Rising junior athletics on accelerated path to success
Sonia O’Sullivan and David Matthews have set up the Accelerator Academy
Sonia O’Sullivan with the four athletes who are participating in the new Accelerator Academy: Sophie O’Sullivan, Patience Jumbo-Gula, Sarah Healy and Rhasidat Adeleke. Photograph: Marc O’Sullivan
Tuesday lunchtime, and four medal winners take a seat for an open Q&A in the Dublin offices of international law firm Eversheds Sutherland. Undaunted and decisive, they enlighten the roomful of legal minds on what it takes to deliver on the championship stage.
That they’re all teenagers, two studying for the Leaving Cert, the other two still another year away, and all girls hardly matters: if you’re good enough you’re old enough, and for sprinters Patience Jumbo-Gula and Rhasidat Adeleke, and distance runners Sarah Healy and Sophie O’Sullivan it’s the sort of spotlight they have experienced before.
It helps that sitting alongside them are two of Ireland’s most experienced athletes, four-time Olympian and 5,000m silver medallist Sonia O’Sullivan (and mother of Sophie), and two-time Olympian David Matthews, still the Irish record holder over 800m set in 1995. Still, all four junior athletes have a lot of growing up to do, hence the company they’re sitting in.
Recognising the need for increased support on and off the track, O’Sullivan and Matthews have set up the Accelerator Academy in association with Eversheds Sutherland. Jumbo-Gula, Adeleke, Healy and O’Sullivan are the opening four members, and the intention is to add more in the build up to Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
“It has been a long-held ambition of mine to set up an academy like this in Ireland,” said O’Sullivan. “We see a lot of potential in these four athletes, and we’d like to help them along the way, also in terms of the decisions they make at this stage of their career, and what they want to do as they get older.
“The easy stuff to see is on the track, but there are a lot of other hours in the day to fill, and this is the perfect central ground to assist and help answer any questions, especially as they finish school.
“And if I was to back-track a bit, I think I would have focused more on the off-track side of things as well, because you can find yourself at a loose end sometimes, and it is important to have a balance and not just athletics interest.”
Matthews added that it’s more about the holistic approach.
“We identified a little gap in the athlete’s life, and this is not taking the place of the great work Sport Ireland does, or Athletics Ireland does. It’s to complement it, and it’s some of the off-track activities that we want to focus on, help out. If something like that was around for us at the time we certainly would have appreciated it.”
Between the four young athletes they have won five championship medals over the summer – three gold, and two silver – and Healy might well have added another had she not slipped and fallen halfway through Sunday’s European Cross Country in Tilburg, the Netherlands, before getting up to finish ninth.
By coincidence Healy is already eying up a career in law. “That could change, but that’s what I’m thinking about, UCD.”
She said her fall on Sunday has only increased her motivation for 2019. “I haven’t had much time to think about it. It’s just a bit annoying because I worked hard over the winter, and didn’t really get to see what all the hard work amounted to. It makes me just want to think about next year already – maybe it’s more motivating.”
In sixth year at Holy Child Killiney, Dublin, Healy already has two European under-18 gold medals, in the 1,500m and 3,000m, both won over those magical three days in Hungary at the start of July. Likewise with Adeleke, in fifth year not far away at Presentation Terenure, who also won gold in Gyor, Hungary, in the 200m, when aged only 15 (she turned 16 in September), where O’Sullivan won silver in the 800m.
Two more silver medals followed at the World under-20 championships in Finland – in the women’s 4x100m relay and for Sommer Lecky in the high jump – Jumbo-Gula and Adeleke both winning silver as part of that relay team (Adeleke missing the final due to injury, but still getting a medal)
“Staying injury-free is the most important thing for me,” said Adeleke, “and also trust the process, and myself as an athlete, and believe in what I do.”
Jumbo-Gula is in sixth year at St Vincent’s Dundalk, but with no local track to train on she often has to travel to Newry or Dublin. “I’m very proud and happy with what we’ve done, but I don’t dwell on it. You have to look to the future.”
O’Sullivan is on summer holidays (Australian), will finish school this time next year, and is considering the American scholarship route after that. What is already decided is that having run the under-20 she is committed to the Irish vest (she also has Australian citizenship).
The aim of the Accelerator Academy is threefold: to provide internship/work placement in the private sector; to provide financial support to help cover some out-of-pocket expenses while competing; and offer a personalised training programme in public speaking and related areas.