Athletics

'Just stay in the game' - A winner on the track and in business, Frank O'Mara is now battling back against Parkinson's


Frank O'Mara. Photo: Sportsfile
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Frank O'Mara. Photo: Sportsfile

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Frank O’Mara (left) with (l to r) Marcus O’Sullivan, Ray Flynn and Eamonn Coghlan after setting the 4 x1 mile world record at Belfield in 1985. Photo: Sportsfile

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Frank O'Mara with his wife Patty

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Frank O'Mara with Mark Carroll and Marcus O’Sullivan earlier this year

The gift can also be a curse. Your greatest strength, turned and used to torment you. For all that ambition is an enviable trait, there's an uncomfortable question awaiting those who possess its extreme form: What happens when your powers fade?

It happens to us all, sooner or later. It happened to Frank O'Mara.

"It's almost an affliction with me," he says, sitting at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas. "My self-worth and self-esteem is so caught up in achieving things and over the last four or five years, I've achieved nothing. It's very hard to like yourself when you haven't earned it."

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Consider the highs. Three Olympic Games, two world indoor titles, the CEO of one of the biggest wireless companies in America.

Now consider the low. A middle-aged man unable to stand, in constant discomfort as tremors ripple through his limbs, the same limbs he once used to out-run the world's best.

"Cathal, I can't tell you how bad it was, it was shocking," he says, elongating this last word. "I couldn't sit still, my neck would cramp so bad that my wife would have to force it back up. I couldn't breathe. I had two good hours a day and if I woke at all at night, my whole body started cramping, even my eyelids."

Parkinson's disease is degenerative. What starts out as a mild inconvenience eventually morphs into a complete loss of control. O'Mara felt the first symptom at the age of 48. By 58, his life was a living hell.

During his physical prime, back in the 1980s and '90s, achievement had always been governed by time, a tyrannical clock ticking upwards as he circled the track, its digits at the finish denoting success or failure. Now it was different. As Parkinson's took hold, the clock started to count down.

O'Mara was running out of time.

* * * * *

The last time we spoke was in 1997. I was nine years old and had just qualified to run for Limerick in the under 10 200 metres at the Community Games in Mosney.

The last kid from Caherdavin to do so? Frank O'Mara, or so I was told. He was back home at the time and we posed for a picture in the parish field that ran in the local paper. My only memory of that encounter is of a kind, friendly man who spoke to this nobody kid with the same, considered interest as he would a world champion.

The O'Mara family home was down the road from ours, right by Ivan's shop, up the road from Na Piarsaigh GAA club. Out the back, they had a spacious garden that served as an unofficial football pitch for local kids in the early 1970s.

"I was a demon for sports," says O'Mara. "I'd play all evening with any kid who came and I wouldn't study so my parents said, 'Send him off to boarding school.'"

Frank was a small, shy child who had a "love-hate relationship" with St Munchin's College. "I found it quite lonely, it didn't really suit me, but it taught me a lot. When you're a small kid you learn how to influence situations with your language and that helped me connect with people later in life."

His talent was first spotted by former national sprint champion John O'Donnell, who coached O'Mara from the age of 10 and remained a mentor throughout his career. After that he worked under Willie Logan at Limerick Emerald AC before being coached by Declan O'Donoghue and Fr Ger MacNamee at St Munchin's.

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Frank O’Mara (left) with (l to r) Marcus O’Sullivan, Ray Flynn and Eamonn Coghlan after setting the 4 x1 mile world record at Belfield in 1985. Photo: Sportsfile

By the age of 16, he had matured into one of Ireland's brightest prospects and in 1978 he set off on scholarship to the University of Arkansas.

"People can pretend we had opportunities in Ireland for athletes but we didn't," says O'Mara. "If you aspired to be any way good, you had to pack your bags."

The US system almost broke him. Then it made him. O'Mara had run 30 miles a week before going but averaged 114 during his first semester.

"I ran like a dog all year because I was so f***ing tired. It's very easy to not make it in America, it's dog-eat-dog. You can very quickly lose faith."

He got injured, under-performed, and before one relay he remembers an ultimatum: "If you don't hand the stick off in first place, you can roll your f***ing ass home to Ireland."

In second year he dropped his weekly mileage to 95 and clocked 3:40 for 1500m, a fraction outside the qualifying time for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But that summer the BLE - the chief governing body of Irish athletics at the time - wouldn't grant him a permit to race internationally.

"If they did, I would have got that time," he says. "The confidence that would have given me, to make the Olympics at 19 would be huge."

O'Mara had no time for the BLE, recalling how in 1988 they demanded 15 per cent of athletes' earnings or they'd block them competing at the Seoul Olympics. They got it, too. At Arkansas, he came through a system that knew the meaning of world-class. Head coach John McDonnell, a Mayo native, amassed an astonishing 42 NCAA team titles before retiring in 2008.

"He had an uncanny ability to connect with people. His coaching wasn't amazing or ground-breaking but it was consistent. People just loved him; they'd die for him."

O'Mara stayed in Arkansas after his NCAA career and met his wife, Patty, while studying for a master's. He first saw her in church and they got chatting during a money and banking class. He was 23 then, and they've been together ever since.

