Mentality of a champion: the story of Sonia’s greatest gamble

Sonia O’Sullivan was at a crossroads at the end of the 1997 season. Her lucrative contract with Reebok was up. The years following 1995 hadn’t been all we had foreseen or indeed hoped for the darling of Irish sport. No Olympic gold or global title, her star seemed to be fading as fast as it had risen since her fourth place in the 1992 Olympics and subsequent ascent to global superstar.

‘You’re only as good as your last race’ says the cliché and it must be stored on every shoe company’s manifesto. All is well when you’re running well. Not running well? Bye bye contract. Nice knowing you. Athletics is a ruthless business.

Risky business

There were still two offers on the table in front of Sonia to keep the running circus going: one from adidas of a year-long contract with a guaranteed retainer; the other, from Nike, was a two-year deal with no retainer but the potential for significant bonuses if she could win the world cross country and European championships.

The safe runner would hedge their bets and take the offer from adidas. ‘Money in the bank,’ a term that has become synonymous in WWE to guarantee a title shot. In this case it literally was guaranteed money in the bank that Sonia had on the table.

But Sonia O’Sullivan never played it safe. There are many examples, like the time she survived on a diet of just apples for three days. Knowing she had to get to race weight, she would sometimes eat leeks for a few days to shed the pounds, much like a boxer getting ready for weigh-in – this was no eating disorder, though it was obviously an inadvisable approach, but a champion knowing they needed to be at race weight. There was the time a 3,000m time trial didn’t go as planned and so, immediately picking herself up, she returned the following day to repeat. Dominated by the Chinese in 1993, she turned to mammoth training that would eventually lead to injury, even training on stress fractures to complete the training block.

The swoosh and the stripes

But anyway, back to the original point: adidas or Nike?

“My contract with Reebok was up at the end of 1997 and after two years trying to get back to the level I was at in 1995 as World Champion, I was looking for a new deal, but my value was low and essentially I wasn’t an athlete the shoe companies were chasing,” explained O’Sullivan. “I had an offer from adidas with guaranteed payment for one year and an offer from Nike for two years of gear and substantial bonuses if I could get back on top of the podium again.

“At the end of 1997 I was upbeat again and knew I was going in the right direction. Probably after the world championships in 1997 I was definitely at a crossroads then about where to go and what’s next.

“The biggest thing for me was where I was going next. Even at that point I knew I was going to take a big long break. After the world championships I don’t think I ran for about a month. I actually went and ran in the Great North Run for a bit of fun but I hadn’t ran for I don’t know how many weeks. I just ran there for fun and ran ok I think but realised it’s a lot easier to run if you do a bit of training.

“In the back of my mind I had the world cross country so I knew once I started training it was going to be totally focused on doing that. So by the end of 1997 I wasn’t concerned that I didn’t have a contract or anything. I was a bit more concerned with getting my head right and having a bit of direction where I was going with running.

“It was never anything to do with shoe contracts or worried about having shoes on my feet. I think it was more for myself I was kind of getting back feeling good running again and once you get that feeling back you know I believed anything was possible.

“I went with Nike because I wanted to earn my payment and not be rewarded until I felt I deserved to be paid again as a professional athlete. I knew i was training well and I truly believed that I could be the best in the world once again and challenge for a medal at the Olympics in Sydney 2000, which would be my third Olympic games.

“I was willing to take a risk and back myself to get back to best in the world again.”

And that she did, magnificently, in 1998 World Cross Country in Marrakech. She didn’t just win one world cross country title, but came away from Morocco with two. That week, as she left the city to an African sunset, her weekly mileage was 87.

The following week’s training was 101 miles. The bonuses were triggering, O’Sullivan about to be well-rewarded for backing herself to ascend back to the top of the world. The risk paid off.

Sonia's diary for March winning the world cross

Sonia’s diary for March winning the world cross

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Feidhlim Kelly

Feidhlim Kelly

Con Houlihan once told me that tomorrow is now. In taking on this venture I’ve started to try and put his words into action.

I worked for Con from 2007 till his passing in 2012 taking down his copy and a whole lot more. I have a Con Houlihan section which will go in to more depth on that.

I’m a long-time contributor to the Irish Runner magazine and am also working for the Irish Examiner.

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