Athletics: Street smell of success for O'Sullivan

Ireland's golden girl will be the North's leading light today
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The Independent Online
HAVING GOT her running career back on the metaphorical road in 1998, Sonia O'Sullivan ends her racing programme for the year on the 13.1 mile stretch of Tarmacadam from Newcastle to South Shields today. It seems appropriate that she should do so as the star attraction in the 40,000 field entered for the Bupa Great North Run. Some 227,000 footsloggers have made it to the seaside finish in the 17 years of the Tyneside half- marathon. The first of that 227,000, back in 1981, was Mike McLeod. He was coached by Alan Storey, the man who has guided O'Sullivan back on the path to gold.

At South Shields Town Hall on Friday the woman from Cobh was introduced as track and field's golden girl of 1998. Indeed, with a pair of winner's medals from the world cross country championships in Marrakesh in March and another two from the European championships in Budapest in August, she could have outdazzled the chain-draped mayor and even the bejewelled Sir Jimmy Savile, who will be wearing number 40,000 today. As it was, O'Sullivan's smile shone brightest of all as she reflected on the glittering new chapter she has added to a running story that ran out of sparkle in 1996 and 1997.

Casting her mind back to March last year, "Ireland's favourite daughter", as she was introduced to the crowd before the All-Ireland Gaelic football final at Dublin's Croke Park last Sunday, recalled how her running life was "at the crossroads". It was while returning from the world cross country championships in Turin, where she had finished ninth, that John Treacy, the Olympic marathon silver medallist in 1984 and the only Irish athlete to have won the Great North Run, suggested she should turn to Storey for direction.

It proved to be a turning point for O'Sullivan. After failing to deliver her golden promise (or the consolation of silver or bronze) at the Atlanta Olympics and at the world championships last year, the 5,000m world champion of 1995 has returned to mint condition under Storey. The assurance of old was back in O'Sullivan's long, elegant stride in Marrakesh. So was the speed, and the strength. She won the world cross country long-course race with consumate ease, striding clear of Paula Radcliffe in the finishing straight, and won the short- course event at a similar canter the next day. Then, six weeks ago, she became the first woman to achieve a European 5,000m and 10,000m double, outkicking Gabriela Szabo, the world champion, at the former distance and Fernanda Ribeiro, the Olympic champion, at the latter.

O'Sullivan's is another success story for Storey, the fiftysomething guru who sardonically refers to himself as "a nearly-failed distance runner". A London to Brighton veteran at the age of 22 and a 2hr 32min marathon runner in his prime, Storey has coached McLeod to Olympic 10,000m silver, Mark Rowland to Olympic steeplechase bronze, Jon Solly to Commonwealth 10,000m gold and Hugh Jones and Allister Hutton to London Marathon victories. His influence has extended from Kentucky, home of Mark Nenow, whom he helped break the American 10,000m record 10 years ago, to China, where he worked for two years as an adviser to the national federation.

It is at the Norbiton track at Kingston-upon-Thames that Storey, general manager of the Flora London Marathon, has nurtured his Irish thoroughbred. "I train there with Alan's group on Tuesday nights," O'Sullivan, a resident of Teddington, said. "It's the most important thing I do. Everything else is based around that session. Alan tells me what I've got to do. I've just got to go out and do it."

What O'Sullivan will have to do today, if she wants to follow in the victorious footsteps of McLeod and Treacy, is finish ahead of a fellow European champion. Manuela Machado, the Portuguese winner of the marathon gold medal in Budapest, is likely to be the main threat. O'Sullivan will be racing the half-marathon distance for the first time, though she gained first-foot knowledge of the undulating course 12 months ago. Running with the main pack rather than the elite women's field, she clocked 75min as a less-than-serious Great North Runner.

"Last year it was a Sunday training run for me," O'Sullivan said. "I was scared for my life, that I might get run over by 36,000 runners, but it was great fun. But this year it's different. I've trained for it."

So what kind of target will this year's leading lady entrant be setting herself on the Great North Run clock? "A winning time would be good," she said - with a winning smile.