The Irish Times is this week revealing their top 50 Irish sportswomen moments of the last 30 years. This has encouraged me to name my greatest Irish sportswoman of the last 30 years (i.e. my living memory, including non-live TV coverage).
For me, there can only be one woman at the absolute zenith. As a Corkonian, there might be a slight bias in selecting her, but the list of achievements at world class elite level over a very considerable period of time in a sport with a very deep level of competition and her ability to overcome adversity and disappoint must for me single out Sonia O’Sullivan as the Great Irish Sportswoman of the last 30 years.
O’Sullivan first came to prominence when winning the 1,500m at the 1991 Universiade, before going on to finish fourth in the 3,000m final at the 1992 Olympic Games. She would go on to compete at the highest level of distance running for the next 12 years.
What for me elevates O’Sullivan to the summit of Irish female sporting achievement is how she triumphed over adversity to return to seal her greatest and defining moment.
Having won gold in the 3,000m at the IAAF World Athletics Championships as well as gold at the 1,500m in 1995, Sonia was in exceptional form leading up to the 1996 Olympic Games. She was 26 years-old at the time, at the absolute peak of her considerable running powers and despite competition from 3,000m and 10,000m world record holder China’s Wang Junxia was a firm favorite favorite to win both the 1,500m and 5,000m in Atlanta.
In the heats of the 5,000m everything seemed on track when she easily won her race. However, in the Olympic final on 28th July 1996, she was affected by a stomach upset, and after starting well gradually faded away and failed to finish. Her disappointment continued in the 1,500m, where, still weakened, she came second last in her heat and failed to qualify for the semi-finals.
What for me elevates O’Sullivan to the summit of elite Irish female sporting achievement is how she reacted to the crushing disappointment of that 1996 Olympic experience. Given what had been an elite running career which had lasted more than a decade, many would have viewed the next Olympiad (when O’Sullivan would be 30 years-old) as being out of reach.
Sonia never felt that way though and began the process of working towards Sydney 2000. Keen to quickly atone for her disappointing performances at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, O’Sullivan competed in her first indoor competition for five years at the IAAF Indoor World Athletics Championships in Paris in March 1997 finishing second in the 3,000m to the emerging Gabriela Szabo of Romania.
Compared with the magnificent performances that she had produced in previous years, O’Sullivan had an indifferent outdoor season in 1997, with her best times also several seconds poorer than previous seasons and she didn’t feature prominently at the IAAF World (Outdoor) Athletics Championships where she entered as a double defending champion.
Sonia appeared back to her best in 1998 winning double gold at the World Cross Country Championships and double gold at the European Championships.
Following her spectacular comeback in the international athletics arena in 1998, which included winning both the 5,000 m and 10,000m at the European Championships, Sonia O’Sullivan took a break from competition for most of 1999, during which time she gave birth to her daughter, Ciara, on 10 July 1999. O’Sullivan returned to training 10 days after her daughter’s birth, and in October, showed she was back in form by almost breaking 70 minutes in a half marathon.
In 2000 all energies were once again focused on the Olympics which was to be held in Sydney, with O’Sullivan competed in the Australian domestic outdoor season during the European winter and recorded fast times. Back in Europe, she won the Dublin Women’s Mini Marathon in June, before producing a number of quality performances on the track in her preparation for the Games.
In Sydney, Sonia breezed through the heat of the 5,000m. In the final three days later, on 30th September and after an entralling sprint finish, O’Sullivan won the silver medal behind Szabo in a National Record time. Whilst Sonia was likely disappointed to not quite claim that elusive Olympic gold medal, this was her crowning glory and the ghosts of Atlanta were exorcised.
O’Sullivan would go on to participate in her fourth Olympics four years later. She finished her 16 year elite level running career with a total of 12 major medals; eight of which were gold. She holds National Record times over eight distances, held the European Record for 3,000m for eight years and still holds the World Record for 2,000m. She became only the second Irish woman to win an Olympic Medal, after the disgraced Michelle Smith and the first Irish track and field Olympic medalist since John Treacy took silver in Los Angeles in 1984.
Sonia’s longevity, her list of achievements at the highest level of her sport, the depth of competition of her sport as well as her ability to overcome adversity to reach her career summit makes her for me Ireland’s top sports woman of all-time.