By Laurie Gordon
It isn't every day that an Olympian comes to Sussex County: much less a four-time Olympian who doesn't only inspire young athletes, but actually passes around the very jersey and shoes he wore in the games.
Marcus O'Sullivan did on Tuesday.
His message to the 50 budding athletes in the X-Treme Youth Running Camp was to get in shape for whatever their fall sport may be. He told them to “never stop enjoying sports and to cherish the friends you make through training and competition.”
“Speaking at this camp is an opportunity to give back to the sport here in Sussex County where my wife grew up,” O'Sullivan said.
O'Sullivan coaches running at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, and has a farm in Layton where he spends a lot of time during the summer months. He has run a sub four-minute mile over 100 times and his personal best for the mile is 3:50 which he didn't do the easy way. It was on an indoor track. Because they are much smaller than outdoor tracks, he had to circle the oval 10 times.
O'Sullivan's 15-year running career began during a post-church Sunday walk, in his native Ireland, with his family when he was about 7 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 1980 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 named Mr. Martin made going out for the cross-country team mandatory.
“A hundred and 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.'”
Though he ran in high school, O'Sullivan said he wasn't the fastest and he didn't do anything earth shattering.
It wasn't until after high school, when O'Sullivan met a coach named Donald Walsh, that his running turned the corner.
It wasn't easy.
O'Sullivan rode a bus an hour to work each day in Ireland and returned home tired from his day. He'd eat dinner, take a nap and arise to train from 8-10 p.m. His house had no refrigerator or dryer, and he'd use 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 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.
“It was the greatest experience I ever had as a young man,” O'Sullivan said of his first Olympic experience.
"The running was amazing, but so were all the parts that made up the experience," Sullivan said. "The security was very different then so my (now wife) was allowed to come into the Village and it was kind of like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because everything was free. The Beach Boys even performed for the athletes and Vidal Sassoon was there to do hair cuts, including shaving the Olympic rings into your hair if you wanted for the guys.”
O'Sullivan said those Olympics, held in Los Angeles, was the only time the Olympics actually made money.
“The city was smart and did things like instead of using charter buses to transport the athletes from the Village to the venues where they would compete, they used school buses from around the city. On the way to the track, our bus broke down. We were afraid we'd miss our events and the police said they could not transport us so we had to wait for another bus.”
Time was ticking. Finally one of the coaches asked the police if they could do an “International Courtesy.” They called headquarters and sure enough they could do that so athletes from all nations piled into police cars for transportation to the stadium.”
“My story isn't about running; it's about following your dreams,” O'Sullivan said to the campers. “Your passion may not be running. Maybe you want to be a great artist or writer or vet or doctor. It's not necessarily about running but about fulfilling some ridiculous dream that you may never tell anyone about. It may be something way, way out there for now, but don't give up on your dreams.”
Devin Johnstone will be a senior at North Warren High School and has attended the camp for a number of years.
“Devin hasn't stopped talking about Marcus,” his mother, Heather Johnstone said the afternoon after O'Sullivan's presentation. “We love the inspirational speakers that come to this camp. They are all priceless motivators for our athletes to chase their dreams, whether it's to run a local 5k or to be a college scholar athlete.”
One camper asked O'Sullivan if he'd ever lost a race.
With a smile, he said, “I've lost more races than people know and in fact people think I've won a lot more than I have. It's ok to not win. You will lose a lot but for the few times you win you may just be remembered for a very long time.”