The number of Tipperary men and women who have risen to the elite standing of Olympian down through the years have been few and far between. So, it it is great regret that The Tipperary Star marks the passing of Thurles native and former Olympian, the late Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Gorman, who ran in the colours of the UK.
A former hurler of note with Thurles Sarsfields in his early days, Sonny, as he was known to most, came to athletics relatively late in life, having moved to St Albans, Hertfortshire, England in 1948. He worked in a number of professions including as a mechanic and in the caring profession.
He made his name running in the colours of his adoptive country with his career in English athletics beginning in 1952 when at the age of 24, he joined St Alban’s Club. By midway through 1953 he was setting records in club events with such regularlity that the experts confidently predicted a bright international future for Sonny. They were correct.
In this earlier phase of his career he concentrated mostly on shorter events - four, five and six mile races. He ran the fasted stage in the famous London - Brighton relay in 1954 and not even an appendix operation in November of that year could stop the Thurles man who stood at just 5ft 3 inches in height.
In March 1955, he was the first Irishman home in the International cross country race in Spain. In September, he made an unsuccessful attempt on the Irish all-comers four mile record at Dublin and the expectation is that had he worn spikes on the wet track, he would have achieved his goal.
The years ‘56 -’57 followed similar paths in terms of success in club events, too numerous to list, but in June 1957 he happened upon a crisis in his career. When competing in the Walton 15 mile road race, he was knocked down by a car. So fit was he, that he continued the race and actually won it by five minutes. However, the accident took it’s toll and a week later he was suffering from tendon and hip trouble. X-rays showed that no bones were broken but he was very badly bruised and the experts, who had been so lavish in their praise for Sonny, now began to write him off.
His indomitable spirit won the day though and despite internal complications in 1958, and four minor operations after which he was advised to retire, Sonny came back in August to win the Walton event in a new British record time of one hour seventeen minutes and ten seconds. For the remainder of ‘58 and ‘59 he was once again one of England’s most prominent athletes.
Sonny began to concentrate on longer events and in June 1959 he ran his first marathon. He was quoted as saying, “I ran like a novice, going all out, running the miles under five minutes. After ten miles I was two minutes clear of my nearest rival, but my feet were on fire. I never experienced anything like it. I held on to win by five minutes, but I said, never again.”
In October of that year he won his first singlet for England when he ran second to the Russian Popov in the Koisce marathon.
“I have always wanted to keep the Irish name proud, wherever I ran. Even when I had a British vest around my body, my name suggested that I was Irish and I didn’t care if I was wearing the red vest of China,” he said.
After his many successes on the roads of England and Europe, Denis won yet another award when he was chosen Hertfortshire Sports Pensonality of the Year. Later on, despite having knee trouble, he won the Berlin 25km event in record time, but now at the age of 32 and because of knee trouble, he began to have fears of missing the Olympics in Rome.
He was still receiving treatment four times a week at a clinic and his disappointment at now being chosen by his native country for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, made his plight all the more pitiful. Fighting to get back in form, he was dogged by the knee injury which kept him out of the Poly and AAA marathons. However, despite being unable to get in much road running, he kept himself superbly fit by digging trenches in his back garden, much to the amazement and amusement of his neighbours. He made the Road Runners Marathon in Liverpool and not only clinched his place on the British team for the Olympics, but also turned in the best time in the world for that distance in 1959.
Rome in 1960 was the Thurles man’s next race and the last big event in the career of Denis O’Gorman. And, it was to be a misfortunate event for him as a nail came through his shoe and resulted in severe blistering. “I finished a very disappointed man in 16th place. It must have taken me 40 minutes to cover the last six miles. I had a blood blister covering the ball of my foot and after taking off the shoe, I could not get another one on for a couple of days,” he said afterwards.
During his career with St Alban’s, Sonny ran a total of 21,184 miles, covering an average of over 2,500 mile per year. He reached a maximum of 4,300 in 1959. He kept in regular touch with the former Thurles John F Kennedy Athletic Club and always had a keen eye on the exploits of Thurles Crokes later on in life.
During his time, he engaged, matched and outran the cream of Europe’s distance runners, an achievement of which he, and his family, are extremely proud.
Sonny passed to his eternal reward in the UK recently and is survived by his family and friends, here and in Hertfortshire, including his sister Mrs Teasy O’Connor, Inisfallen Avenue, Thurles, his other sister Bridie and brothers Bruno, Finbarr, Sean and the late Francis. He is deeply missed by his wife Ruth and his six sons who will participate in the celebration of Mass in St Alban’s, Hertfortshire this week .
A true athletics legend. May he rest in peace.