Sonia's leading by example
By Kieran McCarthy
FOR someone so used to running in the fast lane all of her life, it’s not really in Sonia O’Sullivan’s nature to stop and take a break.
'Twenty years already, it does make you think, where all the years have gone, it’s almost surreal that it was that long ago,’ Sonia mused, as her thoughts drifted back to her first Olympic Games as an athlete, the 1992 offering in Barcelona.
And then, just like with her famous final lap kick that left her competitors spluttering dust during her stunning running career, she’s off again.
Back in ‘92, she may have been a fresh-faced 23-year-old, but her reputation and pedigree preceded her. She finished fourth in the final of the 3,000m, agonisingly just outside the medals.
That was the start of her Olympics love affair, an up-and-down relationship that spanned four Games, and that also took in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, and there could have been a final, glorious chapter in Beijing four years ago, but it wasn’t to be.
‘It’s unbelievable that the time has flown by so fast,’ the Cobh native told The Southern Star this week, her mind recalling the heat and humidity of a vibrant Barcelona, 20 summers ago.
‘I was lucky, I got to go to the Olympics four times and I had a different experience every time. You can’t expect it all to be plain sailing, and I had a bit of a roller-coaster ride at Olympics over the years.
‘The first time, in Barcelona, that was probably one of my best experiences at an Olympics because it was all new to me. I was very lucky that I had so many good people around me, people like Marcus O’Sullivan and Niall O’Mara, to look after me and make sure that I was made feel welcome into the team. That was really good for me, to start my career on a positive note like that.’
Ireland’s dominant distance runner for almost 20 years, and one of the world’s top athletes at her peak, her epic journey was shared with the nation.
When she celebrated, like after winning the silver medal in the 5,000m at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, we celebrated. Four years later when her Olympic dreams were dashed in Atlanta, we felt her pain. She was our golden girl, the modern-day Irish superwoman, and to many she still is.
And it’s extremely fitting, almost poetically so, that Sonia is the Chef de Mission of Ireland’s Olympic 65-strong team that is widely accepted as the best-prepared team this country has ever sent to an Olympics
For Sonia, it has been a wonderful and educational glimpse into a side of the Olympics that athletes rarely see.
‘For me, in my role now, I am learning a lot and you see things that go on behind the scenes that you never saw before,’ the 42-year-old former world 5,000m champion said.
‘As an athlete, you just turn up and you look after what you are doing yourself, you don’t pay much attention to the other athletes, let alone the people who are looking after you to make sure that everything goes smoothly for you.’
‘I will be spending more time in an Olympic Village than I ever have in my whole life. A lot of the athletes don’t come into the Olympic Village until a few days before their event and they are really focused on what they are doing.
‘But I am going to learn a lot about the Olympics this year. I am going to experience the Olympics more than ever before because I will be able to go around and take in all the different sports that I wouldn’t have been able to see in the past, when I was focusing on the athletics.’
But what exactly does Sonia’s pivotal role entail? She explains.
‘It can be as much or as little as you want it to be. Just the other day we had to register all the athletes, to make sure that all the information was correct and sign off on all the athletes, and that was one of the most important days that we had,” said the mother of two daughters, Ciara and Sophie, and who is married to Australian Nic Bideau.
‘We had to make sure that everything was right there because if you do something wrong in that process, then it can affect an athlete’s participation.
‘We got through that ok, then we had to go through all the apartments and houses for the athletes on the Olympic Village to make sure that everything they say was in there was actually in there, and to make sure everything was working properly.
‘There are a lot of tasks like that, it’s like ticking boxes but we have to make sure that everything is as it should be.’
But there is much more to the job than the logistical side, making sure that all of Ireland’s 65 Olympians, who will compete across 14 sports, have everything they need to be able to compete at their best is key to success.
‘The main thing for me is the relationship between the management and the staff of the Irish Olympic team, that we would have a very smooth and positive relationship with the athletes, and be able to help them and assist them in any way we can,’ Sonia explained.
