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Sonia O’Sullivan wins double gold

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Mark Jones

If there were legitimate doubts over her form and even her future, Sonia O’Sullivan laid to them rest in emphatic style last week. Double gold medal performances in the 10,000 and 5,000 meters finals at the European Championships in Budapest put the Cobh athlete firmly back at the very top of women’s distance running.

With brilliant tactical appreciation and blinding sprint finishes in both finals, O’Sullivan cast off the shadows of her disappointing recent seasons on the track. This time the downbeat athlete who had flopped at both the Atlanta Olympics and at last summer’s World Championships in Athens was replaced by the confident, composed Sonia of old.

Although she had demonstrated a new found strength after an impressive winter’s training by winning both the long and short races at the World Cross-country championships in Morocco last March, her summer form hadn’t been much to shout about. But in Budapest, the 28 year old was unquestionably the dominant athlete of the championships.

She now holds European titles at 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters to add to her World success at 5,000 in Sweden in 1995. With this return to the peak of her powers, O’Sullivan is back on course to win that elusive Olympic medal in Sydney in 2000.

"I’ve seen the pictures of my face when I lined up in Athens last year and you could see the anxiety," she admitted. "If someone had shouted my name from the stands I would have frozen. Since then I have come to realize that athletics is not that big a deal. You do this every day, so why should you be scared?"

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Last week, the fear had gone. For the first time in a couple of years, O’Sullivan was in control of her own destiny. "I’m still surprised at the way it has worked out for me. A month ago I wasn’t even thinking about the 10,000 and here I am a double European champion."

O’Sullivan’s golden week began last Wednesday with a stunning victory in the 10,000 meters. Competing over the distance for the very first time in her career, she stalked the reigning Olympic champion, Fernanda Ribeiro, and England’s Paul Radcliffe for almost the entire race. "There were times out there when it felt extremely tough," she said. However, there wasn’t the slightest sign of fatigue when she destroyed her rivals over the final 200 meters — covered in a staggering 28 seconds — to win in a time of 31 minutes, 29.33 seconds.

Her manager, Kim McDonald, might readily admit to bias, but no one was arguing when he reckoned it was a performance that confirmed O’Sullivan as "one of the best ever."

If her new attitude, no doubt fostered by her new coach, an Englishman Alan Storey, could propel her to such an impressive gold over the unchartered territory of 10,000 meters, surely then she would be in pole position over her customary distance of 5,000.

And so it panned out on Sunday. Showing no signs of wear and tear from her earlier efforts, O’Sullivan once again left the pace to other competitors in a cat and mouse final. However, the threat from Romania’s Gabriela Szabo, who had beaten Sonia several times over 1500 meters this season, was always a real one, but once again when it came to a spring finish, no one could live with the Irish athlete.

"I could hardly feel my legs coming down the home straight," she said, "I couldn’t believe this was all happening to me again in the space of a few days." O’Sullivan’s winning time was 15 minutes, 6.50 seconds, comfortably clear of Szabo in second place. The double gold made her the first woman to win both the 5,000 and the 10,000 at a major championship.

There was also a medal for another Cork native when Mark Carroll captured the bronze with a superb display in a highly competitive 5,000 final. Forced to cut out much of the pace himself, a graduate of Providence College, Rhode Island, Carroll held bravely for third behind the winner Spain’s Isaac Viscosia in 13 minutes, 38.15.

There was no such good fortune for James McIlroy, but the emerging Ballymena athlete confirmed his massive potential with a fourth place in the 800 meters in 1:45.46. McIlroy only took up serious training 18 months ago and in that time has carved nearly 15 seconds off his personal best.

Susan Smith could only manage eighth and last place in the 400 meters hurdles final, while medal prospect Nick Sweeney disappointingly failed to qualify for the discus final

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