First Encounters: Sonia O’Sullivan and Gerard Hartmann

‘What I value most is his positive outlook’

Sonia O’Sullivan and Gerard Hartmann  pictured at his home in Limerick. Photograph: Brian Gavin/ Press 22

Sonia O’Sullivan and Gerard Hartmann pictured at his home in Limerick. Photograph: Brian Gavin/ Press 22


Sonia O’Sullivan is one of Ireland’s most famous athletes: a four times Irish Olympian, she holds records as one of the world’s fastest female middle-distance runners. Originally from Cobh, Co Cork, she now lives in Melbourne with her husband Nic Bideau and daughters Ciara and Sophie

The first time I remember meeting Gerard was when I was in college in America and travelled to Gainesville in Florida where he was based. At the time I just knew him as a triathlete who I had seen on television.

I met him the following year at the Olympics in Barcelona, through athletes Frank O’Mara and Marcus O’Sullivan, who were friends of mine. But when I really met Gerard was in 1993 when I went to him for treatment. When you’re injured, you tend to get a bit down, you’re not very positive about things. But Gerard has a way of turning things around. He gets into your head, works out what kind of person you are and how he can help. The thing that always worked for me was to give me a plan of action.

Over time we became good friends; we would
go out for dinner, socialise and meet up with friends. We became more like family; he always says that I’m like a sister to him. Although we might not have seen each other for months, it’s like we saw each other yesterday; we’re comfortable in each other’s company.

Gerard and I probably became greater friends after Atlanta. He was one of the people who helped me put everything behind me and start all over again. He was always there. When you know someone’s in your corner, you don’t need to speak to them every day. To have people who believe in you gives you great confidence to go on.

I still run quite a lot but balance it with cycling and swimming. Gerard gives me a rounded view of health and fitness. He’d always be on top of the latest nutrition, things that are good for your immune system.

When we get together, we’ll go for a 60km cycle, then go and have a coffee and a scone somewhere. Gerard has all these secret places in Ireland that he loves, he takes me to Killaloe and Dingle, two of his favourite spots.

There are very few people I could talk to about everything and anything and be happy to hear what they have to tell you. I know he’s going to give me an honest answer.

The thing I value most about Gerard is his positive outlook on life. He says you have to surround yourself with people who are positive, who don’t pull you down, that’s his big thing.

Sonia O’Sullivan was ambassador for Flora pro.activ’s recent ‘It Takes A Town’ initiative, which challenged residents of Cobh to lower
their cholesterol levels in three weeks

Gerard is a physical therapist who treats athletes from all over the world at his clinic in Limerick. His career as a top triathlete ended in 1991 when he fractured his hip. He developed his physical therapy practice in Florida, before coming home to Limerick where he lives with his wife Diane and two sons

I met Sonia one Saturday in February 1990, in Gainesville, Florida when she came down on the coach from Villanova with her team. Sonia made a beeline for me and said “I used to watch you on TV in Iron Man” . . . she was about 19 or 20 but looked more like 16 or17, and had a teenager’s giddy disposition.

The shyness was there but she was also seeking something and that is Sonia – she’s a shy inward person but very, very ambitious, always wanted the best advice.

In February 1993, I got a call to see if Sonia could come to Florida for treatment for an injury. I treated her every day for two weeks and there began a professional relationship that became a friendship. Now I see myself as having three best friends –Frank [O’Mara], Marcus [O’Sullivan] and Sonia. Sonia is like a sister. We’re a foursome, so connected it’s slightly scary.

Sonia was and is a very driven person. She’s up at dawn, out for either a run or a bike ride. She embraces life, squeezes more out of any one day than most people squeeze out of a month.

My friendship with Sonia is based on the fellowship of sport. My wife and kids don’t see Sonia as a
great athlete, they see Sonia as Ger’s/Daddy’s
best friend. She arrives to the house, unpacks
her bags, has her own health things that she wants to eat.

And every time Sonia leaves, I get the most beautiful thank-you card written in ink . . . I’ve an attache case where there must be between
60 and 70 cards. And after every race meeting, Sonia would give me her race number, I’ve got 127 now.

People go through different stages of life and friendships dissipate, people move on. Our friendship continued because we had developed a unique understanding of each other from day one. When we meet, as well as sport, we also talk about nutrition and cooking. Sonia loves coffee shops – I always thought she was going to come back to Ireland and open one.

Sonia’s the greatest sports person Ireland has ever produced. We have obesity problems, children who don’t know how to be involved in exercise. I would love to think some Irish organisation, or the Government, or Sports Council would say hold on, let’s get this woman four times a year going to schools . . . I just think she should be involved in a practical way. I go around the country, see monuments for hurlers, and wonder, why is there no monument to her?


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