Irish middle-distance runner bounced back from disappointment to exceed expectations

Sophie O’Sullivan’s brilliantly unexpected season came to a close in September with a series of personal best times, most notably an Irish under-23 3000m record of 8:44.72, the third-fastest ever by an Irish athlete behind Mary Cullen (8:43.74i) and her mother, Sonia O’Sullivan (8:21.64). It was a fitting conclusion to a summer of incredible highs inspired by the briefest of low points.

Finishing 12th in June’s NCAA 1500m final wasn’t part of the plan. The University of Washington athlete, who had substantially reduced her personal best to win the West Regionals in May, had been a serious contender. It wasn’t to be. “Picked a s*** day to have a s*** day,”  wrote the self-deprecating 21-year-old on Instagram in the aftermath.

Her immediate response – to take maximum points on her senior debut for Ireland in the European Athletics Team Championships (division three) and to win European under-23 1500m gold – says as much about O’Sullivan as a person as it does about her as an athlete.

“I decided I was going to put my head down and really try hard to make something of my season. I wanted something good and I was going to get it,” says the 2018 European under-18 800m silver medallist.

“I felt like I needed to win at the European U23s. There was just a minute at the NCAAs where I kind of lost focus. One minute is not who you are, but I didn’t want people to think that when there’s a big stage, or a big competition, that I just can’t do it. It was nice to turn around and be like, ‘That’s not true, I’m not a headcase!’

Sophie O’Sullivan (Getty)

“A friend of mine said to me recently, ‘I think everything happens for a reason’. I usually don’t like that saying but in some sense I think maybe they were right. If I hadn’t had that [NCAA disappointment] then maybe I’d have been happy enough with my season and then I’d have been like, ‘Well, do I even need to come over to Europe?’. I mean, I’d have still come, but it all came together.”

Throughout the summer, O’Sullivan’s stock rose sharply. Her 4:07.18 PB at the European Under-23 Championships was soon obliterated with a 4:02.15 in the heats of the World Championships in Budapest, an event that hadn’t even featured in her initial 2023 summer plans.

With opportunity came belief, and with belief came results that far exceeded her own dreams and expectations.

“Once I made the [World Championships] team, people were telling me I could definitely make it out of the heats if I gave it a good crack,” she says. “People talk like it’s possible, so you start to believe it yourself.”

O’Sullivan will have another shot at the NCAAs. Now in her fourth year studying journalism, she credits Huskies coach Maurica Powell for her continued support, from negotiating a tough freshman year (“I probably wasn’t doing as much as I needed to be doing”) to this summer’s extended competition season in Europe. She has learned a lot in the interim.

“You realise [when you go to college] that you can’t get by on nothing anymore, you have to actually try, you have to really train hard,” she says. “I thought I was training hard, but I didn’t realise there was more I could do.

“That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the last year or two – I’ve realised there’s more I can do. Even this year, I did more, but at the end of the season I was like, ‘I’m still not doing everything I could do; I think I could do so
much better’.

“It’s just kind of funny how it all shifts. With the Worlds, at first I was just happy to go, but then I wanted to make it out of the heats. I was really happy to run a PB, but at the same time I wanted more than that. Next year, I’ll definitely try and make it into the semis in Paris, but I want to see if I can go one step further. You’ve got to dream big.”

» This feature first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here