Sonia O’Sullivan (born 28 November 1969) is an Irish runner from Cobh, County Cork. She was one of the world’s leading female 5000m runners for most of the 1990s and early 2000s. Her crowning achievement was a gold medal in the 5000m at the 1995 World Athletics Championships. She won silver medals in the 5000m at the 2000 Olympic Games and in the 1500m at the 1993 World Championships. She has also won three European Championship gold medals and two World Cross-Country Championship gold medals.
On 14 February 2007, the multi-medallist said she planned to hang up her spikes after the Great Ireland Run on 15 April, having said the previous year that she intended to run competitively until the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Sonia later dismissed the rumours that she is retiring after the BUPA Great Ireland Run, adding that she would be retiring at the end of the 2007 season.
Sonia O’Sullivan’s first major international competition was the 1990 European Championships at Split, where she finished 11th in the 3000 m. However, O’Sullivan improved quickly after that, and on 26 January the following year, at Boston, she set a new world indoor record in the 5000 m of 15:17.28, taking more than 5 seconds off the old record. At the time, O’Sullivan (who attained a sporting scholarship) was studying accountancy at the Villanova University in the USA, and at the World Student Games at Sheffield in July 1991, she won the 1500 m Gold Medal in 4:12.14, and the Silver Medal in the 3000 m in 8:56.55. At the start of 1992, she finished 7th in the World Cross Country Championships. In 1992, O’Sullivan improved her personal bests in a number of distances between 800 m and 5000 m, setting six Irish national records in the process, including five in the space of 11 days in mid-August following the Barcelona Olympic Games. At Barcelona, in the 3000 m final, O’Sullivan was always in contention, and hit the lead in the back straight on the final lap, but she was eventually outsprinted and finished fourth. Narrowly missing out on an Olympic medal was made all the more frustrating when the silver medalist from the race Tatyana Dorovskikh tested positive for a banned substance the following year.In the 1500 m, she finished only 11th in her semi-final and did not qualify for the final. She finished 1992 by winning the Grand Prix Final for the 5000 m.
During. 1993, O’Sullivan began to dominate the world of distance-running. By the time the World Championships came around, she was the clear favourite for both the 3000 m and 1500 m. However her hopes were dashed by performances by three unknown Chinese athletes later convicted of taking drugs in the 3000 m. O’Sullivan finished 4th in a time of 8:33.8. Six days later she won the Silver Medal in the 1500 m in a time of 4:03.48, again behind a Chinese athlete. Five days after the championships, at the ISTAF meet in Berlin, O’Sullivan recorded the season’s best time over 5000 m of 14:45.92, which moved her to third on the all-time world list. Soon afterwards she closed the year by winning the Grand Prix Final for the 3000 m and finished 2nd in the Mile. She finished the Grand Prix season in 2nd place in the Woman’s Overall competition.
During 1994, Sonia O’Sullivan totally dominated the international distance running scene. She set the fastest time of the year in four events, the 1500 m, 1 mile, 2000 m and 3000 m, and the second fastest time in the 5000 m. On 8 July, at Edinburgh, she broke the 2000 m world record, setting a new time of 5:25.36. This record still stands today. The next week, in London, she broke the European record for the 3000 m, beating Britain’s Yvonne Murray, and setting the year’s fastest time of 8:21.64. This moved her to fifth on the all-time world list, behind the four Chinese runners who had all set their personal bests at the 1993 National Championships in Beijing. This record lasted until 2002, when Gabriela Szabo bettered it. Only three days later, at Nice, O’Sullivan recorded the year’s fastest 1500 m, a personal best, of 3:59.10, and only four days after that, she won the mile at the Bislett Games in Oslo, in a time of 4:17.25. This was the season’s best, and it moved O’Sullivan to fourth on the all-time world list. All four of these times were also new Irish records, and after this two week period of record breaking, O’Sullivan became a clear favourite to win any event she chose to compete in at the European Athletics Championships in Helsinki in August. At Helsinki, O’Sullivan elected to only contest the 3000 m, with her main opposition expected to come from Yvonne Murray. In the final, on 10 August, Murray set the pace with O’Sullivan on her shoulder. With 200 m to go, O’Sullivan surged past Murray to win easily in 8:31.84. O’Sullivan followed this with a win over 5000 m in the Grand Prix final in Paris on 3 September. She finished the Grand Prix season in 3rd place in the Woman’s Overall standings. At the end of a long season, on 9 September, the tired O’Sullivan finished only fifth in the 1500 m at the World Cup in London.
