Athletics: Flying doctor heading for 800m take-off: Curtis Robb, Britain's latest middle-distance prospect, is chasing medical exams as well as medals this year. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
WHITE-COATED, stethoscoped students accompany the consultant doing his rounds at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital. They pause beside a man who has suffered a heart attack, and the consultant beckons one of his group to conduct an examination. Curtis Robb steps forward.

At a time of year when athletes traditionally face fresh challenges, Robb is no exception. Since late April, Britain's 20-year-old Olympic 800 metres finalist has been testing himself as rigorously off the track as on it in pursuit of his ambition to become a doctor.

Last Tuesday's experience was as demanding as any for him. 'While I was examining the patient the consultant was pointing out all the mistakes I made,' he said. 'I was asked if I could hear the heart murmur. I didn't know what I was listening for. Even when someone points it out to you it's a difficult condition to make out.'

Robb's decision to maintain his studies despite his emergence in the last year as a world-class 800m runner has presented him with fierce demands on his time and energy. 'It's not so much the training that is difficult, it's afterwards, when you feel tired and don't want to look at a book.'

Because of his competitive commitments this summer, he is already revising for his next set of exams in January. It could be worse. It will be worse.

This time next year, Robb will be doing 'take' - that is, he will have to make himself available for 24-hour stints at hospital. Endurance work in this context will mean 5pm till 5pm; circuit training will be around the cardiovascular ward. 'I think the general consensus among athletes is that they want a part-time job with flexible hours. Some athletes don't even want that because they want to concentrate on their training. I tried that when I had a year out. But I got a bit bored, to be honest.'

Life at the other extreme, however, has prompted many in athletics to question the feasibility of what Robb is attempting to do.

'They do think I'm a bit mad,' he said. 'A lot of people have said, 'Pack it in.'

The pressure to heed that suggestion - as Roger Black did a few years ago - has been intense. Among those who have urged him to concentrate on his sporting career is Britain's head of coaching, Frank Dick, who told Robb he would be a better athlete for it.

'Sometimes, if I've had a bad day, I do think about whether I'm doing the right thing,' Robb said. 'But I really do love studying medicine. I've said it before, but if I had to keep the athletics or the medicine, I'd keep the medicine. I couldn't pack it in.'

His parents back his choice unequivocally. For Robb's father, Alex, the stance is particularly noble - he stands to win pounds 100,000 from a bet laid in 1989 if his son wins the Olympic 1500m title in 1996; which is also the year when Robb Jnr is due to sit his final examination.

His father chuckles at the situation. 'That is just a minor thing in comparison to Curtis's fulfilment,' he says. 'More important than making me a few bob.'

If he can maintain the momentum which he gathered last season in winning the Olympic trial and going on to finish a bold sixth in Barcelona, Robb Jnr should be making a few bob for himself by then anyway. As far as he is concerned, continuing to study medicine will not remotely compromise his competitiveness.

'Last season I had a bit of a Corinthian attitude,' he said. 'This year it is a professional attitude.' Robb estimates he has increased his training by a third this season. His strength and endurance has improved. He has put on another half a stone through weight training.

He talks now about the Olympics in the same way that many football players recall the FA Cup final. 'A lot of it went right over my head,' he said. 'It was a lot of attention all at once. I didn't have enough time to take it all in.' He nevertheless gained crucial experience from it.

'I was close to a personal best in the final, so I couldn't really complain. but I did get smacked around a bit by Mark Everett (of the United States). I've let myself get knocked around in the past. I'm just going to stand my ground this year.'

That determination will extend to the domestic scene, where he feels rivals such as Dave Sharpe and Tom McKean will be out to make a point this year. 'They can't have this young lad upsetting the system,' Robb said wryly.

He has an early opportunity to assess his home standing on Saturday, when he races Sharpe over a mile on the road in a televised series of races in Aberdeen.

Like his team-mate from Liverpool Harriers, the world junior high jump champion Steve Smith, Robb is happy to put pressure on himself and attempt to use it in a positive way. He intends to run 400m in lower-key races this summer in order to reduce his personal best of 48.9sec. 'I want to be able to go through 400 metres in 50 seconds and feel comfortable,' he said. 'Last season only Johnny Gray could do that.'

If he succeeds in that aim, he will move substantially closer to his main goal of a medal at the World Championships in Stuttgart this August. The day after those championships finish, Robb has to be in Sheffield. Yes. Back on the wards. . .

(Photograph omitted)