Sports courses: The fast track to the top

Olympic gold medallist Marlon Devonish tells Kate Hilpern how Henley College, Coventry, gave him his head start in athletics
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The Independent Online

When Olympic relay gold medallist and former world indoor champion Marlon Devonish was 16 years old, he'd done little more than dabbled in athletics. In fact, the only reason he'd entered a few races at the end of that season was to have a reference point for the following year to see whether he'd improved.

Keen to know how he compared to the crème-de-la-crème in his vicinity and age group, he bought a copy of Athletics Weekly, which publicises the fastest athletes by age and geographical area. "I was stunned to see my name there," he recalls. "Usually athletes start getting serious at 10 years old or younger, so I couldn't believe I'd caught up so quick."

It was to prove a turning point for Devonish. "I remember thinking, 'Marlon, you've got some talent here – you've got to work with it.' Since athletics was something I loved, that was a really, really good feeling."

Devonish has enjoyed sport for as long as he can remember. "Basketball, football, tennis – anything sporty and I was up for it," he says. "But it wasn't until I was 16 that two teachers at school suggested I get down to the local athletics track. I started getting into a routine of training ."

Like most young sportspeople starting out, he still wasn't sure he'd make it and his parents were insistent that he had something to fall back on. "So after doing my GCSEs at school, I went to Henley College Coventry to do a GNVQ in leisure management. My parents were happy I'd have another skill if the sport went pear shaped and I was happy because it was sports oriented."

The course took two years full-time and Devonish enjoyed it. "I met a lot of great people and particularly liked the way college was so different from school. At school, the hours were rigid, whereas college hours were more flexible. I liked being treated like an adult too. There was more freedom and if you didn't do your work, it was you that paid the consequences rather than being hassled. I responded to that well."

But Devonish's heart remained on the track and it became increasingly clear that he could make a career from it. And while he didn't go onto university, he has since gained two honorary degrees – one from Coventry University for his services to athletics after his performance in the Indoor World Championships and one from Warwick University for his performance as an Olympic relay gold medallist.

Both events that led to his accolades mark his most memorable experiences in his career to date. "Getting the world title at the World Indoor Championships was fantastic and then to win the Olympics was amazing and is a memory very dear to my heart. I use it as a training tool still now. When I get bogged down with the training and it seems monotonous I take a look at the recording of myself running and it spurs me on big time."

Like most successful sportspeople, Devonish is quick to praise those who he feels have been influential in some way or another.

"At school, there were the two teachers – Mr Coleman and Miss Ryan – who encouraged me to get down to the track. Then there was my old coach, Wayne Moranz. He was very technical and instilled in me a really good technique that is still with me and is a key reason I don't get injured. Paul Martin always sticks in my head too because when I was struggling financially, he bought me a kit. It might not seem much but by helping me buy the necessary trainers and sports gear to tide me over made a huge difference."

In addition to his own skill and talent, Devonish believes it is his ability to follow his own path in life in his own way that has enabled him to be so successful.

"If you put everyone in the same room and teach them in the same way, you'll get some who take heed and others who won't. That's why I think the best teaching is where you let people to work out what inspires them and makes them tick as an individual. I've benefited from that and it doesn't just go for sport, but for any type of learning."

Also contributing to his success is the simple fact that he enjoys what he does so much. "That can be my downfall too, though," he admits. "I'm a definite trackoholic and so there's always a huge temptation to do too much work, which would be detrimental to me in the long run. So I'm learning to control it and trying to relax more – which I do by anything from listening to music to doing my art."

Indeed, Devonish has always held an interest in art and loved to draw and paint from an early age. He finds inspiration from many sources, including some of the young black performing artists that he listened to as he grew up. Gifted but now deceased artists such as R&B singer Aaliyah, rappers Notorious BIG, Tupac Shakur, and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes were all part of Marlon's CD, video and record collection and his interpretation of these legendary stars can be seen in his Rest in Peace series of drawings. To date, Devonish has exhibited on a few occasions and he soon intends to sell some of his work via his website.

"Doing the art seriously started by fluke," he admits. "I bought an apartment about five years ago and wanted to get some art to put on the walls. I like contemporary, simple stuff, but I found it so expensive that I decided to give it a go myself. Friends came over and said, 'Where did you get that – I really like it,' and it would take me about 10 minutes to convince them it was me! I have since started doing more detailed art and I really enjoy it. I'm currently working on sorting out my copyright and once that's done, I'd like to get my work rolling out into the mainstream and get some honest opinion on it."

Devonish's career hasn't been without its challenges and at times, embarrassments. He recalls, "I had one really embarrassing moment when I was racing in a 200 metre race. I had lighter tights on than I usually wear as part of a new kit. They felt fine, albeit a bit tight. I ran the race and I think I won. But as I waved back to everyone, I noticed they were really smiling and giggling. I put my hand behind me and discovered there was a massive split!"

Not surprisingly, Devonish has his sights on the Olympics next year. "I would love to do well. I'll need to work really hard between now and then but I reckon I am one stride away from doing something really quite special."