U of M - Kornacki: Sullivan Now Sharing Olympic Experience

U of M - Kornacki: Sullivan Now Sharing Olympic Experience

Provided by U of M

By Steve Kornacki

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The most decorated distance runner the Wolverines have ever produced ran his way across the world.

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Kevin Sullivan ran for Canada in three Olympics on three different continents: 2000 in Sydney, 2004 in Athens and 2008 in Beijing. And, if not for injury, he would've very likely qualified and run the 1,500 meters in 1996 at Atlanta, adding another continent to his trail.

"It was surreal running in 2000 because it wasn't supposed to be my first Olympics," said Sullivan, now the University of Michigan men's cross country coach. "Sydney was supposed to be my second. When I was a sophomore at Michigan, I finished fifth in the world championships that year. Then the next year, I went into my junior year thinking I was going to be challenging, not just to be in the finals, but to challenge for a medal.

"But I ended up having a bad Achilles injury and having surgery on it in 1996, and I wasn't sure if after that I was even going to be able to be competitive at the conference or national level, let alone the international level. So, when 2000 came along, I had gone full circle.

"Part of the experience was just, 'Wow, I've got a second chance.' So, it was a let's-make-the-most-of-it situation. That allowed me to be more relaxed in the entire Olympic experience. It also allowed me to not take it for granted: 'Hey, this shot might not come again.'"

Sullivan had his best Olympic showing at Sydney, finishing fifth in 3:35.50. Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco led most of the race, but Kenyan Noah Ngeny (3:32.07) took the gold to by nipping El Guerrouj (3:32.32) and Kenyan bronze medalist Bernard Lagat (3:32.44). Frenchman Mehdi Baala was fourth (3:34.14). Sullivan was in a group of three runners lagging a bit behind the leaders, and he pulled away from the other two, finishing with the best time of any runner from a North or South America country.

"The race played out exactly how we expected," said Sullivan. "The pace was dictated by the Moroccan, and I saw how I could hang on and hopefully contend for a medal. The more nerve wracking were the two rounds before that, the qualifying and the semi-final. It was actually more relaxing in the final and time to go along for the ride. I came up a little short of the medal."

Sullivan finished 3.06 seconds behind the bronze medal winner.

"Sydney was really special, though, as my first Olympics," said Sullivan. "I wasn't as prepared going into Athens. I had been dealing with some injuries that season, and the qualifying procedure in the country put a lot of undue pressure on the athletes. That one was a little disappointing.

"And by the time Beijing rolled around, I knew it was likely my last Olympics. I was seeing a slow drop off in performance but felt I had a shot at the (12-man) final and just came up a little short."

Sullivan said Beijing was made more enjoyable by Michigan runners Nick Willis and Nate Brannen also running the 1,500 meters at those Olympics, and former Wolverine track and field and cross country coach Ron Warhurst was coaching Willis there. Willis won a silver medal for New Zealand, and Brannen also was competing for Canada.

"It was a really cool experience," said Sullivan. "It was pretty neat for a coach to have three former runners in the same Olympics, and there's a great picture taken of us back at Athens with Tim Broe (from the University of Alabama)."

What does being a three-time Olympian mean to Sullivan?

"As you get farther away from it," said Sullivan, "and as you become a spectator of the Olympics, you get a much greater appreciation of the work and sacrifice it takes to get there, how all-consuming it becomes in your life.

"The 1,500 meters is really the marquee event of track and field in the Olympic Games, maybe outside the 100 meters, and the 1,500 meters is probably the most difficult to win a medal in. So, to finish that close; it's a little bit bittersweet if you think about it, but at the same time you realize what kind of a level you were competing at."

Sullivan, also Michigan's assistant men's track and field coach, recently had his first experience in trying to coach one of his runners to the Olympics. Wolverine distance-running star Mason Ferlic made it all the way to the final heat in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon. He ran 8:30.03 to finish fifth, two spots away from being among three Olympic qualifiers.

"This was my first shot at coaching an athlete with a shot at making the Olympic team," said Sullivan. "It's been a natural evolution of Mason's progress as an athlete. His development has taken him from being a very good (Big Ten) conference athlete to a really strong, national level athlete. He's scratching the surface of being a really strong international athlete."

Ferlic won the NCAA championship in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in his final collegiate race last month by running a personal-best 8:27.16 in a clutch racing performance.

"He's improving every week and is a fierce competitor who is really intelligent and can understand his body," Sullivan said of Ferlic, 22. "He's on the young side of middle-distance running, where most peak in the 26-to-28-year range. So, if he continues to run the next four years, he'll have an even better shot at making the Olympic team."

The coach's experience as a three-time Olympian in the 1,500-meter run can be transferred to Ferlic in some ways.

"There are differences in international meets in how the meets are set up and how the warm-ups work," said Sullivan. "You have to make a lot of adjustments in your warm-ups to feel comfortable and ready to go. And the nature of being in the athletes' village and dealing with the distractions, it's something I've been through three times, and I know what the distractions are and how to minimize them, what to look for and what to avoid.

"It also comes down to how to plan the season out, and I know what it's like to compete the whole collegiate season and then compete afterwards. I think that's an important part for us. Most college athletes try to peak in the college season, but we had to try to extend it three weeks beyond that for the trials."

Sullivan, who twice won the NCAA mile championship and also won the NCAA 1,500-meter title, didn't make it to the Olympics while in college because of that injury in 1996. So, he provides living proof to Ferlic that better times could well be ahead for him.

The 2020 Games are in Tokyo, where the Olympic dream could be realized for both Ferlic and Sullivan, now going down that familiar trail as a coach.

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