Jenny Meadows: Jenny from the blocks is keen for last shot at glory

She is ready to head off into the sunset after the Olympic 800m final. If only she can find tickets for her family

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Amid the furore about the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year coming from an all-male shortlist, it should be remembered that the last time London staged the Olympics, its greatest star was a woman.

Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals. You could tell it was 1948, not just because she was called "The Flying Housewife" or because headlines like "Amazing Fanny" meant nothing untoward but because when she returned to the crammed, joyous streets of Amsterdam, they gave her a bicycle.

Should Jessica Ennis, Jenny Meadows or Christine Ohuruogu win just one gold medal, they might not get the £10m contract from Nike that Marion Jones received after the Sydney Olympics but they will get more than a bicycle – and they will probably become Sports Personality of the Year.

In the margins of her diary, Meadows records the days remaining until her 800m heat. When we met at her old school, the Deanery in Wigan, there were exactly 250.

"I can't picture the Olympics yet," she said. "But as soon as midnight strikes on New Year's Eve, it will be 2012. If I have a really good training session, then I'll think: 'I just can't wait for London'.

"But, if the training hasn't gone right, or if I am tired, it feels like I am counting down to Doomsday. It could be the greatest thing ever to happen to me or a massive personal failure played out on a national level. It'll be one or the other."

Meadows is bright, bubbly, relaxed but at 30 she knows the 800m will give her only one more shot at Olympic glory. Nerves affect sportsmen at different times and in different ways. The night before he struck his 100th century for England against Australia at Headingley, Geoff Boycott kept waking up trying to adjust the air conditioning in his room. On the eve of his winning goal for Manchester United in the European Cup final, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stared at the ceiling, wondering when his room-mate, Jaap Stam, would stop snoring.

"No, I'll sleep well," she laughs. "I tend to get nervous a few weeks before, when you still have a few key sessions to fit it and you can do something about it. I have taught myself not to think whether my mother's in the stand watching me.

"I remember sitting in the stands after I'd won the bronze medal in the World Championships in Berlin watching the other races while feeling I hadn't actually run on that track. I must have blocked everything out. That's what you do when you are at your best."

Meadows faces a fight to make the 800m final and her mum, Barbara, and brother, Andrew, have a similar struggle just to be there. It may be reassuring to those who have failed to get anywhere near a seat at the Olympics but the Meadows family have tickets only for the 800m heats.

Barbara was a county standard 400m runner, Andrew has no interest in sport and her late father, Keith, was brimful of ability. "I think my dad could have gone into professional sport, if he'd had the determination," his daughter reflected. "He was a really gifted cricketer and good at football.

"There were times when my dad was arguing with me to persevere at sport when I wanted to ask him: "Well, why didn't you?' But I think the truth is there was a lot of pressure on him to earn a living for his family."

Keith was an electrical fitter and as the family did not own a car, they had to take Jenny to training by bus. "He used to tell me I was living his dream being a professional athlete. What would I have done if I hadn't made it? I think I'd have been a teacher but, thankfully, plan A worked."

It took its time. Her PE teacher at the Deanery was Aileen Mills, who ran for England in the 1986 Commonwealth Games and points out that for a long time Jenny was not the first choice to run 400m or 800m.

"She had to force her way through and use some of that Wigan edge." As the framed shirts from its pupils, including Andy Gregory, who have gone on to play rugby league professionally attest, the Deanery has been long adept at sharpening edges.

The breakthrough came in Berlin in the 2009 World Championships. The 800m was won by Caster Semenya, who despite the pressure of the suggestions that she was biologically a man, destroyed the rest of the field. Meadows, running a personal best, took bronze, the first major medal of her career.

"It took me 20 years. I had been running since I was seven. Crazy isn't it?" she laughs. "I am so glad I persevered. It wasn't for the money – I was making £5,000 a year – but the overwhelming pride you feel when pulling on that British vest.

"The race was quite late at night and I was selected for doping control so I celebrated with the doctor, I literally had a quick, 20-second hug from family and friends while I went back to my room. "I got back at one in the morning and I had to get up at eight and never slept a minute. I lay back thinking that my life will be changed by this, I won't have to keep worrying about how I am going to pay the electricity bill and that I could make a living from the sport. The one regret was my dad had passed away the year before. I would have loved for him to be there."

Curiously, Blankers-Koen was also confronted by a rival whose gender was the subject of fierce debate. However, if she helped force her Dutch team-mate, Foekje Dillema, into retirement, Meadows has been publicly supportive of the young South African.

South Africa and, more specifically, its high veld is where Jenny and her husband and coach, Trevor Painter, who played rugby league for Wigan, spend the winter.

"I don't think our relationship would have stood up if we weren't together," she said. "One of my friends is a teacher and he is always off for the holidays, while she is travelling all around the world to compete and that is really tough. Trevor understands the whole mindset of an athlete that you have to be, if not selfish, then self-absorbed."

They train at Potchefstroom 1,350m above sea level. "We could have gone to Cape Town but we went to the part of South Africa where there is literally nothing to do," she said. "If you are given a day off, it feels like a punishment. All you can do is sit and read a book."

If Meadows achieves her goals, which is not necessarily Olympic gold in London but fulfilling her potential, she will embrace retirement. She has just given an athletics masterclass to the Deanery's current pupils and remarked that the hall was where she sat "going from one bum cheek to the other" during communion. The wine would have been the only alcohol she has tasted.

"I think I could be happy in retirement. I'd like to see what's out there. I'd like to go the cinema. I'd be excited to have friends over for dinner, to have Christmas at home – all the ordinary things."

Jenny Meadows is an ambassador for Alfa Romeo, official car supplier to UK Athletics

'We all know we will by judged by the Olympics – nothing else'

An Olympic Games is the most intense sporting experience on the planet. A World Cup, the only event that can rival it, is spread across a country, an Olympics is concentrated within a city and it will be Jenny Meadows' second time around. In Beijing, she made the semi-finals of the 800m.

"Everyone is so aware of the Olympics," she said. "People who I haven't been in contact with for ages have been sending me messages, offering words of encouragement.

"Behind the scenes, it is very strange because at every other meeting up to World Championship level, you see only people from your own sport. But at an Olympics you will be sat in the canteen and Michael Phelps will come wandering in. The food is edible, you can choose from Eastern, Western or halal menus but the superstars have the same plastic cutlery as you and they sleep on the same £40 beds. It keeps you very grounded.

"I do have a degree in English but, I am ashamed to admit, I don't tend to take books to a tournament. I'll flick through a magazine to pass the time.

"Sometimes, in Beijing, the sheer enormity of it overwhelmed you. It felt like you were the centre of everything and wherever you looked, whether it was at us, the Americans, the Russians, the Jamaicans, everyone was driving towards that one goal. It doesn't matter how you have done in the World or European Championships, we all know we will be judged by the Olympic Games and nothing else."

Tim Rich