As she did in 1994, Sonia O’Sullivan completely dominated the international distance running scene during 1995. Coincidentally, as she had done in 1994, O’Sullivan set the fastest time of the year in four events, the 1500 m, 1 mile, 2000 m and 3000 m, and the second fastest time in the 5000 m. O’Sullivan was the winner of 11 of the 12 races in which she competed over 1500 m or 1 mile during 1995. These victories included the only sub-4 minute 1500 m time recorded during the year, a new Irish record of 3:58.85 set at the Herculis meet in Monaco on 25 July. In the 3000 m, O’Sullivan was clearly in a class above her rivals, winning all five of her races, and producing four of the six fastest times, including the year’s fastest time of 8:27.57 at the Weltklasse meet in Zurich on 16 August. Her other 3000 m victories included the Bislett Games in Oslo on 21 July, and the Grand Prix final in Monaco on 9 September. O’Sullivan was left with the dilemma leading up to the World Championships at Gothenburg, of whether to compete in the 1500 m or the 5000 m. She had been unbeaten at 5000 m before Gothenburg, although the fastest time of the year, a new world record, had been set by Portugal’s Fernanda Ribeiro. In the end, O’Sullivan chose the 5000 m, and, after easily winning her heat on 10 August, she kicked clear of Ribeiro in the final two days later, to win the world title in 14:46.47. Three weeks later, on 1 September, at the ISTAF meeting in Berlin, O’Sullivan again battled over 5000 m with the new world record holder Ribeiro, and again O’Sullivan was victorious, winning in a time of 14:41.40, a new Irish record, and the third fastest 5000 m of all time. For the fourth year in a row, she won the Grand Prix Final, this time over 3000 m.
Atlanta 1996 & 1997 season:
Although she was not as dominant as she had been in 1994 and 1995, Sonia O’Sullivan continued to be the major force to be reckoned with during 1996 at the distances between 1500 m and 5000 m. Her best event in 1996 was the 3000 m, where she was unbeaten for the third successive year, winning all five of her races. O’Sullivan produced the early season leading time of 8:42.40 in Eugene on 26 May, and then at Nice, on 10 July, she recorded the year’s fastest time of 8:35.42. In the 1500 m, only two women broke 4 minutes during the year, one of whom was O’Sullivan, who clocked her best time of 3:59.91 when winning at the Bislett Games in Oslo on 5 July. In terms of preparation for the Olympic Games held later that year in Atlanta, O’Sullivan’s best event appeared to be the 5000 m, the distance at which she was the reigning world champion. On 5 June, at the Golden Gala meet in Rome, O’Sullivan won in 14:54.75. A month later, on 12 July, at the Securicor Games in London, she beat a strong field to win in 14:48.36. The program at the Olympic Games in Atlanta was sufficiently scheduled to allow O’Sullivan to contest both the 5000 m and 1500 m events. Her early season form and her world title win the previous year had made her favourite for the 5000 m, and everything seemed on track when she easily won her heat in 15:15.80. However, in the final on 28 July, she was badly affected by a stomach upset, and after starting well, she gradually faded away and failed to finish. Her disappointment continued in the 1500 m, where, still weakened, she came second last in her heat and failed to qualify for the final.
Keen to quickly atone for her disappointing performances at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games due to illness, Sonia O’Sullivan competed in her first indoor competition for five years at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Athletics in Paris in March 1997. Prior to that meeting, O’Sullivan had travelled to Australia to get some early season competition in the Australian domestic outdoor season. O’Sullivan recorded her best result in Canberra, on 11 January, where she won a 5000 m race in 15:10.98. She had entered both the 1500 m and 3000 m at the World Indoors, but eventually she chose to only contest the 3000 m event. In the final, on 8 March, O’Sullivan hit the lead in the last lap, but she was overtaken by Romanian Gabriela Szabo who went on to narrowly defeat O’Sullivan in 8:45.75 compared to the Irishwoman’s second place time of 8:46.19. At the World Cross Country Championships she finished 9th but helped Ireland win the Bronze Medal in the Team Event. Compared with the magnificent performances that she had produced in previous years, O’Sullivan had an indifferent outdoor season in 1997, and her best time of 8:53.53 over 3000 m, which she achieved in Paris on 25 June, was 7 seconds slower than the time she had set indoors in March. Similarly, her best performance at 5000 m for the year remained the time she had set in Australia in January. At the World Championships held in Athens, O’Sullivan produced her best 1500 m time of the year of 4:05.31 when she finished fourth in her semi-final on 3 August. In the final, held two days later, O’Sullivan was never a serious threat, and she finished 8th in 4:07.81. O’Sullivan had even greater disappointment in the 5000 m where she was the defending world champion, finishing only 7th in her heat and failing to qualify for the final.
After her disappointing performances at the 1996 Olympic Games, and her relatively poor season in 1997, few would have predicted the remarkable comeback that Sonia O’Sullivan made in 1998. Her year got off to an amazing start at the World Cross-Country Championships at Marrakech in March. O’Sullivan entered both the short course (4 km) and long course (8 km) events, a double which few athletes even attempt, much less have any success at. On successive days, O’Sullivan won both events, and her 4 km time of 12:20 was a massive 14 seconds ahead of her nearest rival. O’Sullivan continued this form into the track season, where her performances in the 1500 m, 3000 m and 5000 m were close to those she had produced at her peak in 1994 and 1995. At the European Athletics Championships in Budapest, the 1500 m and 5000 m finals, events at which O’Sullivan usually doubled at major championships, were scheduled to be run on the same day, thus denying her the opportunity of competing in both events. Undeterred, O’Sullivan entered the 5000 m and 10000 m, having never run the latter event before on the track. In the 10000 m final, on 19 August, she shadowed the leaders, and then produced an astonishing 28.1 second final 200 metres to win the gold medal in 31:29.33 in her debut at the distance. Four days later, in the more familiar territory of the 5000 m, the pace was set by Romanian Gabriela Szabo, but again, O’Sullivan produced an explosive finishing sprint to defeat Szabo in 15:06.50. At the World Cup held the following month in Johannesburg, O’Sullivan won her second major international 5000 m competition of the year, again sprinting clear of the opposition following a very slow pace. She concluded her year by winning the BUPA Great North Run.
