After lagging behind her contemporaries at youth level, the two-time Commonwealth medallist finally hit her stride in a Northern Champs 100m race that proved she had found her feet at the top level
It’s really easy to get fixated and think that, if you haven’t succeeded at under-18s or under-20s, it’s not going to happen. People develop at different rates. Puberty kicks in differently for both male and females. You shouldn’t get despondent if you don’t have this magnificent junior career. Because we know being an outstanding junior doesn’t mean you’re going to be an outstanding senior.
It took me a while to get used to training. And it took me a while to get my mindset that this is what I wanted to do. A positive back then for us was that there was no social media, so you didn’t have this ability to keep comparing yourself to everybody else. You had to wait until AW came out the week after to know what people had done.
People now can go online and you can get really fixated and distracted, whereas I had time just to develop: physically, emotionally and mentally.
We had a really good training group that included Shirley Strong who had gone to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and came back with a silver medal in the 100m hurdles. After training together all that winter, my coach sat me down and said: “If you get really serious about this, if you put a really good winter in, you could do really well.” Up to then, I was only going three times a week. I was still working, just being young, still just going out with my friends. I was only 19.
I trained really hard that winter and didn’t miss a training session. I did weights, everything I was supposed to do and started the season really well. I won the County Championships but, in the context of my career, the Northern Championships were important to me.
My coach Jim Harris was driving us to the event and I didn’t notice the reverse psychology he was working on me along the way. He went through all the people I was going to be racing. He said: “X is running really well. Y was really fast.” He never mentioned anything about me.
The way I function, I don’t really do praise. But if you say I can’t do something, then that generally gets the best out of me. So I got out of the car really annoyed and determined to show him that I was really good. That I could do this. That I could step it up when it matters. It probably helped it was a really long journey so I was really, really irritated. Jim was telling people I was going to try and prove a point.
I used to train with a girl called Jane Parry. She was really good, really young – at swimming and athletics and I’d never beaten her. Then I went and won the North of England 100m title in Manchester 1986 in 11.4.
That put me in the top two or three in the country. It was the catalyst for everything that followed. It was the springboard for me towards getting a first international vest in that year and then it set me up for the Commonwealth Games – and doing really well from 1986 onwards.
Jim was super chuffed because he’d asked me: “When are you going to do really well?”
We stopped for fish and chips on the way home, which is probably not the best thing to do, but I walked away that night thinking: “I’m actually a good athlete, I could do well in this sport.” It felt the appropriate thing for me going forward was being good on a national or international level.
Before that day, I probably thought doing well regionally was fine and so I think that’s where, mentally, I took a step forward. There’s always a race where it clicks and you could actually do something quite good. For me, it was that race. From that, I got selected for a B international. I went to Moscow with people like Clarence Callender and Tony Jarrett so it felt like the beginning of my career.
I went on to win the British Championships, which set me up to get selected for the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and Europeans in Stuttgart. That was the definitely the year where it came through.
Having that patience from a coach does help and if you put all the tools and all the building blocks in the right place, then it will happen. It just may not happen at under-20. It might be under-23. As athletes, we need to be persistent and very consistent and keep doing the basics really well. That will just set you up for future success.
My coach was really good about setting up the basics. I was probably quite immature. I was very small, quite light and very lean. He just built me up gradually, year by year, and gave me a really good foundation with speed and strength, taking into consideration not just my biological age, but my physicality as well. So by the time I emerged in 1986, I was physically stronger, didn’t have many injuries and had a lasting career from such a good base.
» This article first appeared in the March issue of AW, which you can read here