Former Olympian inspires area children

O'Sullivan visits X-Treme Youth Running Camp in Newton

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By Laurie Gordon

— Marcus O'Sullivan is the Derek Jeter of running.

He's humble about his accomplishments, he's approachable, an ambassador of the sport and he remains perpetually eager to inspire kids to set goals and push themselves to be the best they can be.

Earlier this month, he addressed 60 campers and staff at the X-Treme Youth Running Camp in Newton, and left a huge impression on them about the importance of goal setting and not being afraid to follow dreams.

O'Sullivan's illustrious, 15-year running career began during a post-church walk with his family when he was about seven years old.

“I asked my dad if I could make an Olympic team,” O'Sullivan said.

His father didn't blink at his son's dream, but rather practically answered, “The '76 games will be too early and the 1980 games in Moscow is too early, too. I think 1984 is a good year.”

They never spoke of that conversation again, but O'Sullivan said his father's response had planted a seed.

O'Sullivan went out for his first running team, but he was too small and when the girls beat him, he quit.

At the end of middle school, he volunteered for the team, but he was told it was a tough sport and he was too small.

Finally, in high school, a teacher made trying out for the cross country team mandatory.

“A hundred twenty kids were running around a small, crowded field,” O'Sullivan said, “I just kept on running and someone grabbed me and said 'number four, you're on the team.'”

Still, though he ran in high school, he said his times weren't earth shattering.

It wasn't until after high school when O'Sullivan met a coach named Donald Walsh that his running turned the corner.

But it wasn't easy.

He would ride a bus an hour to work each day in Ireland and return home tired from his day.

Undaunted, he would eat supper, take a nap and arise to train from 8 to 10 p.m.

His house had no refrigerator or dryer, and he used a little heater in his room to dry his soggy running clothes after each workout.

He trained his heart out, but balancing that with work resulted in a case of Mono.

“Maybe that showed how important rest is,” he said, because after five weeks off after doing all that training, O'Sullivan came back to take his 4:25 mile down to a 4:05 which landed him a college scholarship to Villanova University.

In 1984, just as his father had projected, O'Sullivan made the 1984 Olympic team, and he went on to qualify for three more Olympic games in 1988, 1992 and 1996.

He won three gold medals at the World Indoor Championships in the 1,500 meter race and traveled the world competing in different countries.

One of the most important stories he told the campers was about finding a little trophy still in bubble wrap in his basement changed the course of his career.

“I was 32-years old and was getting tired of the competition. It was a rainy day and I was cleaning the basement when I found a little trophy which I knew I'd won when I first broke the four minute mile.”

The find made O'Sullivan curious as to how many times he'd broken four minutes for the mile. His coaches had preached the importance of keeping running diaries, so he poured over them and discovered he'd done it a lot. Instantly, he went from wanting to retire to having a goal of beating the standard over 100 times, a goal that kept his career going for another five years.

He stressed the importance of finding and setting new goals.

Prominent masters runner, John Stolz traveled to X-Treme Running Camp from Oregon to volunteer as a a counselor.

“O'Sullivan is so humble about his accomplishments and tells the kids in terms they can understand what it takes to set goals and strive for their dreams,” he said. “He also talked about the significance of helping other people through his running rather than harping on the glory.”

To this end, O'Sullivan said one time, he and four other professional runners from Ireland were asked to come home to a particular stadium in Dublin in August of 1985 to see if they could relay and beat the world record.

O'Sullivan said they didn't want to take the time out from their schedules to do so, but eventually did.

“We arrived and the stadium was empty,” he recalled.

Questioning the whole thing, they went on a warm up run. They returned a little while later to a packed stadium.

“People literally had poured out of their homes to pack the stadium including lots of Irish sports celebrities,” O'Sullivan said.

There was no entrance fee, but buckets were passed around and they raised $40,000 that night for local worthy causes.

O'Sullivan, Ray Flynn, Eamonn Coghlan and Frank O'Mara established a world record that night in the four-times-a-mile relay running 15:49.8.

“It showed us how self-centered we could be, and is something none of us will ever forget,” O'Sullivan said.

His underlying, driving message to the campers was to stick to their goals and to have dreams.

“A dream is just a dream unless you don't fill that gap with practical applications to get there. You have to have dreams,” he said.

O'Sullivan splits his time between coaching at Villanova University and the family farm in Sussex County.

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