Ireland and the World of Sports - Vol. 4 - Sonia O’Sullivan
The first instalment of the Ireland and the World of Sports Series was about Pat O’Callaghan, the first athlete to win a gold medal for Ireland at the Olympic Games. The third instalment inthe Series was about Joan Horan, the first athlete to win a gold medal for Ireland at the Paralympic Games. This month’s instalment is about Sonia O’Sullivan, Ireland’s first female Olympic athletics medallist.
Sonia was born in 1969 in Cobh, County Cork. She showed early promise as a runner with greatspeed and endurance and won an athletics scholarship to Villanova University in Pennsylvania in 1987. After graduating with a degree in Accounting, Sonia returned to Ireland in 1991 and continued to dedicate herself to elite athletics. In the summer of 1991, she won a gold in the 1,500 metres event and silver in the 3,000 metres event at the Summer Universiade in Sheffield.
In 1992, Sonia made her Olympic debut at the Barcelona Games and finished fourth in the 3,000 metres final, coming in 19 hundredths of a second behind the bronze medallist, Angela Chalmers of Canada. By 1994, Sonia had become a dominant force in international distance running and won gold in the 3,000 metres event at the European Athletics Championships. Sonia was tipped by many to win gold in the 5,000 metres at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. In the summer of 1995 Sonia had run 22 track races and won 21 of them; she won gold in the 5,000 metres event at the World Championships in Gothenburg in the August of that summer and was named the women’s Athlete of the Year by Track & Field News that year. The Olympic success that these indicators pointed to did not materialise and Sonia did not make it past theheats in the 1,500 metres event and failed to finish the 5,000 metres final.
By 1998, Sonia was again a dominant force in international distance running; she w0n gold in both the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres at the European Championships in the August of that year and another gold in the IAAF World Cup in the September. At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Sonia entered the 5,000 metres event and the 10,000 metres event. She finished 6th in the 10,000 metres and won silver in the 5,000 metres, finishing just 23 hundredths of a second behind Gabriela Szabo of Romania in what was one of the most suspenseful moments of Irish sport in living memory. Sonia also competed in the 5,000 metres at the 2002 Athens Olympics and finished the event in 14th place. A brief overview of Sonia’s Olympic record fails to capture her legendary status within Irish sport and culture; her talent, grit and determination transcended the track. Today Sonia is celebrated as a leading role model in every Irish household.