As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics finally get under way, Seán Creedon looks at the stellar career of Cobh-born athlete Sonia O’Sullivan, who brought the country to a standstill when she won a silver medal in Sydney.


I always remember a quote from Sonia O’Sullivan’s father John after his daughter failed to finish the final of the 5,000 metres race at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. When pushed for a quote from reporters John said, ‘‘Nobody died tonight and sure we will all have to get up in the morning and go to work.’’

And of course life did go on and Sonia would prove herself once again at the Sydney Olympics four years later, becoming the second Irish woman to win an Olympic medal and the first Irish Track and Field Olympic medalist since John Treacy in Los Angeles in 1984.

There is a touch of fate in all our lives and Sonia’s is no different. Her father, John, was a Dubliner from Terenure who began his working life at the Army Apprentice School in Naas, where he trained as a mechanic.
John then joined the Irish navy in Cobh in 1967 and worked on servicing various ships that the Irish Navy bought. In Cobh, John met local girl Mary Shealy; they married and had three children, Sonia, Gillian and Tony.

Sonia was the only one of the three children who ran competitively and her father reckons that the real reason she wanted to the join the local Ballymore Athletic club in Cobh was because she wanted to go to their popular disco!
While competing in a Milk Run in Cobh, another runner mentioned to Sonia that she would make a good cross-county runner. She took the man’s advice and won her first-country race in Midleton, running in her bare feet. In Cobh, Pat O’Halloran and Seán Kennedy were her first coaches.

She progressed to win Cork and Munster cross-country championships and after winning the National Junior and Senior Country Championships in 1987 Sonia was offered a scholarship to Villanova in the USA. She had offers from other colleges, but choose the college where two former Irish greats, Ronnie Delany and Eamonn Coghlan, had also got scholarships.

In Villanova, Sonia received good advice on what to eat from an American-born athlete Terrence Mahon, who joined Villanova around the same time. ‘‘We used to eat in the cafeteria and Terence, who had transferred in from Oregon, was very aware of which foods were healthy to eat,’’ she said.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own