By LIAM DURKIN
ANDREW O’Sullivan made the most of a bad
situation after losing his leg in a motorbike accident 38 years ago.
Not only did he go onto win gold at the Paralympics, he is now giving back to others by creating the very thing that enabled him to win that gold medal – making prosthetic limbs for patients at Latrobe Regional Hospital.
As the Morwell-born O’Sullivan explained, he was heavily involved in able-bodied sports before his leg was amputated.
“I was into sport, I played footy, soccer, tennis and squash … all different sports,” he said.
“Even when I was in hospital in rehab the prosthetist there got me to run down a very long corridor and I thought ‘at least I can still run’.
“When I was getting one of my new legs fitted I saw an ad for some athletic games coming up.
“Then I went along to these games in Melbourne and that’s where it all started.”
Entering the world of para-athletics, O’Sullivan competed in 100 metre, 200m, 400m and relay events during his career.
O’Sullivan went to multiple international events, winning medals at every single one he attended.
He also received backing from locals in helping him get to various games, something he said he was extremely grateful for.
“I was lucky enough to have a lot of community support, different groups raised money for me to get overseas which was greatly appreciated,” he said.
“I was able to represent Australia for five years. In 1986 I went to the FESPIC (Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled) Games which was the equivalent of the Commonwealth Games, ’87 I went to the Pan Pacific Games in America, ’88 I went to the Seoul Paralympics, ’89 to the FESPIC Games again and 1990 to the World Championships in Holland.”
Working under legendary coach Joe Carmody, who the athletics track in Newborough is named after, the pair worked together to maximise O’Sullivan’s potential.
“Joe was fabulous, he actually came up with an idea to shorten the stride length on my right leg which is my prosthetic leg and I would try and over-extend my left leg so that I am spending more time on my stronger side,” he said.
“I would try and get on and off my prosthetic leg as quick as I could and onto my left and stay there for longer.
“It wasn’t much, but there was definitely a
difference in the stride length.”
Training consisted of a four day a week commitment and trips to Melbourne, where O’Sullivan would train and race against able-bodied athletes.
Amazingly, he never came last in a race against the able bodies.
O’Sullivan trained with a number of local athletes, including Moe-born long distance runner Julian Paynter, who went on to represent Australia at the 1996 Olympics.
Speaking of Carmody’s coaching, O’Sullivan said there was some unorthodox, but effective techniques.
“A funny story was Joe had athletes who did all different events – middle distance, long distance, sprints – we’d all pile into his car, he would drive out of Moe and he’d say ‘you out, you have to run back’, and then the next person (would jump out).
“Julian would be one of the last ones out and I’d be one of the first ones out.”
In terms of running with a prosthetic leg, O’Sullivan said there was a few things that were essential.
“You’ve got to have an excellent fitting socket, it doesn’t matter what type of foot you have, you’ve got to have a good socket,” he said.
“I’d be going down to my prosthetist once a month for fine tuning because it had to be such a snug-tight fit. If we could I would always train on grass because it was softer. I don’t have an ankle, I don’t have a heel, I’m taking weight through the bottom of my stump through the bones so there is no sole of your foot to cushion so it’s different.
“If the socket is fitting it’s okay, but it’s not perfect like your normal leg.
“I had one of the first carbon fibre legs. The technology in the last 20 years has come leaps and bounds.”
O’Sullivan was able to wear normal runners during his career, with his socket finishing at around knee height.
Qualification for the Paralympic track team required athletes to run within five or 10 per cent of the world record depending on the event
O’Sullivan was able to meet these marks, and jetted to Seoul for the 1988 Paralympics.
The opening ceremony saw 75,000 people fill the stadium, a moment O’Sullivan said he would never forget.
“It was phenomenal, the hairs on the back of the neck are standing up (thinking about it),” he
“A lot of the opening ceremonies you’re out the back marshalling, all the countries are getting ready to be lined up, so when we came through the tunnel the joint was going off.
“That’s one memory that’s stayed with me all these years.”
Competing in the 400m, O’Sullivan flew the Latrobe Valley flag by claiming bronze.
“There was a full field and I got home in third,” he said.
“It was a personal best time so I was rapt. I was happy to get a personal medal and a couple of days later we got the gold in the four by 400m in world record time.”
The gold medal winning team of O’Sullivan, Nigel Parsons, Rod Nugent and Adrian Lowe ran the relay in 3:55.27 crossing the line before China and Germany.
Accepting his gold medal, O’Sullivan simply described it as “a very proud moment”.
Throughout his career O’Sullivan’s personal best times were 12.6 seconds for the 100m, 26 seconds for the 200m and 59 seconds for the 400m.
Come the early 1990s, O’Sullivan moved into areas other than competing on the international stage after getting married and starting a family.
Now living near Churchill, he still keeps fit by riding a bike and stays in touch with those he competed with and against.
While an amputated leg would have been reason enough to think his sporting days were over all those years ago, O’Sullivan story serves as a case in point into the opportunities that exists for people with disability in not only sport but in business as well.
“I’m a glass half-full sort of person, there is always someone worse than you,” he said.
“It could have been a lot worse, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t play sport again … I just did it.”