Throwback Thursday: When Sonia O’Sullivan was unstoppable

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Sonia O’Sullivan competing in a Triathlon. Photo: Sean Truscott photography via Flickr

She was Ireland’s first female world 5000m champion and is widely regarded as the nation’s greatest ever long distance runner.

In 1995, Sonia O’Sullivan reached the top of the tree by storming to gold at the World Championships in Gothenburg.

The then-26-year-old was already widely known as a top class runner, having grabbed 1500m silver at the worlds in 1993 before taking the European 3000m title the next year.

But with the 5000m finally being introduced as a women’s track and field distance in 1995, O’Sullivan made sure that she would claim the event as her own, embarking on a rampant and ruthless year full of victories on her way to a global gold medal.

Heading into the year, O’Sullivan was certainly the one to keep an eye on.

Not only had she clinched European gold in 1994, but she had also set world leads for 1500m, the mile, 2000m and 3000m, with the 2000m time being a world record 5.25.36.

However, O’Sullivan had close contenders. Despite beginning her season with a victory in the 5000m at the London KP Games, the woman she beat in that race, Portugal’s Fernanda Ribeiro, went on to run a then-world record of 14.36.45 a week later.

Even for an athlete in the form that O’Sullivan was in, it would have been enough cause for some concern. But at the time, the Cork-born athlete insists it never fazed her, despite having to go up against the new world record holder in the championships.

“I wasn’t going to lose to her,” she told the Irish Times in 2015. “Not in a sprint. She didn’t have my speed. I just knew she’d be ready to race. I had to respect her, but I didn’t fear her. Because I know I was absolutely capable of winning that race.”

After a slight headache on whether to double up as she had done in 1993, O’Sullivan went with just the 5000m, with her eyes firmly set on the prize.

When it got to the World Championships, she found herself up against a range of strong competitors.

There was the world record holder Fernanda Ribeiro, along with a young future world and Olympic champion Gabriela Szabo, and a 21-year-old Paula Radcliffe.

As is often the case, it was the younger, less experienced athletes who were left to set the pace for much of the race.

Szabo started off at a pace that would have been quick even for a 1500m, before soon shrinking back into the pack.

Then it was Radcliffe’s turn to move up to the front, which was where she stayed for the majority of the race as the favourites O’Sullivan and Ribeiro continued to breathe down her neck.

But then with just over two laps to go, the Portuguese made her move and O’Sullivan immediately followed, leaving them to battle it out for the title.

It looked to be close as O’Sullivan stuck close behind Ribeiro, who was going for a world double after winning the 10,000m three days before. However, when both reached the back straight after hitting the bell, O’Sullivan’s class appeared in full flight.

With 250m to go, she steadily and expertly increased the pace slightly to breeze past Ribeiro and by the time she reached the home straight it was beyond all doubt that the gold medal was hers.

Just as O’Sullivan recalls, the sprint speed both athletes possessed had proved to be the vital difference, with O’Sullivan making history as Ireland’s first ever female champion at 5000m in a year where she had truly been unstoppable.

There could be no doubt that in that year, O’Sullivan was simply the best at long distance, being chosen as ‘Track & Field News’ magazine’s female athlete of the year.

Throughout her career she experienced huge heights with Olympic, world and European medals and cross country titles as well as some lows such as her disappointing Olympic and world campaigns following 1995, along with missing out on two potential world golds in 1993 to Chinese athletes suspected of doping.

She has also remained highly active beyond her retirement in 2007, becoming a coach in Melbourne where she lives as well as regularly contributing to the Irish Times newspaper.

Now it is her talented daughter Sophie O’Sullivan who takes to the track, clinching 800m silver at the European Under 18 Championships, with her mother naturally saying “hopefully (there’ll be) many more years to come”.

But as the now-49-year-old from Cobh, County Cork, looks back on her eventful career, she can stand tall as one of the greatest sports stars Ireland has ever produced.


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First published on: 29 November, 2018 7:00 am