‘The Olympic Village is such a tight place, security-wise, and only a certain number of people are allowed in there. Athletes won’t be allowed bring coaches or family members in there that they may be used to having around them in competitions, so you have to manage that and make sure that they are comfortable.’
Just last week, Sonia spent a few nights in the Olympic Village, before flying home to watch her daughter Sophie win a gold medal in the U12 girls’ high jump at the Woodie’s DIY juvenile track and field championships of Ireland held in Tullamore.
While in London last week, Sonia had to ensure that everything is as it should be before the Irish team jets into London, and before the Games’ bandwagon pulls into London town, sets up its stalls and displays its wares to the masses.
With millions ready to descend on London for the summer spectacular that grips the attention of the watching world every four years, the Olympics really are in a league of their own, Sonia points out.
‘It’s as good as it gets. You just have to look at the amount of Irish people who have competed at an Olympics, it’s literally a handful, really, the percentage of the population is very, very small,’ she said.
‘That’s why is it so special because athletes know to get there you have to be the best and it only comes around once every four years, so it’s not like you can give it a go every year.
‘If it doesn’t work out and you don’t qualify, then it can be a missed opportunity. Some athletes are very lucky and they can get to go a few times while others are lucky as well that they get to go once and experience the Olympics.’
That Sonia competed in four Olympics is a testament to her talent and drive that saw her become a world champion, and she is comfortable now being able to watch on from the other side of the track.
‘You’d always love to be out there competing but you just get to the point where you accept where you are at, and then you don’t even think about it because you have other things to do and other challenges to focus on,’ Sonia said.
‘The goal for me always was the Olympics, it was always in my thoughts when I was competing. When you get to the end of your career and you can’t compete anymore, you do think, “ok, what am I going to do next?”
‘I tried to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing but it didn’t work out due to injury and one thing or another. But I still was working with RTÉ and you still feel a connection with the Irish athletes and being part of the team, that you’re supporting them, that you’re encouraging them as much as if you were involved in the team.’
Even now, Sonia keeps herself in excellent condition. Once an athlete, always an athlete.
Just last month, she competed in her first triathlon, in Monkstown, not too far from her hometown of Cobh, and she finished in an excellent second place. Already, she is thinking about her next triathlon, and where she can save valuable time, especially in the changeovers.
‘I always need to have a challenge or a goal. I find it very difficult to train if I don’t have something to look forward to,’ Sonia said.
‘At the moment it really is just about keeping fit, but I have been keeping up with the swimming and the cycling as much as I can, and I enjoyed that triathlon.
‘It’s a lot easier when you are running because you only have to bring your running shoes, when you have to bring a bike it makes life a bit more complicated. But it’s worth it when you arrive, you hop on the bike, have a cycle and enjoy the scenery.’
But her newfound attraction for triathlons will be put on the back burner until after the London Games, where her vast experience will be a huge plus to the Irish team, who will be based in Richmond and Teddington for the Olympics, with the latter an area of London that Sonia knows well from her own running days.
‘You have to manage the expectations of the athletes because some of them have never been in this environment before,’ she said.
‘Maybe they are used to winning in their own competitions but when it comes to the Olympics it’s just a different kettle of fish altogether. It’s important to manage it well, break it down and work it like you are used to working it, and do the best that you can.’
With the Olympics almost here, all the waiting is finally over, and Sonia is confident that the Irish athletes can help put a smile back on the nation, just like she did so many times in the past.
‘Looking at the weather that we have, maybe the summer hasn’t started yet,’ she laughed.
‘Hopefully, the Olympics will give us a late kickstart to the summer and brings us a bit of excitement and something for the Irish people to cheer about. We really do need something to lift us now, to give us something to be positive about, and the belief that Irish people can go out there and compete with the best.’
With Sonia at the helm, guiding the Irish Olympic team forward, they are in safe hands. Roll on London. Let the Games begin.
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