Neither had a promising start.
The first time Marcus O’Sullivan tried running, he was beaten by all of the boys and most of the girls. The first time Cornell Thomas played basketball, he was a “baby deer” with zero coordination.
Each came into his own, nevertheless. O’Sullivan competed for Ireland at four Summer Olympics and is one of the world’s all-time best runners. Thomas is a former basketball coach, player, and trainer turned international speaker and author.
At X-Treme Running Camp, which kicked off on Monday, the two athletes regaled the 40-plus campers with inspiration and stories of some incredible journeys.
‘Win or lose, it’s yesterday’s news’
O’Sullivan coaches at Villanova University and has a farm in Sussex County. As a young boy, he told his father he wanted to compete in the Olympics, though he didn’t know what sport he would compete in. His father made an astute calculation.
“They plan the location of the games about decade out, and he pondered and landed on 1986,” O’Sullivan said. “We never spoke of that talk again.”
O’Sullivan eventually discovered his inner talent and was recruited to run for Villanova University. It all went okay. Then as a junior, he was part of his school’s relay team, competing at the prestigious Penn Relays.
“Showing up big there meant a lot to the school,” O’Sullivan said. “But that year, for the first time in 20 years, we walked away having lost. I had been the relay’s anchor and felt I’d let the team down and myself down. I had also simultaneously broken up with my girlfriend. It was a low time.”
Years later, he’d marry that girlfriend. Mary is his biggest fan. As to the defeat, he and his coach went through his running log.
“He told me I was ‘an absolute disgrace,’” O’Sullivan said. “He said, ‘You’ve discovered a gift, and you’re wasting it.’”
A different type of hard-core training started the next day. O’Sullivan had planned to give up on both running and Villanova, but he returned.
“After that talk with my coach, I felt relieved and re-energized and like I was on a journey,” he said, “And that’s a lesson to be learned not just with running but in everything you do in life. Believe in yourself.”
O’Sullivan spoke about his Olympic experiences in Los Angeles, Korea, Barcelona, and Atlanta remembering his fondest as LA.
“We were on a bus to the stadium and it broke down,” he said. “We asked the police to help us get there and they said the couldn’t until one guy said it would be ‘an international courtesy.’ Approval was granted, and guys from all different countries piled into police cars to get there just in time for our races.”
O’Sullivan calls the Olympic trials even more exciting even than the Olympics.
“Family and extended family are in the stands and athletes are laying it all on the line to qualify for the Olympics,” he said.
When O’Sullivan turned 32, he was planning to retire until he looked through his running logs — which he calls his “diaries” — and realized he’d broken the four-minute mile more than 50 times. Re-juiced, he set out to break it 100 times — which he did — traveling all over the world to do so. At 35, he hit his personal best in the 1500-meter event.
Ali Schutte, who runs cross country and track for Messiah Collage and is counselor at the camp, asked O’Sullivan which current runners were his favorite.
“I like the old school runners like Shalane Flanagan,” he said.
Then he asked the campers, “What is it that shoe companies, like Nike, are looking for these days when they sponsor a runner?” before answering his own question: “Social media. So many deserving athletes are passed over for the big sponsorships because the shoe companies are looking for those who are popular on social media instead of seeking out sheer talent as they used to. It’s a shame. Popularity on social media wins.”
O’Sullivan stopped reading his results years ago.
“Win or lose, it’s yesterday’s news,” he said. “You need to take the win or the loss for what it was and move forward to the next race, in running, and in life.”
‘Being interested and being committed’
Cornell Thomas agrees there’s a lot of minutiae on social media and encouraged the campers to rise above it.
“You win, in any sport or any aspect of life, boom, it’s up on social media and makes it larger than life,” he said. “But if you lose, it beats you down and beats you down and makes it a million tines worse.”
A few years ago, Thomas realized that folks were using social media largely to complain or draw attention to themselves.
“Oh, my turtle Shelly died today, poor me, follow me or like this and I’ll give you more sad stories,” he said. “I wanted to turn it around and lose the pity party on social media, so a few years ago, I started creating positive, motivating quotes and posting them. They received a huge response.”
Thomas lost his father when he was four. From then on, it was his mom who became his role model.
“She had to raise five kids and always looked not at the problem with money or anything,” he said, “She looked for the solution.”
Thomas was 16 when he discovered basketball, thanks to a cousin who played it at a high level.
“There’s a big difference in being interested and being committed to something,” he said. “I wasn’t so great when I started out, but I was committed to make it to the pros so I spent six to seven hours out on the court no matter the weather.”
Thomas sat on the bench a lot in high school but came into his own at Sussex County Community College (SCCC) as a player. As high school graduation was approaching, his mom told him she couldn’t afford to send him to college.
“This is the lady who never said the word ‘can’t,’” he said. “I had learned from her and took two years off to work and save money to go to college.”
He also worked on his basketball, so much so that after two years at SCCC, earned a scholarship to play for North Dakota University, and was playing with NBA-bound college players.
“I got there because of sacrifice,” he said. “I always put my mom first and loved the idea that I would get far enough with my basketball that she wouldn’t have to work again. It was mom at the top of the list, and everything else fell below that.”
His dream was coming to fruition. As he finished school, his agent had gotten him a contract to play professionally in Portugal. A week before he was to leave, Thomas was playing in a friendly half-court game with his buddies when he heard a pop. His Achilles tendon had ruptured, and he needed surgery.
“I didn’t let my mom know how serious it was and called my buddy to take me to SCCC, which was near where we lived, to shoot from a chair while I healed,” he said.
Recovery didn’t go as well as planned, and the pro contract fell through. While practicing at SCCC, he was asked to help out with a summer camp and then, as fate would have it, the basketball coach left. At only 26, Thomas was asked to be head coach. He went on to coach at Blair Academy and started his own basketball regime with AAU coaching, camps, and motivational speaking. People liked his talks so much, he expanded into speaking internationally.
“That injury led me to all of this and the realization that you need to say ‘What now?’ instead of ‘Why me?’ in the face of adversity,” he said. “I believe motivation is intrinsic. Believe in yourself, set goals and don’t let white noise or naysayers ever lead you astray.”
The week-long X-Treme Running Camp, being held at at Lodestar Park in Newton, is celebrating its 20th year after a hiatus due to Covid in 2020.
“After that talk with my coach, I felt relieved and re-energized and like I was on a journey. And that’s a lesson to be learned not just with running but in everything you do in life. Believe in yourself.” Marcus O’Sullivan