The Leeside legends series: Sonia O'Sullivan defined the spirit of Cork

The Leeside legends series: Sonia O'Sullivan defined the spirit of Cork
Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan at the 2004 Olympics in Greece. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

THE town of Cobh stands resplendent overlooking Cork Harbour and its strategic position and deep water made it one of the most important seaports in Western Europe.

Queen Victoria’s visit in the 19th century resulted in it being renamed Queenstown by Royal decree.

That changed again in 1938 when the British troops marched through Cork City for the last time and it was decided that Cobh would never be known again as Queenstown.

For many years Cobh had their own Queen as Sonia O’Sullivan ruled the realm of European middle distance running and she did it with regal charm.

These days Sonia doesn’t pound the streets and roads around Cobh but her hometown has a special place in her heart as she is an icon for up and coming athletes in many corners of this country.

Irish Olympian and 5,000m silver medallist Sonia O'Sullivan with the Olympic Flame. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE
Irish Olympian and 5,000m silver medallist Sonia O'Sullivan with the Olympic Flame. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE

Sonia was born in 1969 and attended the Cobh Vocational school where she began to show her potential as a runner.

She attended St Mary’s School in the town and ran with her school and club Ballymore all the while improving her fitness and stamina.

All the hard work paid off in 1987 when she earned herself a place in the history books by winning the National Junior and Senior Cross-country Championships that was rounded off by winning the Irish Schools title in Mallusk.

Frustrating:

Sonia then went to Villanova University, but her first years at the university were frustrating as she was plagued with niggling injuries.

The breakthrough in the career of Sonia O’Sullivan came at the 1991 World Student Games when she hit the headlines, winning gold in the 1,500m and a silver in the 3,000m.

The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona taught the Cobh runner a tough lesson as he had been left in the lead on the back straight as the plan to track Yvonne Murray proved the wrong one.

The Russians stalked her throughout with Yelena Romanova winning the gold medal from Talyana Dorovskikh.

Sonia had the bronze medal in her grasp until she was overtaken in the final strides by Anglea Chalmers.

In 1993 Sonia finished runner-up in the final of 1500m at the World Championships in Stuttgart.

The following year, Sonia gave her legion of fans something to cheer about when she won gold in the 3,000 metres European Championships in Helsinki following a gutsy run.

Her rich vein of form continued in 1995 at the World Championships in Gothenburg as Ireland saluted her great win in the final of the 5,000 metres.

The Olympics of 1996 in Atlanta is one that will haunt Sonia when she reflects on her career, as she was ill before the race but in typical O’Sullivan fashion decided to run.

“Looking back on my career I would say the 1996 Olympics was a true disappointment for me as every athlete strives to compete in this championship, but sadly I could not give my best due to illness.”

In 1998 Sonia was crowned World Cross-country Champion and the same year she completed a double in the European Championships with victories in the 5,000m and 10,000m.

The Sydney Olympics of 2000 was another case of so close and yet so far as she finished runner-up to Gabrielle Szabo in the 5,000 final as the diminutive Romanian pipped the Cobh girl in a sensational race to the tape.

Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan races down the finishing straight before losing out to Romaina's Gabriela Szabo for the Gold in the Women's 5,000m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan races down the finishing straight before losing out to Romaina's Gabriela Szabo for the Gold in the Women's 5,000m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

In the 2002 European championships in Munich she had to be content with silver medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 finals.

The career of Sonia O’Sullivan finally came to an end in 2007 at the age of 37 after she competed in the Great Bupa Run in Dublin.

Over the years coming back has always been special to Sonia and the Cork City Sports is an event she supported on numerous occasions.

“I always loved coming back to Cork to compete in the Cork City Sports because I have wonderful memories and with the sports going for 67 years long may it continue.”

Few would doubt that Sonia O’Sullivan lifted the profile of women’s athletics to dizzy heights in Ireland.

There have been many sporting heroes in this great city and county, but the achievements of Sonia O’Sullivan put her right up there among the greatest.

Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan during her heat of the Women's 10,000m in Stadium Australia at the 2000 Olympics. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan during her heat of the Women's 10,000m in Stadium Australia at the 2000 Olympics. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

FACTFILE:

Sonia O’Sullivan was born in Cobh in 1969 and attended the Cobh Vocational and St Mary’s schools in the town.

She began her athletics career with the Ballymore/Cobh club.

Sonia won the World Cross-country and the European Championships 5,000m and 10,000m double in 1998.

O’Sullivan announced her retirement from athletics in April 2007 after competing in the Great Bupa Run in Dublin.

Sonia was given the Freedom of Cork in 2005.

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