For almost all of his professional career, McDonnell was his coach and as good as O'Mara became, he wonders if that loyalty cost him some medals.

"I had so much grá for John and he's the best college coach ever, but by being there I was sucked into their (collegiate) timeline. I was peaking too early every year."

At the 1984 Olympics in LA he was knocked out in the 1500m heats. Ahead of the '88 Games in Seoul he over-trained, showing up a 122-pound waif, 10lbs below his usual racing weight. "My wife walked by me at the stadium and didn't recognise me, I was so gaunt," he says. "I really ran rubbish."

At the Barcelona Olympics in '92 he was edged into fourth place in his 5000m semi-final. The three men ahead finished second, third and fourth in the final.

But when he was on song, O'Mara was virtually unbeatable, his finishing kick a weapon he wielded with vicious force to defeat Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, among many others.

In 1987 he coasted to the front on the last lap of the world indoor 3000m final in Indianapolis, changing gears with astonishing alacrity to win gold. Four years later he went to Seville to reclaim that title after a season blighted by a sinus infection. It cleared up just in time, and in the final O'Mara felt "so good it was almost scary".

McDonnell told him not to hit the front until the last lap, but with three laps to run O'Mara couldn't help himself. Twenty-nine years on, he reaches for his iPad, pulling up a picture of him licking his lips with a lap to run. What was he thinking then?

"You've gotta bear down now or you've f***ed this thing up," he says. "Because you're not doing what you're supposed to."

The world record was 7:39.2 and O'Mara clocked 7:41.14 despite coasting to the finish.

"That was the one day," he says, "when everything came right."

The end came as it often does: the sport gently ushering him to the door. In 1994 he made the European 5000m final but his Achilles tendon was so sore that he hobbled home in 13th place. In '95 he reached the world indoor 3000m final but couldn't line up for it, his Achilles screaming in pain.

"You can lose momentum very quickly in athletics," he says. "I had lost mine and I knew I wouldn't get it back. Why wait around any longer?"

For the next 15 years, O'Mara had "nothing to do with athletics" and he threw himself into business, looking to follow in the footsteps of his father, who'd been a successful entrepreneur.

He went to law school, then worked as a lawyer with a telecom firm in Arkansas. "The general counsel was a complete horse's ass, a bully, so I decided I had to get out of the legal department."

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Frank O'Mara with his wife Patty

He next took a job running call centres, rising up the ranks at Alltel Wireless. In 2009 it was bought by Verizon and O'Mara was appointed CEO of Allied Wireless. During that time, his Parkinson's was starting to emerge, and ahead of meetings with the US Department of Justice, O'Mara had to take beta-blockers to control the shaking.

As stressful as it was, he always felt at home in the most elite echelons of business.

"When I ran, the stage sometimes got overwhelming, but I never got nervous in work," he says. "It baffles me sometimes that athletes who show so much persistence and dedication can't translate that into business.

"Being on the starting line with Coe, Cram and Ovett, if you can survive the nerves of that, you can survive a presentation in front of 500 people. You've survived in front of 60,000 people."

* * * * *

On the wall of his home office in Little Rock, O'Mara has a photo: it's the Munster players doing the haka ahead of their 2008 game against the All Blacks. Out in the corridor, above the door, sits a green and white licence plate commemorating Limerick's All-Ireland hurling victory: 18-L-Liam. O'Mara has lived in Arkansas for 42 years, but when I ask if it now feels like home he becomes visibly emotional.

"I still consider Limerick home."

He hasn't been back in seven years. His health wouldn't allow it. That is, until now.

In January last year, 10 years to the day since he felt his first symptom of Parkinson's, he underwent a five-hour brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis.

"You're wide awake for the whole thing," he says, "while they're drilling holes in your head."

He pulls down his shirt to display a device, about the size of a matchbox, that bulges beneath the skin in his chest. During the operation, wires were implanted into his brain and from a hand-held impulse generator, O'Mara controls an electrical signal that is sent to his brain.

"Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, but my brain doesn't produce enough," he says. "The electricity allows what dopamine I have to work better, and it also prevents bad signalling."

There are two key symptoms of Parkinson's: those from the disease itself and those from the medication, which patients come to rely on more and more as things deteriorate. Before the surgery O'Mara was knocking back 17 pills a day and was plagued by the involuntary movements of dyskinesia.

"I was miserable from it," he says. "I needed that surgery pretty bad."

The device took almost a year to start working, but the effect has been dramatic since. What can he do now that he couldn't before?

"How about standing up?" he says, rising from his seat to retrieve an electric wheelchair. "This was how I was getting around."

If all was right in the world, he'd have been back in Ireland in July to celebrate his 60th birthday in Dromoland Castle, but the pandemic put that plan on ice. "Next year," he says. "Please God."

I remark to O'Mara that he looks as lean now as he did in his prime. "One of the best things with Parkinson's," he smiles. "You're in constant motion."

That dry wit is one his close friend, Marcus O'Sullivan, knows well.

