Athletics: O'Sullivan harbours great expectations for Sydney

Simon Turnbull hears a champion set new goals for life after birth
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SONIA O'SULLIVAN, the golden girl of track and field in 1998, will be having a golden girl of her own this year - or a golden boy, perhaps. After taking a quartet of major titles in her elegant stride last year (the world cross-country long-course and short-course championships and the European 5,000m and 10,000m crowns), the Irish trailblazer has reached a pregnant pause. Her first child is due in June. Not that impending motherhood has ended her great athletics expectations. Indeed, she hopes to deliver on the medal front in the Sydney Olympics next year.

Four months into her pregnancy, O'Sullivan is still running 90 miles a week in Melbourne, where she has been based with her Australian partner Nick Bideau since the turn of the year. "I wear a heart rate monitor all the time to make sure I'm not doing anything too mad," she said. "The doctors reckon that so long as I'm not doing anything extra strenuous and not feeling aches and pains I can go along as normal. I don't know when I'll compete again but I intend it to be this year.

"I've been thinking about a family for a while. I'm 29 years old now and when you are a runner there is no perfect time. For Sydney, I'm hoping that everything will fall into place."

Scientific study suggests that it probably will. As the Russian physiologist Vladimir Kuznetsov concluded: "The birth of a child seems to strengthen the organism physiologically and gives some form of reserve of energy. Psychologically, too, it seems that women are more prepared to train hard after giving birth."

Liz McColgan was back in training 12 days after the birth of her daughter, Eilish, in November 1990. Four months later she was on the podium at the world cross-country championships in Antwerp. "That Liz McColgan is an animal," Lynn Jennings, who beat the Scot and Deratu Tulu in a sprint finish, respectfully remarked. The next summer Jennings was an also- ran behind the victorious McColgan in the world champ- ionship 10,000m final in Tokyo.

With ironic timing, the day after O'Sullivan's pregnancy was announced McColgan revealed that she is expecting her second child in September, ruling her out of the London marathon in April but not, even at 34, out of the running game for good. "I'm now setting my sights on running the London marathon next year and the Olympic marathon in Sydney," she said. "I'm really looking forward to both."

There have been many other women who have become the mother of all athletes after bearing children: Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Flying Dutchwoman who won a record four gold medals at the London Olympics in 1948, three years after the birth of her second child; Ingrid Kristiansen, the Norwegian who set world records for 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon within two years of her son's birth in 1983; and Svetlana Masterkova, the Russian who won the Olympic 800m and 1500m titles in 1996, a year after giving birth to a daughter.

Pregnancy, though, is not a guaranteed passport to greater running success. Mary Slaney and Joan Samuelson both failed to recapture their old form after entering motherhood and it was not an easy road back for Kirsty Wade either. The fastest ever British-born women's miler and the winner of three Commonwealth titles (at 800m in 1982 and at 800m and 1500m in 1986), she returned after the birth of her first child - Rachel in 1989 - to finish sixth in the world championship 1500m in 1991 and to reach the Olympic 1500m semi-finals in Barcelona in 1992. But her quickest times were all behind her.

"The physiological benefits are well documented," she said, "but there are other things involved. For some people there are practicalities to worry about, like going back to work or how to juggle child-care with part-time work and training. It's not just that. You stop being self- orientated. You have a baby who becomes very much a pull on your energies. For me, that perhaps took away some of the hunger for athletics.

"But for some people it can act as not so much a spur as put their athletics into perspective in a way that helps them. You know: no matter how badly you've run, you go home and switch off. And you go back to train again without castigating yourself endlessly. For me, though, going away for a major championship was really difficult. I hated it. I hated leaving Rachel. I used to have photos of her all over my room. There is a bigger picture to consider beyond the physiological benefits."

That picture has become an even bigger one for Wade, who is living on the Isle of Lewis after selling the fitness centre she ran on Tyneside with her husband and coach, Tony. As well as Rachel, who is nine now, the Wades have a four-year-old son, Alex. And Kirsty, while preparing to make a semi-serious comeback at the age of 36, has discovered that she - like her two old rivals and friends - is pregnant, too.

"I'm not in the same category as Sonia or Liz," she stressed. "I was only thinking about running in the world veterans' championships at Gateshead in the summer. It was just a personal aim: to get back and see what was in the tank." That, however, was before the tank revealed its nice little surprise for Mrs and Mr Wade.