Sonia O’Sullivan’s Worst Sporting Moment: The day my demons caught up with me

Failing to qualify for the 5,000m final in Athens in 1997, I had to stop and take stock

A dejected Sonia O’Sullivan after failing to qualify for the 5,000m final in the World Athletics Championships in Athens in 1997. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

A dejected Sonia O’Sullivan after failing to qualify for the 5,000m final in the World Athletics Championships in Athens in 1997. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

 

I remember there were some wooden picnic tables, covered with red-and-white tablecloths, with a great big umbrella in the middle to offer some shade from the intense evening sun.

This is the scene I can still picture, vividly. I had just walked out the back gates of the stadium, wandering around a little aimlessly, nervously looking for somewhere to call up my coach Alan Storey.

Nervous because I felt I had let him down, felt I had left myself down, and just couldn’t understand why I could no longer live up to the high standards that I had set myself.

With my spikes bag thrown on the table, one foot on the bench rocking back and forth, I dialled up the number. Only the words failed me as I tried to find some solace, some comfort, some hope.

I didn’t need an explanation, just some sort of road forward, with no pressure or expectation, maybe even a new or different road which I could just follow to find myself, and maybe escape the demons that had been haunting me for the past 12 months.

There were tears, and lots of nodding. You’re not much use when you’re on the phone like that. I just needed some target, but far enough away so I could stop right now, take a break, and restart when I was ready again. As I was saying goodbye, about to hang up, Alan said to me to start thinking about the World Cross Country. It was just over six months away. “You have some unfinished business there,” he said.

Thinking back on it all now, this scene could have been at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, or even eight years later, at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. But it was August of 1997, at the 1997 World Athletics Championships in Athens, where I couldn’t even make the final of the 5,000 metres, something I had taken for granted up to this point.

Lowest point

I was also the defending champion, and this was my lowest point, one year on from the failed Atlanta Olympics. I felt I was fit enough, fast enough, but a year on from Atlanta and I finally realised that it was time to truly stop and take stock of where I was at, where I was going.

Throughout 1997, I won seven races in all, a fraction of what I had become accustomed to in the early 1990s. There was also a silver medal over 3,000m at the World Indoor Championship in Paris, in early March, where a young Gabriela Szabo from Romania snuck inside of me to win gold. That was followed by a ninth place finish at the World Cross Country in Turin, where the Irish women’s team won a bronze team medal, but something wasn’t right.

I wasn’t running with the same confidence, so was putting myself in bad situations

I had made the final of the 1,500m in Athens, a few days before my 5,000m heat, not really knowing what was meant to be my strongest event. I ended up finishing eighth, getting involved in some elbowing too with the American Regina Jacobs, on the last lap.

It was an extra tension, and that kind of stuff, I never would have let that happen in 1994 or 1995. I just wouldn’t have let myself get in that position. I wasn’t running with the same confidence, so was putting myself in bad situations, maybe more concerned about the people I was running against, than what I was doing myself.

I thought Paris and Turin were maybe glimmers of hope that I was on the way back to competing at the highest level, but they were false hopes, papering over the cracks that still remained deep in the Atlanta memory bank.

Then everything came crashing down on August 7th, in my 5,000m heat. I finished outside the automatic qualifiers, was desperately clinging to the hope of a fastest qualifying time, only the game was up, and it was probably just as well for everyone, including myself, that this World Championship final eluded me.

Speechless

I felt speechless after, walking away from anyone who wanted to talk to me, especially the Irish press. Then I met my partner Nic Bideau, who was telling me I had to go back. “Talk to them, you can’t just walk away.” The reality was I had to face up to it, take some responsibility, and that was all part of the realisation, and owning up to where I was at. If I wanted things to be different, I had to make some changes.

Still, I had no idea what I would do next, except that I didn’t want to see another track, let alone lace up my spikes and line up for a race. After the call with Alan, the seed of the World Cross Country was planted, but still had to be nurtured, when I was ready to commit to a full training programme.

