Sonia O’Sullivan: Pushing too hard doesn’t always pay
For athletes preparing for Rio Olympics, living in the present is key to preparation
“I was so much more on the edge going into the 1996 Olympic year, thinking about nothing else but winning the gold medal in Atlanta,” says Sonia O’Sullivan. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
A new year, a new diary and, for some athletes, entering 2016 brings the sudden realisation that the Olympic Games are now only a matter of months away.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago since I was immersed in preparation with Team Ireland for London 2012. It’s a strange feeling when the Olympics can so totally consume your life – first as an athlete, then as the chef de mission in 2012 – only this year I’m a casual observer, still uncertain what role if any that I will play in Rio this summer.
One thing is for sure: I’m looking forward with interest to see how the Irish team grows over the coming months. There is a feeling that these could be an Olympics where athletes will be competing on a more level playing field than in recent times.
It is still uncertain if the Russian Federation will be allowed to compete in Rio, but it puts out a warning to those tempted by short cuts that eventually you will be found out.
I always prefer to look ahead and not spend too much time reflecting on years gone by. However, Olympic years always bring back memories of dreams and hopes and that rollercoaster lifestyle I used to live in the 1990s and into the new millennium.
Entering into 2000, with the Sydney Olympics later that summer, I was recovering from an injury as a result of an overly enthusiastic return to training and racing after the birth of my daughter Ciara. It all seemed very easy competing with the world’s best in races such as at the Great North Run and setting a world best over five miles on the streets of Loughrea.
Somehow I skipped a few important bits along the way and before I knew it my running was stopped in its tracks. It was back to the drawing board: eight weeks of no running and a very intense rehabilitation programme.
The only Chris tmas present I wanted in 1999 was to be back running, and my only goal for 2000 was to get back racing. I was down in Australia around the time too and started back training at Falls Creek, high up in the Australian Alps, some 400km outside Melbourne.
These days I am a little reluctant to go to Falls Creek. For so long my only purpose was intense training and a strict routine with no distraction. Then last week I was asked to come along and speak to the young athletes training at Falls Creek, giving me a purpose to go back and enjoy the rare mountain air.
It’s difficult to describe the sight last week as dozens of runners, of various abilities, were setting off on 1km repetitions, in perfect weather and the perfect training environment. This was the same stretch of Falls Creek that I ran at the start of 2000, with only my husband Nic with Ciara on his back for company.
Only a very small percentage of these athletes will toe the line in Rio, but they are all living the dream and chasing personal goals and setting down the markers early in 2016.
In the case of Rio, just seven months away, or any goal for the year ahead, living in the present is often the best way to contain what might be on the horizon. In some ways I was forced into this approach going into the 2000 Olympics, because of injury: I worked my way back, step by step, day by day, then came to Sydney ready to perform, winning the silver medal.
In contrast I was so much more on the edge going into the 1996 Olympic year, thinking about nothing else but winning the gold medal in Atlanta that summer. As reigning World Champion the pressure and expectation was all around me, and I soon discovered that just one stray thought could upset the path to glory.
From the outside, everything looked perfect, a lifestyle of training and racing. But driving too hard in search of perfection upset the balance and caused me to question every single thing I did. These questions then caused me to lose the belief and stability in what I was doing, and more importantly in those around me, who were also trying to guide me on this Olympic path.
Setting goals can be like solving a maths problem; you know the solution you want to get to and the answer that will satisfy you.
Still it’s always better to work through the process rather than to try to jump ahead and miss something that could leave you retracing your steps and sometimes even having to wipe the slate clean.
Of course, to achieve great things, sometimes risks must also be taken. Being overly conservative is not the best approach either. You have to get the balance right to be successful.
Thinking back on my Olympic years and my goals, the smaller, steady and more manageable steps usually brought me closer to success and satisfaction. Never lose sight of the here and now, all the while knowing there are miles to run and dreams to chase.