tur­tle juice,” she says.

“It’s just nice to know, I sup­pose, that my best was the best on the day and the oth­ers were be­ing as­sisted.

“It’s hard to be an­gry about it now, be­cause, in a way, they were prob­a­bly taken ad­van­tage of, as well. If you talk to any of the girls, I don’t think it was in their heart to do it. I think it was a state-run thing and they had no choice.

“You just hope that it helps to clean up the sport for the fu­ture, that it’s harder and harder for ath­letes to cheat, that you see more cleaner per­for­mances, and op­por­tu­ni­ties for Ir­ish ath­letes to win medals again.”

So­nia O’Sul­li­van will take part in the Great Pink Run, with Avon­more Slim­line Milk, on Septem­ber 9 in the Pheonix Park, and Septem­ber 10 in Kilkenny Cas­tle.

All monies raised will sup­port Breast Can­cer Ire­land’s pi­o­neer­ing re­search and aware­ness pro­grammes.

To reg­is­ter, go to www.great­pinkrun.ie

So­nia’s makeup was by An­nie Grib­bin, cre­ative di­rec­tor of makeup, For Ever Pro Bou­tique, us­ing the Ul­traHD col­lec­tion for flaw­less skin; www.make­up­for­ever.ie, 38 Claren­don St, Dublin 2. 016799043 for ap­point­ments

So­nia’s hair, by Katie O’Cal­laghan, Zeba Hair­dress­ing, Manor Mills SC, Maynooth, Co Kil­dare, us­ing Lo­real Tec Ni Art styling prod­ucts

So­nia’s wardrobe was se­lected by per­sonal shop­per, Al­bina Kuzme­tova, Deben­hams, Black­rock, Dublin But­ter­fly, by Matthew Wil­liamson, dress, €300

Nine, by Sa­van­nah Miller, blouse €58, Red Her­ring jeans, €38

So­nia O’Sul­li­van, world cham­pion at 5,000 me­tres in 1995 and a sil­ver-medal­list over the same dis­tance at the 2000 Olympics, says run­ning is a cure for life’s ills.

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