"I love him like a brother," says O'Sullivan, a three-time world indoor champion who's now head coach at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

They've known each other since their schooldays, but became close friends during a trip to Scandinavia in 1984, O'Mara convincing O'Sullivan after a race in Sweden to gate-crash a meeting in Norway for which neither had an invite.

"All the best memories are off the track," says O'Sullivan. "We always connected but we connected wholeheartedly more when Frank got sick. It started a deeper friendship."

They speak a few times a week and meet up at least once a year, going fishing together in Arkansas and shooting the breeze about the best of times: the dazzling chaos of the European circuit; the shady way business was done, with athletes lining up outside hotel rooms to be paid in $100 bills; the gossip over which of their competitors was on drugs. "Don't get me started on doping," says O'Mara, shaking his head in lasting annoyance.

It's the little moments they remember best. Like at the Europeans in Split when they left the window open in their room while out for dinner, returning to find it filled with mosquitoes. Before their opening round, they spent half the night running around the room with newspapers, splatting the mosquitoes off the walls.

Or that time before the Millrose Games in New York, the two awash with nerves as they passed the hours in their hotel room near Madison Square Garden, O'Sullivan's heart beating so hard he could feel the bed throbbing.

"This is what we get paid for," O'Mara told him. "It's not for racing around the track; it's for all the anxiety beforehand."

Years later, when Sonia O'Sullivan arrived on the circuit, O'Mara took her under his wing, a friendly face amid a daunting crowd. They've been close friends ever since.

"From the very first time I met him, he'd be one of the people I'd most look forward to being on a trip with," she says. "He introduced me to everyone and that made me feel so much more comfortable, because it can be quite intimidating in those rooms with all these superstar athletes."

Sonia - a world champion and Olympic medallist - strikes a reverential tone when speaking of O'Mara. "He's one of the warmest people," she says.

I ask O'Mara about his favourite memories from the sport. Races don't get a mention.

"The one memory I have is the friendships," he says.

He goes back to his iPad, pulls up another picture: it's Marcus O'Sullivan hugging him after O'Mara's victory at the Cork City Sports. He then pulls up a quote from Oscar Wilde: Anyone can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend's success.

"Marcus is the kind of guy who's very happy for other people's success and you can witness it in that picture," he says. "Everyone tried pit us against each other but we didn't give in to it. He's a great friend."

* * * * *

When living with a degenerative disease, expectation is the enemy. O'Mara learned that early on.

"Your happiness is directly proportionate to your acceptance and inversely proportioned to your expectations. They advise you to lower your goals, and then you won't be unhappy."

For someone so driven, that penny took a long time to drop.

"I don't care if you or anyone else knows I accomplished anything," he says. "I have to know that I've done something."

These days, he does what he can. O'Mara built a website, five42.org, that gathers memories from Arkansas alumni athletes and he edits and uploads a few videos each week. "Nobody really cares," he says. "But it's something for me to do, and everyone who's been on the site finds it really interesting."

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Frank O'Mara with Mark Carroll and Marcus O’Sullivan earlier this year

Later this month he will team up with Marcus O'Sullivan, Eamonn Coghlan and Ray Flynn and at four separate locations they will log a cumulative 26.2 miles as part of a virtual marathon team relay, an event hosted by The Armory Foundation in New York. It's 35 years since they last teamed up, setting the 4 x 1-mile world record of 15:49.99 in Belfield.

What does the future hold?

O'Mara is too attuned to uncertainty to set much in stone, but he has ideas. One of his great loves is mountain biking, and for his 50th birthday he rode the Kokopelli Trail in Colorado with friends. One of his dreams is to spend a few weeks in a camper van in South America, seeking out the best biking trails he can find.

"But it's never going to happen," he says.

"Never say never," I add.

He has three sons - Jack, Colin and Harry - who are all in their 20s, and earlier this year he travelled to Boston to watch Colin, 25, run a 4:03.71 mile.

"I'd love to see him break four," says O'Mara, who often goes to the track to time his son's workouts, offering whatever guidance he can.

As a teenager, O'Mara had been a decent, but far from outstanding, athlete. How did he grow up to become what he was?

"The trick with athletics is you have to commit to it. You have to believe you can be the best in the world if you want to be the best in the world."

But the gift, remember, can also be a curse.

"You set high expectations and if you don't reach them, your first recollection can be one of remorse or regret. I try not to get sucked into that. I didn't live up to my own expectations, but who does? Very few."

The lessons from the track were carried into business and, these days, they're more relevant than ever.

"Getting used to failure has been very helpful with what I'm dealing with now," he says. "I've never been dissuaded by failure."

The device in his chest will offer benefits for between six and 10 years and he knows his condition could then deteriorate again. Yet O'Mara has never been as hopeful. In June, researchers in San Diego developed a treatment that eliminated the symptoms of Parkinson's in mice. "I'm buying myself time until something like that comes to fruition," he says.

Persistence has always been - will always be - a part of him. In sport, in business, in life.

"I wasn't the best but I worked hard and kept hanging around the hoop, and I've always believed if you keep hanging around the hoop you're going to get a rebound," he says. "So just stay in the game."

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