Ireland's Greatest Ever International Female Athlete From Cobh, Co. Cork
Sonia O'Sullivan Set A Blistering Pace For Upcoming Female Irish Athletes To Emulate
Sonia O’Sullivan, a native of Cobh, Co. Cork, was an Irish midddle distance runner in the 1990’s and into the new millennium who won the hearts of athletics fans amongst Irish people and people of Irish ancestry.
The Cobh athlete fulfilled her athletic ambitions but the Olympic Gold proved very elusive but she compensated her fans with world titles and many memorable international victories.
It all began with Ballymore AC, an athletics club three miles from Cobh town. She became one of the world's leading female 5,000m runners for most of the 1990s and early 2000's.
Her outstanding achievement was the Gold medal in the 5,000m at the 1995 World Athletics Championships. She won Silver medals in the 5,000m at the 2000 Olympic Games and she also won Silver in the 1,500m at the 1993 World Championships. Sonia also achieved three European Championship Gold medals and two World Cross Country Championship Gold medals to crown her illustrious career.
In women’s athletics in Ireland, Sonia is probably recognised as the nations greatest ever female athlete and the bonus for Irish fans was the Irish runners tremendous hospitality she presented on TV, even when the dice did not roll too kindly on the day.
Sonia’s first major international competition was the 1990 European Championships at Split where she finished 11th in the 3,000m. However, O'Sullivan improved quickly after that, and on 26th January 1991, just one year later, at Boston, she set a new world indoor record in the 5,000m of 15:17.28, taking more than 5 seconds off the old record.
At that time, O'Sullivan was studying accountancy at Villanova University in the USA and at the World Student Games at Sheffield in July 1991, she won the 1,500m Gold Medal in 4:12.14, and the Silver Medal in the 3,000m in 8:56.55.
At the start of 1992, she finished 7th in the World Cross Country Championships. In 1992, O'Sullivan also improved her personal bests in a number of distances between 800m and 5,000m, 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 3,000m 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. The Olympic Silver medalist would later test positive for a banned substance and to Sonia, who finished 4th, this was of little salvation.
In the 1,500m, 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 5,000m.
During the 1993 World Championships, O’Sullivan had to contend with the Chinese athletes invasions that marred her primary ambitions for the year and by now Sonia had established herself as one of the world's top female middle distance runners. However just six days after her collapse she won the Silver Medal in the 1,500m in a time of 4:03.48, again behind a Chinese athlete.
Five days after the World championships, at the ISTAF meet in Berlin, O'Sullivan recorded the season's best time over 5,000m 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 3,000m and finished 2nd in the Mile. She finished the Grand Prix season in 2nd place in the Women's Overall competition.
During 1994, Sonia dominated international distance running and set the fastest time of the year in four events, 1,500m, 2,000m and 3,000m, and the second fastest time in the 5,000m.
On 8thJuly, at Edinburgh, she broke the 2,000m world record, setting a new time of 5:25.36.
The following week, in London, she broke the European record for the 3,000m, 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 set their personal bests at the 1993 National Championships in Beijing.
This record lasted until 2002, when Gabriel Sbazza arrived on the horizon. Only three days later, at Nice, O'Sullivan recorded the year's fastest 1,500m, a personal best, of 3:51.10, and only four days after that, she won the 1,500m at the Bislett Games in Oslo, in a time of 4:17.25.
This was the season's best and moved O'Sullivan to fourth on the all time world list. All four of these times were also new Irish records. 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 Eurpean Athletics Championships in Helsinki in August.
At Helsinki, O'Sullivan elected to only contest the 3,000m, with her main opposition expected to come from Yvonne Murray. In the final, on 10th August, Murray set the pace with O'Sullivan on her shoulder.
With 200m to go, O'Sullivan overtook the English athlete to win easily in 8:31.84. Sonia again followed this with a win over 5,000m in the Grand Prix final in Paris on 3rd September. She finished the Grand Prix season in 3rd place in the Women's Overall standings.
The years 1991; 1992; 1993; 1994; 1997 and 2000/01 will be inscribed as Sonia’s Golden years when she annexed her greatest triumphs.
No other female Irish athlete has emerged since her retirement from international athletics to challenge her as Ireland’s greatest ever queen of athletics and a brief browse at her outstanding achievements illustrate the mighty successes required to emulate Sonia’s records.
Sonia O’Sullivan’s incorporation in our All Ireland Hall Of Fame Online Gallery will be of interest to Irish sports fans at home and abroad and also people of Irish ancestry proud of Ireland’s sporting heritage.
1991 World Student Games: 1,500m - Gold ; 3,000m - Silver
1992 World Championships: 3,000m - 4th; 1,500m - Silver
1993 European Championships: 3,000m - Gold
1994 World Championships: 5,000m - Gold
1997 World Indoor Championships: 3,000m - Silver; World Cross-Country Championships: Long Race
1998 Gold ; Short Race - European Championships: 10,000m - Gold ; 5,000m - Gold
2000 Olympic Games: 5,000m - Silver
2001 European Championships: 10,000m - Silver ; 5,000m - Silver