Following her spectacular comeback in the international athletics arena in 1998, which included winning both the 5000 m and 10000 m 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 on 10 October, showed she was back in form by finishing a half marathon in 70:05. In June she continued this road form, winning Dublin’s Women’s Mini Marathon. However, it didn’t take her long to return to the track, with the prospect of competing at her third Olympic Games in September 2000 in Sydney. O’Sullivan competed in the Australian domestic outdoor season during the European winter, recording a fastest time over 5000 m of 15:10.24 at Sydney on 13 February 2000. Back in Europe, she produced a number of quality performances in her preparation for the Olympics. The Weltklasse meet in Zurich on 11 August produced the finest 3000 m race of the year, with the first six placings respectively registering the six fastest times in 2000. O’Sullivan finished a close second in this race to Romanian Gabriela Szabo in a time of 8:27.58. At Sydney, on 22 September, O’Sullivan produced the fastest time in the heats of the 5000 m with a season’s best of 15:07.91. In the final three days later, O’Sullivan won the silver medal behind Szabo in a sensational 14:41.02, and well in front of bronze medallist Gete Wami. Her time bettered the Irish national record she had set in 1995. Doubts have since been cast over Szabo’s performance. She became only the second Irish woman to win an Olympic Medal, after Michelle Smith and the first Irish Track and Field Olympic Medalist since John Treacy took Silver in Los Angeles in 1984. In the 10000 m final, held on 30 September, O’Sullivan set another personal best and national record when she finished 6th, in an extremely fast race, in 30:53.37. Shortly after the Olympics, She won the Grand Prix Final 5000 m. Following the Olympics, O’Sullivan made her marathon debut, winning the Dublin marathon in a time of 2:35:42 on 30 October.
2001 & 2002:
In March 2001, O’Sullivan decided to compete in the World Indoor Championships. She finished 7th in the 3000 m and 9th in the 1500 m. After this she took a break from athletics to give birth to her second daughter, Sophie. She returned in March 2002 for the World Cross Country Championships, being held in Dublin. She finished a very respectable 7th in the Short Race, and led Ireland to Team Bronze. At the European Championships in Munich later that year, O’Sullivan made a brave attempt at defending her two European Golds she won in 1998. She won the silver medal in the 10000 m in an Irish record time of 30:47.59. A few days later, a tactical error cost O’Sullivan the gold in the 5000 m as she was beaten into second place by Marta Dominguez of Spain in a time of 15:14.85. Shortly afterwards she set a season’s best for the 3000 m in Zurich as she finished third in a time of 8:33.62. A week later she ran her fastest 5000 m time since her Olympic Silver in London in a time of 14:46.97, as she finished third. She ended an excellent season by winning her second BUPA Great North Run title in a national record time of 67:19.
2003 and beyond:
After an impressive 2002 season, O’Sullivan had a disappointing 2003. She struggled during the summer Grand Prix races. However she appeared to be finding her form at the right time when she ran a season’s best in the 3000 m in Zurich in a time of 8:37.55 on August 15th. At the World Championships in Paris later that month she was considered a possible medalist. She qualified very comfortably from her heat. However in the final she finished last of the 15 starters. In December she finished an impressive 4th at the European Cross-Country Championships, and lead Ireland to Silver in the Team Event.
2004 was to be an even more disappointing season for Sonia O’Sullivan. She struggled to find her best form throughout the year. At the Olympic Games in Athens, she qualified for the final of the 5000 m. However in the final, O’Sullivan, who was suffering from an illness, finished last of the 14 finishers, well over a lap behind the winner Meseret Defar. She was given a heroes reception by the Crowd as she completed her last lap. It was one of the more poignant moments of the 2004 Games. In November, O’Sullivan finished an impressive 4th in the World Half-Marathon Championship in Delhi, India. It was a performance that deserved a medal, especially considering the fact that the race winner Sun Yingjie of China tested positive for a banned substance soon afterwards.
In April 2005, O’Sullivan ran the London Marathon for the first time and finished 8th in a personal best time of 2:29:01. In June she won Dublin’s Women’s Mini Marathon for the second time. However an injury kept her out of the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki.
In January 2006, O’Sullivan applied for dual citizenship, which would allow her to compete for both Ireland and Australia. This request was granted and she intended to represent Australia at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, but to represent Ireland in all other competitions. She was chosen for the Australian Commonwealth team for the 5000 m. However she wasn’t able to compete due to a hamstring injury.
In March 2008, O’Sullivan was appointed team manager of the Australian team for the 2008 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh O’Sullivan planned a visit to a school on 17 October 2008.