Sonia O’Sullivan talks to Nic Bideau after failing to qualify©INPHO/Patrick Bolger
Sonia O’Sullivan talks to Nic Bideau after failing to qualify©INPHO/Patrick Bolger
I had to figure out what I had lost, after months of trying too hard, trying to push for what I wasn’t ready for

I don’t remember a whole lot else from those World Championships in Athens, don’t even remember watching the 5,000m final, which as it turns out was won by Szabo. It was time to leave the cauldron behind for a bit.

A week later, I was on the Island of Sicily, still one of the very few real holidays I have ever been on. I had left my running shoes at home and just walked the narrow cobbled streets with Nic, and the only exertion was some swimming in the clear blue sea.

I didn’t care about maintaining fitness or losing the smoothness you feel when training at a high level. I could eat and drink like I was on holidays, no restrictions or early morning training sessions, just a stroll through the tourist shops and a lazy mid-morning coffee stop.

This was all before the internet, so it was easy to drift away from the athletics world and not know anything of the races that were going on that I had planned to run but were now all off the agenda. We got a call from Brendan Foster inviting me to the Great North Run a few weeks later – not to race, just to come and enjoy the atmosphere alongside a big race. I could run down the road, with no expectations: just blend in with the mass race and enjoy the hospitality after.

Still, I had to figure out what I had lost, after months of trying too hard, trying to push for what I wasn’t ready for, which culminated in the ultimate humiliation of being knocked out in a heat of the 5,000m, running a very pedestrian 15:40 in the big scheme of what I was used to.

I never got to the point I didn’t think I could get back, and in 1997 that was always some hope, but I just had to take a time out, stop thinking about what went on before, start out again, and work back up. I didn’t give myself the time to do that after Atlanta. I didn’t really accept it, was still trying to prove that this didn’t happen, was always looking for something that might make up for it, not realising that nothing would make up for it.

House of cards

Sometimes you also need to experience some failure, to appreciate the ordinary, and to understand and appreciate again what it takes to reach certain heights in sport. It can easily come crashing down like a house of cards, particularly when the foundation isn’t solid and things aren’t aligned mentally and physically to deliver the relaxation that is required to rise to the challenge.

I’d given everything up to that point, but I had to find a new way of learning to do it again

It seems a contradiction of words, to link relaxation to the tense nature of being called to a start line, yet this is the perfect partnership when aligned with preparation and confidence.

I knew I was doing the training, and lots of athletes think they’re doing the things you need to do, but you’re not 100 per cent committed. You’re maybe getting a little lazy on other things, like what you’re eating, your sleeping. Your lifestyle is not at the level it should be, and you’re not getting away with it anymore.

Maybe I wasn’t ready yet to give myself back to all the sacrifices you have to make, after Atlanta. So I was doing it at about 90 per cent, maybe. I’d given everything up to that point, but I had to find a new way of learning to do it again. After Atlanta, maybe the edge was taken off some of the seriousness of it all, and maybe in 1998, I realised I had to give it my full commitment again, to get the same rewards.

After the Great North Run, I raced again in Edinburgh, in October, a 5km on the roads against Yvonne Murray, and when I won that, it marked one step back. It was on TV, RTÉ picked up some pictures, and they played it out as Sonia is back to winning ways, something like that.

From there it was down to Australia, for a proper block of training, important too that I had that support team around me, Alan and Nic, with Kim McDonald still there in background, organising my races. I’d been to Australia before, for the first time in 1995, and again at the end of 1996, but that was always a bit up and down, when I went back at the end of 1997 it was the first time I went to altitude, at Falls Creek, and had this plan, coming from Alan, and everything he said, I said I’d do it. I was always running five or 10 minutes extra, people would be looking at me, doing all the extra gym stuff, sit-ups, little things like that, I insisted on doing them all.

Before the 1998 World Cross Country in Morocco, I’d run quite well in Australia, over 5,000m, and 1,500m, won maybe four races, had some confidence back, was feeling really good. I knew I was going run well, no matter what. I didn’t just label it as a race I was going to win. I just knew I was going to run well again.

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