Sonia O’Sullivan: Key to success is self-belief and hard work

‘You have to stick the course, no matter how many curveballs and hurdles you encounter’

I was invited along to Glenstal Abbey in Limerick on Monday afternoon, greeted by a surprisingly rapturous welcome as I walked into the assembly hall of the famous all-boys school.

It can always be a little intimidating to stand in front of a large group of teenage boys. Especially when they’re all there just to listen to you. What small nugget of information could I share, what message could I leave behind which they might remember?

It’s always rewarding to visit a school like this, connect with the younger generation in a fast-evolving and ever-changing world. I often feel sharing my story can be like a history lesson. A lifetime ago, and to the young students looking up at me, I can feel them thinking really, was it that simple back then?

Maybe that’s the lesson that I can share, is that it doesn’t need to be that complicated to be the best that you can be in life, whether that is in sport, music, business, academics. Whatever you choose to do there are steps you need to take along the way to achieve the success and satisfaction that you strive for.

When I think back to myself at that age, at the time young and naive about to embark on life as an international athlete, I had no idea this would be my career, that running would catapult me to stadiums all around the world and eventually to a lifelong career in athletics. And still to where I am now, sharing my experiences to coach and advise athletes chasing their own athletic dreams on the World and Olympic stages.

One question I was asked by one of the students was about athletic funding in Ireland, was this of the necessary depth and standard. This one really stuck with me because it seems it’s always something athletes struggle with as they move from standout promising junior athletes to surviving as an international athlete representing their country on the European, World and Olympic stage.

Athletics is still not a fully professional sport in that so many athletes rely on Government funding, local sponsorships and even independent funding. The latest example of that is the newly created Jerry Kiernan Foundation, which accepted open applications for athlete funding and this week has allocated €30,000 to 22 aspiring young Irish athletes. It's not a huge amount but in some cases will go a long way.

Richard Donovan from the Space Athletics Federation also funds a small number Irish athletes to training camps and races around the world, all in the hope of achieving qualifying marks for the World and European Championships that take place later this year.

I’ve always believed that in order to be successful in sport or any other areas in life you need to be willing to invest in yourself and strive for the best. To reach the top you can’t cut corners and need to be able to take a risk and back yourself. Only then will you attract the attention and get others to notice and back you also.

The world of athletics is always evolving with changing faces all the time on the World, European and national level. I think more attention should be paid by those that fund athletes to the world ranking set out by World Athletics: when first set up, it felt like it was a ranking system that many were reluctant to accept as a method of ranking athletes across all events in track and field.

Established now for a few years, it’s interesting to see current form across all disciplines. Even now early in the season you can narrow the list overall or across specific events from best in the world, to best in Europe, to best in Ireland, or any country you want to see.

It’s not an easy job for any federation to weigh up what funding to give to athletes. In reality, athletics for the most part is not the most lucrative of sports for anyone who decides to take the path of full-time athlete.

It’s a gamble to put life on hold and pursue the dream, maybe getting to an Olympics, a World Championships, setting an Irish record. But at what cost, and is this something that needs to be taken into account also?

It’s an interesting view to see junior athletes progress and overtake established athletes as they make their mark, not just purely with fast times but also positioning in races with bonus points available depending on the event category ranked from category A to F.

As each season rolls on athletes need to carry an average score across five races to maintain their ranking. This encourages racing, which aligns with protocols for athletes to justify funding and also linked to many performance or bonus payments for athletes holding traditional shoe contracts.

Athletes also need to weigh up this reliance over ploughing ahead on their own steam, without any funding or support to represent their country and deliver results, which may only come in time.

It’s hard to fully put into context, as when I was starting out 30 years ago, many things were different. I can remember taking a trip to Killarney in 1989, chasing first prize in a road race a return flight to the US.

Second prize was a bicycle, nice but not much use, when I could see the value in having my flight back to the US covered to resume my athletics scholarship at Villanova University after a summer in Ireland. There was only going to be added satisfaction in winning.

There is always talk of not enough funding or support for athletes, but if you pay the dues the rewards will come. One needs to be determined to do whatever it takes in the belief that whatever you put in will be paid back in time. You have to stick the course, no matter how many curve balls and hurdles you are faced with along the way.

One thing that for me has never changed in athletics is that while we are still in the current format of rewarding the best athletes, alongside bonus payments and stipends for the athletes just on the cusp, is that if you are of the mindset that you would do this anyway no matter what the rewards then you are more likely to achieve success in the long run.

Of the current top-10 Irish athletes women and men, just five are automatically qualified for the World Championships this year. Others will likely qualify on ranking position. Would we be better positioned if athletes were contracted to Athletics Ireland, receiving payments to perform and compete at national championships and international duty, and with that bring a greater accountable relationship than the current unaccountable carding system?

Just like the ranking system, the funding of athletes should be linked to current performance evolving every year then maybe we will see greater return on investment when athletes need to fight to hold on to their funding, simply rising with the tide of fast times to be in a position to be more competitive on the world stage at the races.