James Sullivan has been exploiting his little black book of contacts and has been chatting to a few top class athletes from the recent past and present. Later this week we’ll be hearing from a two time European champion and leading Irish contender at next years Olympics (not too hard to guess who!) but we wanted to start with a World Championship Silver medallist and World Record holder. Step forward Gillian O’Sullivan
Gillian O’Sullivan is a retired elite race walker from County Kerry, Ireland. She finished 10th in the 20K Walk at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and 4th at the 2002 European Championships in Munich. Her crowning achievement was claiming the silver medal at the 2003 World Championships in Paris becoming the first Irish medallist since Sonia O’Sullivan’s 5000m gold 8 years earlier. She holds the Irish record (1:27:22) for the 20K Walk and in 2002 she broke the world record for the 5000m walk with a time of 20:02, a record which still stands.
James: Hi Gillian, great to chat to you again and thanks for agreeing to be grilled for the Running Review! Easy question first, how did you first get involved in athletics?
Gillian: Thank you! I started with my local athletic club, Spa Muckross in Killarney. I tried most events at different stages. I found that I was definitely better at endurance by the time I was 12. I later changed to Farranfore Maine Valley when I was a senior athlete.
James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?
Gillian: I definitely remember watching John Treacy win his Olympic medal in 1984. That was my earliest memory. As a teenager, I was motivated by Sonia O Sullivan who was outstanding. It was brilliant to see an athlete from Ireland dominating the world stage.
James: What drew you to race walking over other track and field events?
Gillian: I tried the race walk for community games. I won in Kerry and then won in Mosney. I think I picked up the technique quickly and found that I was good at it so it was great to do an event that I was having success with.
James: We can’t look back at your career without mentioning your huge achievements… Starting with the medals, how would you describe the 24th August 2003, the day you won silver at the World Championships in Paris?
Gillian: It was a very special day for me and also my family and friends. It made all the years of training worthwhile. It was also a great day for my coach who was there with me all the way. It was fantastic to get to that level and that everything went right for me on the day. My best memory was meeting all my family and friends outside the stadium when I was finished.
James: Along with Sonia O’Sullivan, Eamonn Coghlan and Olive Loughnane you are one of just four Irish athletes to have medalled at the World Championships outdoors. Do you ever sit back and reflect on being in such illustrious company? How does that feel?
Gillian: Now that I am not competing anymore, I think I appreciate what I have done more and more. I don’t really dwell on it on a day to day level but there is a great sense of achievement knowing that I have achieved so much.
James: Excluding Paris what was your career highlight?
Gillian: Setting the world record for 5km in Dublin in 2002 is a great highlight. Also, my Irish record in the 20km is also a highlight.
James: After the highs of 2003 you were cursed with injury for the remainder of your career and missed out on the 2004 Athens Olympics. How disappointing was it to be denied the opportunity of challenging for an Olympic medal during your prime?
Gillian: It was extremely disappointing. I had a fantastic 2003 and a really disappointing 2004. I was never able to get over my injury and had to decide to retire in 2007. It was very disappointing but I have great memories of the times I did well and I don’t regret anything I did.
James: Since your success Irish race walking has gone from strength to strength with Olive Loughnane claiming silver at the 2009 World Championships and Robert Heffernan inching closer to major championship medals. In addition the record breaking performances of the youngster Kate Veale indicate that the future will be just as bright as the present. Why do you feel Ireland have become so successful at race walking over the last 10 years?
Gillian: I think that we all started out together and we happened to come along at the same time. This also motivated everyone to do well. There are great coaches in Ireland and also they are not afraid to seek advice from outside Ireland in order to develop the sport.
James: At last year’s European Championships in Barcelona Robert Heffernan walked the 50km race at sub 3 hour marathon pace, quicker than most people can run the distance. Do you feel that some people do not appreciate the extraordinary athletic ability of race walkers?
Gillian: Absolutely!! Not many people understand that the women walk 7 min/mile or under for 20km. Most average runners in road races around Ireland run about this speed or slower. It is a tough sport as not only do you have to train hard to walk fast but you also have to keep the technical side under control whilst walking this speed.
James: How do you rate the prospects of the Irish team at the 2012 Olympic Games in London?
Gillian: I think there will be some great performances. It is the nearest we will ever get to having a home Olympics. The support for the Irish will be fantastic and this will certainly help the athletes.
James: What should be done to get more young Irish people into athletics rather than the traditional sports of football, rugby and GAA? How can the profile of the sport in Ireland be improved?
Gillian: I think that more has to be done at a primary school level. Athletics can help all sports so the basic fundamental skills should be developed at an early age. The local athletic clubs work really hard and there is great credit due to them. They must be supported more at a local level to keep the kids that they have to stay in athletics.
James: Since retiring from competitive athletics you have set up Gillian O’Sullivan Health and Fitness. Can you describe the specific work that you do?
Gillian: I work as a personal trainer and I also do fitness classes, based in Cork. I deal mainly with “ordinary” people who want to improve their fitness and also lose weight. It’s not all elite athletes! That said, I do have developmental athletes from GAA who want to improve their strength and conditioning. I also train the Ballincollig Camogie team who have done really well in the last 2 years. The work is varied and this makes it interesting.
James: How important is it for people to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle?
Gillian: It is becoming more and more important. We are leading more sedentary lives and there is more food at our disposal. For that reason, health and fitness is essential. People are becoming more conscious that they have to do something about their health before it gets too late. There are increasing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. These are directly related to poor eating and lack of physical activity.
James: That great Gillian, thanks a million for your time.
Gillian: No problem James, good to talk to you!
Gillian O’Sullivan runs Gillian O’Sullivan Health and Fitness in Cork where she delivers personal training to corporate clients and individuals, with specific programs for Brides to be, seniors, those with health concerns as well as sports specific plans. If you want to be trained by a World Record holder then contact her through her website or by email