Sonia O'Sullivan winning at the 1998 World Cross Country Championships (© Getty Images)
Twenty years on from her first national track title, Sonia O’Sullivan was racing again at Santry Stadium last Sunday (22). “I thought it might be a fairytale ending,” she said this week. “But unfortunately, someone else had other ideas, so instead of us running 12 laps nice and easily and letting me sprint away round the final lap, I ended up finishing second.”
At 37, and as the mother of two daughters, Ciara, 8, and Sophie, 5, O’Sullivan has finally come to the conclusion that her career as an international athlete is over. It has been a long goodbye, with an unfortunately keen press release issued by some road race organisers in February being premature by some months.
But now she is certain: her 3000 metres race at Falkirk’s Grangemouth Stadium on Tuesday night (31 July), in the Bank of Scotland Celtic Cup, will definitely be it. “Well,” she clarifies, “for track races. Internationally.” There’ll still be some road races, and she’ll possibly turn out for Ireland if required in the European Cross Country championships in December. “We could win a team medal,” the competitor within her says.
For a woman who has five times won World and European titles, and with an Olympic silver medal to her name, just the sheer freedom and euphoria of her daily run, and the ever-lasting buzz of competing, means that running will always be part of her life. “I still train every day, but I just can’t handle the intensity in the way I once did, and certainly I don’t train twice a day very often - I have to pick up the kids from school, and I have things I want to do with them.
“It’s taken a while,” O’Sullivan says of a retirement tour that has matched Sinatra for longevity. In the Irishwoman’s case, it has all been a matter of coming to terms with the effects of age.
“No matter how hard I try I can’t compete physically any longer. It’s been a gradual realisation over the last couple of years that I can’t go as fast as I want to any longer. It just catches up with you. In your head, you still believe you can do it. Your training sessions are where you want them to be, but then, when it comes to racing…
“Now I know what’s beyond me. So I suppose these past few months I’ve been on a last lap.”
O’Sullivan’s partner, coach and manager is Nic Bideau - the man who is guiding Australia’s Craig Mottram towards the 5000m World title in Osaka next month and has overseen Andrew Baddeley’s emergence as Britain’s first genuine world-class miler for a decade. They run two homes, one in Melbourne (O’Sullivan acquired an Australian passport in time to compete at last year’s Commonwealth Games, but then got injured) and another in Twickenham, south-west London, where they operate a training camp for some of the world’s finest distance running talent.
“I just love being able to get out and run with these guys. But when you’ve got someone like Craig doing the sessions, it is easy to get too competitive.”
So instead, O’Sullivan is looking towards club athletics, turning out for the world’s oldest running club, Thames Hare & Hounds, in road relays and cross-country leagues. “From now on, I want to run and enjoy it, run some local road races, turn out for my club, run some small races in Ireland.”
Anyone who watched O’Sullivan’s international racing career as it spanned three decades will have marked out 1998 as special - a World Cross Country Championships double, followed by a 5000-10,000 double on the track at the European championships.
But O’Sullivan says her year of years was 1995, when she won the 5000m World track title. “I was on top of the world that year. I had a special feeling, that whatever else anyone did that day, I believed in myself, I knew that no one else was going to win.
“All my medals are special to me in their own way, and I suppose my silver medal in Sydney was the icing on the cake,” she says, recalling a thrilling duel against Gabriela Szabo in which the little Romanian prevailed in a breath-taking finish.
The luck of the Irish was never with O’Sullivan at the Olympics. Atlanta 11 years ago, when she was a nailed on ante-post favourite for gold, was a disaster blighted by an untimely illness. “You look back and wonder whether if you’d done some things differently in training, whether the outcome would have been any different.
“But then you’ve got to think that it was the training that you have done that got you there, and something else might not have worked at all. So you’ve just got to accept it.”
O’Sullivan is accepting in another way now, moderating her outlook and ambitions. “I ran the New York Marathon last year and really enjoyed it,” she says, the thrill of running still in her heart. “So I might try to do another marathon this autumn.”
Steven Downes for the IAAF