close-up: Sonia O'Sullivan: Irish heroine out of Africa

Playing catch-up with the Kenyans has inspired a queen of the track in her quest for Olympic gold. Norman Fox reports
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The Independent Online
Running in the park at Teddington near one of many places she calls home, Sonia O'Sullivan often joins a short string of impressive male Kenyan athletes who are, like her, managed and coached by Kim McDonald, and chooses one to catch. "I look at his back and try to picture being in the Olympic final. I know I've got to do it." Usually she does.

The Kenyans include some of the finest middle and long distance runners in the world - Moses Kiptanui, the world steeplechase champion among them - but they treat her as a worthy member of McDonald's elite club. The result is that during the coming week she could add two more gold medals to Ireland's surprising tally by winning both the Olympic 1,500 metres and 5,000m events. Training with the Kenyans has even prepared her for a re-match with the mysterious Chinese runner, Wang Junxia, who mystified everyone in 1993 when she beat O'Sullivan in the 10,000m world championship in Stuttgart. Wang's training was under the dubious stewardship of Ma Junren, who seemed to have discovered the secret of turning good athletes into superior beings. Wang is now the world 10,000m and 3,000m record holder - her best 3,000m is 15 seconds better than O'Sullivan's European record.

The challenge is therefore formidable but O'Sullivan is confident that in a little over a week she will be driving from Dublin to her original home in Cobh with at least one gold medal and with thousands of people lining the 20-mile route, just as they did when she became world champion at 5,000m in Gothenburg last summer. She may not go back to Cobh all that often these days (she lives mainly in London, the United States or Australia) but when she does she gets the full Jack Charlton adoration.

Training with the Kenyans has hardened her but at the same time persuaded her not to waste nervous energy worrying about either her greatest rival or any possible race tactics. "It's a good environment," she said. "The Kenyans don't think scientifically about their racing. They're easy going but positive. They don't get carried away with what times they ought to be running. You can get distracted with things like that. When I'm training with them or on my own, I don't think about the races but then perhaps I see one of them ahead and I chase them as if it's the Olympic final. They run their races unplanned and never dwell on defeats."

Whether O'Sullivan is defeated or not here depends on her finishing speed. It comes from a combination of endurance training, which involves up to 120 miles a week, and speed work, which often sees her run six consecutive sub-one minute 400m laps with only a 90-second recovery time between.

Another priceless virtue is her calmness, which has even survived this most chaotic of Olympic cities. "I don't mind it here at all. I wouldn't say I'd choose to come and train here but for me it's not all that different to anywhere else. I'm not finding the humidity a problem and when I'm out there racing, I'll feel no different to anyone else. If I suffer, I'll know everyone else will as well. But I couldn't be better prepared."

To a large extent, that is down to McDonald, a straightforward Yorkshireman. He says that O'Sullivan has always thrived on tough competition but that when he first worked with her in 1991 "she was just a small girl who needed someone to maximise her potential".

He said: "Up until 1994, she was not completely understanding or listening to her body. She was pushing herself too hard in some races and racing when she should not have been. She is still strong-willed but listens more. She made mistakes but we had to make sure that they were positive ones, things we could learn from. She learned a lot in 1993 and after that we progressively increased the training so that by last year's world championships nobody was going to beat her."

Over the next few days, McDonald will tread warily. "We never discuss races until the night before. You don't want to be driven crazy with worry about what could happen, but being beaten by the Chinese before has made her think harder - it's an incentive, but so is the fear of losing. You get a taste for winning. Sonia has got the taste. Her application is second to none. She knows now that she can pass the exam here but she's still got to sit it."

Taking on both the 1,500m and 5,000m is something O'Sullivan says has never been a matter of debate. "I always wanted to run both races - I don't even think which is my better event. In the 5,000m, I often feel more confident because it gives you more time to make up for any mistakes you may make. It's an easier event to control. In the Olympics it comes first, which helps a lot."

She refuses to be drawn into any controversy about the Chinese achievements - and how they might have come about. "All I know is that they have set standards I have to beat." Their total involvement from an early age has something to do with it. O'Sullivan was a good enough junior athlete herself, but later had to earn a living. "In 1989, I didn't do any running until almost the end of the summer. I was working in a bar. Every night I got home in the early hours so I didn't have time for training." Then, on a whim, she went back to the track and ran a fairly fast 5,000m without any preparation and regained her enthusiasm. "Suddenly I was going to bed by midnight. My mother couldn't believe it."

Earlier, her mother had encouraged her to run for Ballymena Harriers who, for no obvious reason, suggested that O'Sullivan should run the 100m which for a tall (5ft 8in), slim girl was not the obvious choice. Eventually she took up cross country and ran naturally. That later led to her winning the 1,500m and also being second in the 3,000m at the World Student Games of 1991 in Sheffield. A year later, she came fourth in the Olympic 3,000m and McDonald began to persuade her to "think more positively about finishing as anything but the winner". The appearance of the Chinese in 1993 had a damning effect on positive thinking. Three of them had left her behind over 3,000m in Stuttgart, but in the 1,500m she at least finished second.

She recovered her spirits by winning the European 3,000m title and then took advantage of the 5,000m being introduced to the grand prix circuit and the world championships in Gothenburg where she beat one of her main rivals here, Fernanda Ribeiro of Portugal. The time for her last 200m was 28.8sec - a surge that if repeated here could even overwhelm the Chinese.

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