Paula Dunn: The new pacesetter who must pick up the London baton

She's the first female head coach to be appointed by UK Athletics, and the first black one – and she has been handed a tough task: to build on the remarkable popularity of the London Paralympics. Simon Turnbull meets Paula Dunn

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The Independent Online

Paula Dunn can't help chuckling at the memory. "Do you know," she says, reflecting on those never-to-be-forgotten days when the Paralympics captured the hearts of the nation, when the Olympic Stadium was packed to the rafters and overflowing with an electrically charged atmosphere, "when I got the job as performance manager back in early 2009, my mum said to me, 'Shall I get some tickets for the Paralympics?' I said, 'Don't worry, mum. You'll be able to get them on the day.' How wrong was I?

"I still can't believe it. I would never have imagined 80,000 sell-outs for the morning and evening sessions, right the way throughout the 12 days of the athletics programme. The pinnacle was when 80,000 people were shouting Jonnie Peacock's name. I had never experienced anything like it before in an athletics stadium. I just thought it was mad – brilliant, but mad."

Three months on from the memorable madness of the London Paralympics, Dunn is settling into the job of attempting to replicate the Lord Mayor's Show in Rio. Last month the former international sprinter was promoted from performance manager to Paralympic head coach by the domestic governing body of track and field, UK Athletics.

Her task is to follow Peter Eriksson, the Swedish-born Canadian who guided the British Paralympic athletics team to an Aladdin's cave haul of 29 medals in London – 11 gold, seven silver and 11 bronze. It is not exactly an easy ask.

"Absolutely," Dunn says. "How bad is that? How unfair of Peter to give me the toughest job in the world." The 48-year-old Mancunian is laughing again. Dunn is blessed with an infectiously sunny disposition and – vitally, for the task she has taken on – an unerringly positive nature.

"I'm confident," she adds. "We've got some really good talented youngsters coming through. A lot of the team are still really young and they're able to compete at the next Games.

"I think we've set a really good platform now and it's for us as a sport to take advantage of that and really build on it. Obviously it's going to be really tough. We exceeded our expectation in London. But to me that's what sport's about – the challenge and the excitement to see if we can do better.

"I'm under no illusions. It is a really tough ask. But I'm really happy that UK Athletics saw fit to give me the role, to carry on the good work that Peter set up. I just hope I carry on and do it. That's the plan."

It is not the first daunting challenge that Dunn has confronted on the global sporting stage. Her time as an international sprinter coincided with the advent of the freakish American Florence Griffith-Joyner and the similarly formidable East Germans, who were found to have been steroid-fuelled when Stasi files came to light after the Berlin Wall came down.

The Stretford Harrier ran for Britain at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, reaching the quarter-finals of the 100m and the semi-finals of the 200m. Both events were won by Griffith-Joyner – "Flo-Jo" was the fastest woman in history.

"I remember running against her in the heats at the World Championships in Rome in 1987," Dunn recalls. "It was scary. It was really hot and I was in the lane next to her. I remember looking at her, all covered in make-up and with these huge big fingernails, and she didn't even break into a sweat. It was pretty scary racing against her. Nobody has been that quick – ever."

Griffith-Joyner died in 1998, aged 38. Her world records – 10.49sec for 100m and 21.34sec for 200m – remain untouched and seemingly beyond reach. Dunn, meanwhile, stands fifth on the UK all-time rankings at both 100m and 200m, with personal bests of 11.15sec and 22.69sec. No British woman managed to run faster at either distance this year.

Dunn won a 100m silver medal and 4x100m gold at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. She also won Commonwealth bronze in the 100m and 4x100m relay at Kuala Lumpur in 1994. One of her finest showings was at the European Cup at Gateshead in 1989 when she finished runner-up to Katrin Krabbe in the 100m and to Silke Gladisch in the 200m. Both were part of the drug-driven East German women's team.

"At the time, you just run, don't you?" Dunn reflects. "I kind of thought it was a slightly uneven playing field but that's just the sport. There's always somebody who comes along and excels. But when I look back I've got to say it was really hard.

"There was no sort of support like there is now – nutritionists, physiotherapists, psychologists and doctors. You had to do it yourself. I was fortunate. I had a really good coach, Jim Harris. He coached Shirley Strong [the 1984 Olympic 100m hurdles silver medallist]. We had a really good set-up at our club, Stretford.

