Ahead of the forthcoming IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018, we launch a new series focused on some of the great world indoor champions from the past.
First up is Irish middle-distance star Marcus O’Sullivan, who snared three 1500m titles in the early years of the established biennial event.
Describe your indoor running journey.
“I fell in love with indoor running after I arrived in the US in 1980 to study at Villanova University. Hailing from Ireland and from a cross-county background, I had never run indoors before, but I immediately liked the tightness of the track. I had a low centre of gravity, I was very nimble and comfortable on the turns as opposed to taller athlete who would hesitate, break and slow.
“I started running on 160m boards, 11 laps to the mile. Crazy as it sounds, our 11-lap track was outdoors and we had to shovel snow off it before we could use it, yet I always looked forward to training on that track. I felt a great connection to indoor running and felt very comfortable doing it.”
Was competing at the inaugural IAAF World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis in 1987 a big deal for you?
“I’d gone undefeated indoors the previous year, but in 1987 I only planned to run three indoor races. The IAAF World Indoor Championships was initially not on my calendar, yet that season I felt good and I was inspired to give the World Indoor Champs a go after a mentor convinced me I should strike while the iron was hot.
“I won selection for the team and when I arrived I was surprised at the number of people that showed up. There must have been 22,000 packed into the Hoosier Dome.”
What were your memories of the competition?
“I remember Eamonn Coghlan (O’Sullivan’s Irish team-mate and prodigious indoor miler) failed to make it out of the heats and this was a pivotal turning point for me because he would have been a huge threat.
“The final boasted a darn good field which included Spain’s José Manuel Abascal (the 1984 Olympic 1500m bronze medallist), Jim Spivey of the US (who would go on to win world 1500m bronze later that year in Rome) and Dieter Baumann (who would win the 1992 Olympic 5000m title).
“With just over 200 metres to go, I made a mental calculation that I wouldn’t have the time to go around Jim Spivey if I was to catch José, so as Jim wandered off the rail I came through on his inside. Coming off the final turn I was flat out, so I tried to relax and keep calm for one last-ditch effort. As I crossed the line, I didn’t even know If I’d won or not (O’Sullivan secured gold from Abascal by 0.09 in 3:39.04).
“That same day Frank O’Mara of Ireland won the world indoor 3000m title and we both wondered whether anyone would remember. We didn’t know if the first World Indoors would be the first of many or whether it would just dissolve. Here we are more than 30 years on and it is still going strong as part of the IAAF calendar.”
Ahead of the 1989 World Indoor Championships, you set a world record over 1500m. Did you feel any additional pressure defending your title in Budapest?
“It was an interesting experience because that same weekend Ireland were playing Hungary at soccer, so many Irish soccer fans – who had no real allegiance to track and field – turned up with their bugles to support the Irish athletes. They created a great atmosphere but I thought to myself, ‘I’m really feeling the pressure from these guys!’”
What were your memories of the final?
“I was so mentally focused that after I finished my warm-up I couldn’t even recall whether I had completed my warm-up. Fortunately, the best thing that could have happened for me was American Sydney Maree put the hammer down from the beginning and the field quickly became strung out. This, for me, was the perfect scenario. I could run off a fast pace but did not have the raw speed to finish off a slow pace. Sydney essentially acted as a pacemaker. I felt great with 200 metres to go and took the win (by more than a second in 3:36.64).”
How satisfying was it to win back-to-back world indoor titles?
“It was very special to me to repeat my win from 1987. The event was catching on and becoming more accepted as part of the mainstream. It was also very special for me because the event was based in Europe, which took it up a whole new level.”
At the 1991 World Indoor Championships you lost your grip on the 1500m crown, finishing fourth to a stellar field as Noureddine Morceli struck gold. Was this a big disappointment?
“I had struggled with stomach issues for a while and I had spoken about retirement so, believe it or not, I was pleasantly surprised to place fourth. It was a mature performance from me and I’d outperformed myself based on what I was expecting.
“It was around this time I discovered heart-rate training and much about the physiology of running with the help of my long-term coach, Tom Donnelly. We decided to have a little fun and experiment and it helped transform me as an athlete. Instead of retiring, I carried on in the sport until 1998 and I set my 1500m PB aged 35.”
Did this new approach help when winning your third world indoor 1500m title in 1993?
“It did. That year I had started teaching at university but I didn’t realise how much time it would take, so I had to revamp the training and I moved away from the more intense work. That year I was beaten at the Millrose Games by my good friend Nourredine Morceli but he told me after the race that because I had run 3:54 (for the mile on an 11-lap indoor track) I was ready to roll at the World Indoors. He didn’t plan to run World Indoors, so to be given a pat on the back from a world champion was very encouraging.”
The final was a close-run affair. What were your recollections?
“The final did not have the quality of past World Indoor 1500m finals and my experience had taught me it would be all about position. I knew if I was in front with 250 metres to go, I would be hard to beat. That’s pretty much how the race unfolded. It was a mass sprint finish but I managed to hold on after a ‘pedestrian walk’ (winning by 0.30 from Great Britain’s David Strang in a time of 3:45.00).”
How sweet was winning that third world indoor 1500m title?
“It was incredibly sweet because I felt at that time I was maturing with the help of Tom Donnelly, and it taught me if you are willing to change and adapt, you can achieve far more than you initially think.
“I didn’t reach the same heights outdoors as I did indoors, which was a disappointment for me. But I never regret the success I enjoyed indoors and if I had to do it all over again, I probably would.”
Marcus O’Sullivan, who ran more than 100 sub-four-minute miles in his career, today works as head coach at Villanova University.
Steve Landells for the IAAF