Sonia O'Sullivan will headline an event in the Salthill Hotel next Wednesday as part of the celebrations to mark 100 years of Irish Schools Athletics.
Despite having resided in Australia for many years, the Cork-born star maintains close ties with her homeland and usually travels back about four times a year. As one of Ireland's most successful athletes, she is certainly well-placed to extoll the benefits of the sport and next week's event will feature a question and answer session. "Athletics is so simple and easy to get involved with, the time and equipment required is minimal and it is the sport that takes the least amount of time to improve your health and fitness. Athletics is also a very good place to start from if you are planning to do other sports and improve your fitness base. In winter running is the warmest activity to be involved with, there is very little standing around and the results are easy to analyse - you get out as much as you put in."
It heartens her that running has enjoyed such a renaissance in latter years. "It is great to see people out and about being active and getting involved with running events. Athletics is a growing sport and it just needs to be developed as a group sport as much as an individual sport. The way to encourage kids to remain in the sport is by doing it with their friends, so there needs to be a way of getting kids to join up as a group and realise that the winners are not the most important, but have equal role as the kids that bring fun and energy to the group."
So as a youngster, when did she realise that she was faster than everybody else? "I ran in primary school, and first started winning in secondary school. When you are rewarded with winning races you just want to keep on doing it and finding ways to get better. Something that really helped in the early days as well was that I was involved with a great club in the town, Ballymore Cobh, and the coaches always created a fun atmosphere for the athletes at training and when we went away to the races on the weekends."
Sonia says she never in her wildest dreams thought she would experience such an amazing level of success. "Running was always just something that I did after school and it just evolved over time. From making my first Irish team while still at school, to going to the US for a scholarship, it was a lot of stepping stones along the way. Sometimes I was forced to take a few steps backwards it was always a great feeling when you got back on a roll again and the momentum starts to build towards the next race."
For somebody who is so into health and fitness, she feels strongly about our escalating obesity problem. "The world is getting fatter and the problem is meals as we know them. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are just a guide, when in reality you should eat when you are hungry not because of the time of day. It starts at a very young age - kids should only be drinking water - there is no need for sports drinks. I don’t use sports drinks unless I'm training for a marathon."
Well placed to give some advice about how we can stem this tide, she says we must go back to basics and stop eating so much processed food. "Eat less is probably the obvious answer and move more but there is another part to this simple equation, we need to eat the right foods. I don’t think low fat and diet products are the answer - we need less packaging and more fruit and vegetables. Things like bananas, tomatoes, avocado, potatoes, fish, chicken, lamb or pork, eggs, and sardines, regularly feature in my diet and I don't think you will go far wrong eating natural foods like that."
And she is certainly a testament to this healthy way of living, still retaining the leanness of her running days. A healthy diet and regular exercise regime are as much a part of her life as ever and she balances cardio work with yoga. "I have plenty aches and pains and niggles so I run enough to keep me satisfied and content. I balance the running with some swimming and cycling where I can push myself a bit harder and increase my HR as I can’t run as fast anymore!"
She hit the headlines again recently due to the revelation that the Chinese runners who beat her at the World Championships in 1993 were part of a high profile doping regime. This was something that had been long suspected and she hopes the confirmation is just one more step towards a cleaner sport. "The truth always comes out and it is a lesson for everyone at the end of the day you are only cheating yourself and you have to live with this for the rest of your life. Again it just proves there needs to be greater regulation by the IAAF and accountability also to those that let this happen over time while looking people like me in the eye knowing the injustice that they were allowing to take place. You can’t think too much about what could’ve been or what might’ve been. I can’t go back to that time but hopefully it will be a step closer to having a cleaner future for athletics that may provide greater opportunities for athletes competing at the Olympic Games this summer."
+An evening with Sonia O'Sullivan takes place on Wednesday March 2 at the Salthill Hotel, from 6-9pm. Tickets are €10 for adults and €5 for students and U18s. A talk with Sonia will be followed with open Q and A session and photo opportunities. Tickets can be purchased at eventbrite.ie