"There was no Lottery support. You just worked and fitted your training round it. It feels like another lifetime ago, thinking about it, I've got to say. If I try to run now I can beat my 10-year-old son to the car but I need CPR when I get there."

Such was the success of the British team at the home Games in September that UK Athletics' Paralympic programme was a big winner when it came to the division of Lottery funding by UK Sport this week for the four-year cycle to Rio. It was rewarded with a rise from £6.7 million to £10.7m.

"It does make it a lot easier to plan for the next four years, knowing that we've got more athlete places and more money to fund those who are coming through," Dunn says. "It is a substantial increase. I think it's a reflection of what happened in 2012, that we were one of the sports that delivered.

"It's a cruel world, elite sport. We all had very high targets. When I started on the Paralympic programme in 2009 it was clear what we needed to do in 2012 – a top-eight finish in the medals table and six golds. That was what we always expected as a minimum and we were fortunate that we exceeded the target [finishing third in the medals table, with 11 golds].

"Fortunate is not perhaps the right word," she corrects herself. "We were really well planned. We did a lot of research. We knew which events we were going to target. We took out some of the element of chance.

"The aims are the same for 2016: to create the culture and atmosphere to enable the athletes to be in the best shape possible for the Games, to make sure that our talent pipeline keeps coming through, to keep strengthening the foundations of the sport."

Dunn will be directing Paralympic operations on the road to Rio from UK Athletics' new centralised national training base in Loughborough, where Eriksson has moved over to the Olympic side to replace Charles van Commenee as head coach of the able-bodied national squad.

"My role is to oversee the athletes at Loughborough, to lead with the athletes and coaches there," she says, "and also to lead with the athletes and coaches on the outside of the institute – to make sure they're getting what they require, and to make sure everybody's working towards the same goal.

"Not all of our athletes are based at Loughborough, of course. We have regular assessments at Loughborough, though, so some athletes come in once a month, some once a quarter. And obviously I go out to visit too – to London, Bath and Cardiff – to see the athletes based there and make sure everything's going well for them."

It says much about the self-effacing Dunn that she laughs off the significance of being the first female head coach appointed by UK Athletics, and also the first black head coach. "I didn't realise those things when I got the job," she says. "I was just thinking, 'Great, I've got the job.'

"And then there were people saying to me, 'Oh you're a lady.' And I went, 'I know I'm a lady.' 'And you're black,' they said. I said, 'Yeah, I know. I've been black for 48 years now.'

"So it was only when people started mentioning these things that I even thought about them. But I've been working at UK Athletics for 11 years now. I started in Talent ID, on the Olympic programme. I've just kind of worked away.

"I think I must obviously be good, because they've kept me there through different restructuring processes. And I do think that I was really fortunate to work alongside Peter Eriksson because he was an exceptionally good mentor to me. Peter gave me the confidence to go out and do things – to go and find the talent.

"I did a lot of coaching with the relay team. I got really struck into the role. The brief was to go out and do it and look at things slightly differently, which was really good for my development. So by the time the head coach's job came up I was really confident when I put in for it that I could do the job.

"If I hadn't had the support from Peter, I don't think I would have had the confidence to put in for the job. I don't think I would have had the skill set as well. We worked really closely together. I owe Peter a lot."

So does British sport. Thanks in large part to Eriksson, Paralympic track and field enjoys an unprecedented public profile in these shores. It is Dunn's goal to keep it up there.

Pioneering female coaches

Nancy Lieberman

Dubbed "Lady Magic", Lieberman was a trailblazer as a basketball player, breaking into the men's professional side of the game with the Springfield Fame in 1986. In 2009 she became the first woman to be appointed head coach of an NBA team, taking charge of the Texas Legends in the NBA Development League. "She is the best man for the job," co-owner Donnie Nelson said.

Hope Powell

Powell won 66 caps as an attacking midfielder for the England women's football team. In 2003 she became the first female coach to earn a Uefa Pro Licence, after studying on the same course as Stuart Pearce. She has been manager of the England women's team since 1998 and led the British Olympic women's team to the quarter-finals at London 2012.

Liz McColgan

As an athlete, McColgan won the World Championships 10,000m title in Tokyo in 1991. She also won an Olympic 10,000m silver medal in Seoul in 1988 and won the New York and London marathons. Her proudest sporting moment, however, came this summer when she guided her daughter, Eilish McColgan, to Olympic selection in the 3,000m steeplechase. "To be her coach is an honour," McColgan Snr said, "but to be her mother is something else."

Simon Turnbull