The Way I See It

By Pat Bigold

Tuesday, March 24, 1998

Irish eyes have reason
to smile: O’Sullivan’s back

SHE ducked away from the media at the finish line in the Waikiki Mile last December, disappearing into a flood of humanity on Kalakaua Avenue.

No need to talk. She'd crashed and burned again in an elite international field.

Sonia O'Sullivan's slump had hit its low. After setting the course record the year before, she finished seventh in Waikiki, behind runners who used to finish well behind her.

The manner in which she slipped away after the race indicated that O'Sullivan was suffering.

Before the race, she'd sat in the preparation tent at Kapiolani Park, chatting quietly with fellow Irish native, Marcus O'Sullivan (no relation), the older, wiser track statesman.

Was she asking Marcus to unravel the mystery of why she had fallen from the pinnacle of women's distance running to the bottom, and had remained there for a year and a half?

No one close to the lady whose smiling eyes belied her discomfort would discuss her personal plight.

SONIA O'Sullivan took the world by storm in 1995, earning the 5,000-meter world championship and earning the No. 1 ranking in the world for the 5,000-, 3,000- and 1,500-meters that year by Track and Field News.

She was expected to win at least one (5,000) and possibly two (1,500) gold medals for Ireland at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

The Irish press was delirious with anticipation over O'Sullivan's events after an Irish swimmer unexpectedly captured two gold medals. It was to be the greatest Olympics ever for the Emerald Isle.

But the tall, lean native of Cobh succumbed to a stomach ailment during the 5,000-meter race and dropped out. She stuffed her belongings into a gym bag, pulled on her black tights and disappeared into the night with tears streaming down her face.

She also failed badly in the 1,500 meters.

A few months later, she came to Honolulu and cruised to victory in the Waikiki Mile. She still had a look of dominance.

But the year that followed was strewn with even more disappointment. The low point came in the World Championships, when O'Sullivan fell to eighth in the 5,000 and seventh in the 1,500.

She couldn't buy a win. That continued when she returned here last December and lost her course record to Regina Jacobs.

The track world wondered what could be wrong with O'Sullivan. No one could put a finger on it. Some said it was a romantic complication, some said it was physical and others said she might have just lost her confidence.

WHATEVER it was, it doesn't matter. O'Sullivan is back, and in sensational style.

Last weekend in Marrakech, Morocco, O'Sullivan won the 8,000 and 4,000-meter events on successive days in the world cross-country championships.

That she was able to win the longer-course title in the African-dominated field was stunning enough. But to go against the advice of her coaches and conquer the shorter course with precious little rest was nothing short of incredible.

The whole weekend was incredible because O'Sullivan is not a cross-country runner.

She told reporters that as soon as she crossed the finish line in the 8,000, she knew she could win the other race, too.

Sounds like the old O'Sullivan.

I'm glad we'll get a chance to see her take her new self-confidence for a spin on Kalakaua Avenue this December.

Pat Bigold has covered sports for daily newspapers
in Hawaii and Massachusetts since 1978.

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