The narrative will always be there. Being the daughter of a world champion, the woman most consider the greatest Irish athlete in history, that’s inevitable. But while there was a stage when Sophie O’Sullivan’s wanted “nothing to do” with that tag following her around, she has come to accept it.
Plus, being the daughter of Sonia O’Sullivan and leading athletics coach Nic Bideau has its advantages. After all, who better to call ahead of a big race than her mother, who has an Olympic medal, world 5000m title and three European titles, or her father, who’s one of the sport’s foremost distance-running coaches and managers?
“When I was younger, I wanted to do my own thing,” says Sophie. “But now it’s nice you can throw something out there and they know what’s going on. I just like to call and talk (races) through, ask them what they think. They might say something, they might not. I might listen, I might not.”
Sophie has always been one to carve her own path, to write her own tale, while Sonia and Nic have taken a hands-off approach when it comes to her athletics. Ahead of the European Athletics U23 Championships in Espoo, the 21-year-old seems primed to write another chapter in her ascendant tale.
It’s five years since she shot to prominence on the international stage, winning 800m silver at the European Athletics U18 Championships in Gyor, Hungary behind the soon-to-be Olympic 800m silver and European indoor and outdoor champion Keely Hodgkinson.
It had been a rapid rise to that point. Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, Sophie was more interested in basketball and soccer for much of her childhood than athletics. While in high school, she joined the school cross country team, with coach Tim O’Shaughnessy guiding her career throughout her teens.
In the early years, she’d get to Australian underage nationals and get knocked out in the heats, but in 2017 she made a big breakthrough, taking the Australian U17 800m title in 2:10.00, then later, on her 16th birthday, she clocked a huge PB of 2:06.29.
With dual citizenship, she had a choice to make: to represent Ireland or Australia. She opted for Ireland, carrying their colours to the medal rostrum in Gyor, which put her on the radar of multiple US college coaches.
In the end, she chose the University of Washington, a middle-distance powerhouse where she’s about to enter her senior year, studying journalism. Her coach, Mauricia Powell, has steered her talent with a careful hand over the past three years.
“Mauricia is great, I love her,” says O’Sullivan.
It wasn’t smooth sailing as she transitioned to the higher workloads. After developing a stress fracture during her first year in Seattle, then “a few little niggly things” the following year, her times plateaued. There was also the adjustment to a new life, far from home, though the culture shock has been offset by the presence of fellow Australians like Carley Thomas and Irish teammate Brian Fay.
It was only this year that she was able to find true consistency, logging 100-130km per week in training across a lengthy period. The effect was clear in her performances, with O’Sullivan lowering her 1500m PB from 4:17.54 to 4:08.06 to win the NCAA West Regionals in late May. That made her a huge contender for the NCAA title, and she duly won her heat at the NCAA Championships in 4:09.58. But two days later, she got caught in no-man’s land in the final and faded through the field, finishing 12th. Always one to poke fun at herself, she later summed up the race on Instagram: “Picked a s*** day to have a s*** day.”
Looking back, she knows the toll of back-to-back racing probably caught up with her one event too soon. “It’s kind of a long slog,” she says. “In the (final) I kind of went and I didn’t, I didn’t make one decision, I was wasting energy, bouncing around the place, so I think it was a lack of decisiveness.”
Still, it was a valuable lesson to learn at the age of 21, and O’Sullivan has picked up many of them since moving stateside. One that has truly set in this year is about confidence.
“Half the work is believing you can do it,” she says. “You get one race and think, ‘If I can just be a little bit closer, what could I do?’ I try to get a little bit closer every time.”
Bit by bit, month by month, race by race, she’s edging closer to the top level.
“It took me a few years to work out what works for me, and do proper training,” she says. “I’m starting to work it out now. I’ve always been able to compete well enough but I didn’t always have the training to back it up. But having that, once you know you can keep up, you build on that.”
At the recent European Athletics Team Championships in Silesia, her senior international debut for Ireland, she looked more at home than ever, towing the field around at a steady pace in the division three 1500m before unleashing a 59-second last lap to take full points, helping Ireland to victory and promotion to the second division.
“I was going to sit in,” she says. “I’m used to it in America, it’s never people going slow, it’s hardcore, but I went out like that and no one went with it so I ended up in front. I’m not great at getting pace going, so I just ticked away laps and no one passed me.”
When O’Sullivan is in front on the final lap, she has long proven a very hard athlete to get past, her competitive fire coming alight when it matters most. She will get to stoke it again at the upcoming European Athletics U23 Championships, and after being eliminated in the 800m semifinal at the European U20 Championships in 2019, she looks ready to emulate her medal-winning feats at U18 level.
But she knows how championships go – she’s taking nothing for granted.
“I want to give the best effort I can,” she says. “I want to get there, be competitive, get in the final and do the best I can from there.”
Beyond that, O’Sullivan could be in line for a place at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest via her world ranking over 1500m, though that’s a bridge she’ll cross if and when she comes to it. Same goes for the Paris Olympics next year.
“The best way is focusing on one thing at a time,” she says. “If you get too far ahead of yourself, you lose track of what’s going on right now. I’ll start with the U23s and go from there.”
And from there, with her current trajectory, O’Sullivan could go just about anywhere.
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics