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Sonia O'Sullivan Biography

Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Further InformationCONTACT INFORMATION


Irish track and field athlete

Irish middle distance runner Sonia O'Sullivan has mastered the 5,000 meter race. In addition to her wins in the 5,000 meter, she established several records over the years, running the 2,000 meter in 5:25:63 (world record), the 3,000 meter in 8:21:64 (European record), and setting the record for the two mile. Gaining international visibility through her participation in the Olympic Games beginning with the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain, O' Sullivan has won every track and field award in her native Ireland and is considered one of her country's greatest athlete.

Born in the island town of Cobh, in County Cork, Ireland, O'Sullivan enjoyed running as a young girl and raced with a group of teens who had formed a small track club. She soon quit participating in races, however. A bit of a perfectionist, O'Sullivan was discouraged by the club's faster members and came to believe that her own running would never improve beyond the mediocre. Instead, it was her tendency to leave for school at the last possible moment each morning that helped her to develop her speed: every day she sprinted the half-mile from her front door to her classroom, building the muscles that she would later need as a professional middle-distance runner.

O'Sullivan returned to running in secondary school, training in the evenings either alone or with members of the track club. Her performance earned her an athletic scholarship to Pennsylvania's Villanova University in 1987, but when the red-haired runner arrived there on shaky ground—injured and on crutches—she had her hopes of freshman success dashed by injuries caused by over training. Determined to live up to the expectations Villanova coach Marty Stern had of her, O'Sullivan established a healthy balance between classes and running. She earned her degree while also making her mark in collegiate sports as part of the Villanova Wildcats running team and gaining personal honor as National Collegiate Athletic Association 3,000-meter champion in 1990. As Coach Stern recalled to Mark Will-Weber of Runner's World: "Sonia is as talented as any runner I've ever coached, and she loves to run. That's a tough combination to beat. Sometimes, she actually has a smile on her face when she's running a workout."

After graduating from Villanova with a degree in accounting and returning to Ireland in 1991, O'Sullivan began to devote all her time to her career as a track and field athlete. A rigorous training schedule required her to work out either on distance runs or on the track every

Sonia O'Sullivan

day, regardless of the weather; because training allowed for no down-time, she even relocated to Australia when it was too cold or snowy at home.

Endowed with natural speed, O'Sullivan has worked since her days on the Villanova cross-country team to develop her physical stamina, and is also capable of mentally outmaneuvering her opposition on the track. Competing in her first Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain in 1992, she placed fourth in an elite field in the 3,000 meters, repeating her fourth-place performance the following year at the 1993 World Track and Field Championships held in Stuttgart, Germany. In Stuttgart she also walked away with the silver medal for the 1,500 meters, topping that performance at the European Championships the following year by capturing the gold for the same distance. Demonstrating her versatility, O'Sullivan won the mile in Cologne, Germany in 1995 over defending world champion Hassiba Boulmerka.

Although O'Sullivan's record on the shorter distances is commendable, it is at the 5,000 meters that she really excels. By the mid-1990s wins like the first place trophies at the 1995 World Championships caused running fans to sit up and take notice. As time rolled around for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Olympic veteran O'Sullivan was favored for the gold in the 5,000 and perhaps even the 10K. Frustratingly, the stress of training for the race combined with illness did her in, leaving her with a career almost on its way out.

Fortunately, the plucky O'Sullivan rebounded. With a new coach in the person of Alan Storey, she altered her training regimen and competed in a variety of smaller races rather than focusing all her training on one major running competition. O'Sullivan also took time out to establish a steady personal relationship with Australian Nick Bideau and have the first of their two daughters, Ciara, in 1999 (their second daughter, Sophie was born in December of 2001).

The year 1998 proved to be a banner one for O'Sullivan in running the 5,000 meters: in that year alone she took home the gold at both the European Track and Field Championships in Budapest and South Africa's World Cup. She also mastered the 10K, chalking up a second gold in Budapest in 1998 and was named World Cross-Country Champion in Morocco after winning back-to-back competitions in the 8,000 and 4,000 meters.

In 2000 O'Sullivan focused on the Olympic Games scheduled for Sydney, Australia. Qualifying to run in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10K, the 30-year-old Irishwoman gave up the gold to in the 5,000 to Romanian runner Gabriela Szabo by only .23 seconds, walking away with the silver with a finish time of 14:41:02. A second-place win might have disheartened O'Sullivan in the past, but she had other things to focus on; namely, maintaining a balance between her running and her responsibilities as a mother … and a mother-to-be.

In 2002 O'Sullivan sidestepped the mold of middle-distance runner to take on an entirely different athletic challenge when she trained for and raced in the New York City Marathon. Completing the 26.2-mile run through New York's five boroughs in 2 hours and 36 minutes, she found the experience challenging but not necessarily pleasant. As she told an interviewer for ASAPSports.com: "I just wanted it to end … and just get to the finish line." After the marathon she was eager to return to her family in Melbourne, Australia, and work toward her next goal as a professional athlete: the 2004 Olympics.


Address: c/o Kim McDonald, 201 High St., Hampton Hill, Middlesex TW12 1NL, England. Phone: 020 89419732. Online: http://www.soniaosullivan.com.

Sketch by Pamela L. Shelton

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Famous Sports StarsTrack and Field