Mile News

Marcus O’Sullivan looks back on his running career

October 28, 2019

In a glittering career, the Cork native amassed three World Indoor triumphs and four Olympic appearances before dedicating himself to reaching 100 sub-4 minute Mile performances.

By Eoin O'Callaghan, The42

There's a wonderful black & white image of Marcus O’Sullivan from 1975. He’s mid-stride and assessing the steep decline as he comes down over a water trough gap in the middle of a cow field. The moment was captured by Kevin Cummins – of the fabled Cork sporting bloodline – who had a keen interest in the South Munster Colleges Cross Country race in Rochestown for two reasons. Firstly, he was an accomplished amateur sports photographer. Secondly, he was a teacher at Coláiste Chríost Rí, the same nursery O’Sullivan proudly helped to success in the team event that day.   

Within five years, O’Sullivan would be at Pennsylvania’s Villanova University on an athletics scholarship. Within a decade, he’d be competing at his first Olympic Games in Los Angeles. But although that 14-year-old had aspirations, his immediate focus was a bit more low-key, though crucial in its own right. 

“Kevin had a display case outside the work shop – for metalwork and woodwork – and would have his film developed by Monday,” O’Sullivan remembers.

“If we did something over the weekend, it was thrilling – really thrilling – to come down on your break because all the photos would be up. You’d be hugely disappointed if he was a day late with them, y’know? But to be a part of that – to see the whole school coming through on their lunch and stopping to look at the photographs – there was an incredible sense of recognition of sorts. To see the photos…it was the closest thing you could get to social media back then. It was important for us. And it gave us an impetus to continue. To see the school recognising us…it wasn’t Gaelic football or hurling but the teachers were proud of it and that was very forthcoming in Kevin’s photographs.”

“I think my dream was to just be good at something. I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be. But I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be the best at something. When that photo was taken, I wasn’t the best. I didn’t win those races. The school races. There was always someone beating me. I didn’t make any international teams. Nobody really knew me as a youth coming through. In a way, I bypassed all of that. I went off, (renowned coach and Irish Olympian) Donie Walsh took me under his wing and catapulted me. The dreams were there but the reality of it being a destined ending certainly wasn’t.”

When he finished school, athletics still wasn’t an option. He didn’t have the times or the profile so nobody was sniffing around. But, he felt like he had something. And Walsh felt it too. So, a plan was devised. O’Sullivan would work intensely on his running for twelve months and then reassess. Maybe, just maybe, he could get fast enough to spark interest. To earn a few bob, he took up a gig making sails down in Kinsale. He’d be up at six, leave home an hour later, return at 5.30 and then train at Leevale. Each night, he’d hit between ten and twelve miles.    

“It was the late-70s / early 80s,” he says.

“Economically, it was tough. I think my job was paying me about 25p an hour. That’s two quid a day. A tenner a week. Then there’s PRSI and all of that. It was a time where you’d hit the pubs at the weekend, spend it and start again on the Monday. But I seemed to be very determined that the money was going in the bank and that something was going to happen at the end of that year. And that I’d be prepared for it. I was very destined to do something. For that year – with Donie’s help and my family’s support – it was a do-or-die situation. Either I was moving on with the project or I wasn’t. And then you meet the right people and put yourself in the right environment. I was blessed, really. But there is definitely more to it than talent. There is a resonance that has to take place. Things have to line up. And I’m fully recognizable of it now. As the years have gone on, I acknowledge it more and more. The talent is one thing but having the determination and luck and opportunities is very, very important.”

Walsh had studied at Villanova and when O’Sullivan ran 3:47 in the 1500 meters at a summer meet the following year, he knew the plan had worked and a recommendation to the university’s legendary coach Jumbo Elliott quickly followed.

I don’t know what it was back then but I think Donie believed in me way more than I could really visualize,” O’Sullivan says.

“He said to me, ‘When Jumbo sees you, he’ll know why I sent you’.”

And, like that, he was bound for America.

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Tags: villanova (8) , olympic games (3) , marcus o'sullivan (9) , legend (90)

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