Athletics: Guiding light in outside lane

Rowland enters new territory as a coach, hoping to lead his star pupil to a world that eluded him
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The Independent Online
IT HAS been nine years since Mark Rowland last attended the AAA championships in Birmingham. His memory of the occasion is not a very happy one. "I was never at fault, never," he says, recalling the last lap incident that left Steven Halliday and Tony Morrell out of the 1,500m final and squaring up to one another on the back-straight of the Alexander Stadium.

Rowland, seeking a hat-trick of different AAA titles, following his 3,000m steeplechase victory in 1988 and his 5,000m triumph in 1989, was ultimately denied by the fast-finishing Neil Horsfield in the home straight. He was subsequently disqualified from the runner-up position, deemed guilty of precipitating the back-straight barging - a decision that still rankles. "I was the one who made the decisive move," he maintains. "It was the others who messed up."

Rowland will not be making any moves on the track, decisive or otherwise, when he returns to the Alexander Stadium for the combined AAA championships and CGU world championship trials meeting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Hayley Tullett will be making them for him.

Rowland, Britain's finest ever two-legged steeplechaser and a brilliant bronze medal winner at the Olympic Games in Seoul 11 years ago, has joined the growing band of great British athletes who have moved from the competitive side of the track and field fence into the coaching arena. Like Linford Christie, Mike McFarlane, Peter Elliott and Aston Moore, he has done so with notable success too.

This afternoon at Hexham, Andy Robinson, a member of the young squad Rowland has been nurturing in Sussex for the past two years, competes in the 3,000m steeplechase for the British Under-23 team against France and Spain. And next weekend in Birmingham Tullett will be looking to maintain the impressive progress she has been making as Rowland's first senior international charge.

Though she dismisses any notion of being a possible threat to Kelly Holmes in the 1,500m, the fact that she came within three-hundredths of a second of beating the 1995 world championship silver medallist in the CGU Classic at Gateshead last month, a feat no British athlete has achieved for six years, suggests the 26-year-old Swansea Harrier is emerging as a metric miler to be reckoned with.

Not that Rowland is basking in any reflected glory. "No bloody way," he insists when asked to pose for the camera in trackside coaching mode. "I want Hayley to have the recognition, not me. In the end, it's about what she's doing. I'm just helping out. It's the athletes who have to get out there and do it."

As an athlete himself, Rowland got out there and did it the hard way. A training partner of Steve Ovett at the Brighton Phoenix club, he won the UK 1,500m title and the Emsley Carr Mile in 1985 but found his path to international level as a middle-distance runner barred by the preponderance of British talent in the mid-1980s. So he started clearing physical barriers instead and within two years took the Olympic 3,000m steeplechase bronze medal behind Julius Kariuki and Peter Koech, preventing a Kenyan clean sweep and shattering Colin Reitz's British record with a time of 8min 7.96sec.

Rowland was only 25 at the time but when he returned from Seoul his best days were already behind him. His career among the track world's elite was cruelly hamstrung by injury. "One of the reasons I'm coaching is that I always felt I never achieved what I could have done as an athlete," he says. "There's a frustration there. I really felt I was cheated. I didn't run at all in what should have been my best years, which hurts really."

Now 36, Rowland works as part-time development officer for the Sussex AAA. He also runs the Athletics Youth Foundation, a charitable scheme he founded to identify and develop talented youngsters in his home county. He coaches his own group of athletes at the Broadbridge Heath track in Horsham, though he confesses: "I still don't feel comfortable calling myself a coach. I've always felt that's what you should call people who are experienced in the game and who are very knowledgable. And I don't see myself in that category."

Rowland admits to compensating for his lack of experience by "picking the brains" of more established coaches, notably the wise grey matter of Alan Storey, the guru who guided him to Olympic medal winning success and who masterminded Sonia O'Sullivan's trailblazing 1998 campaign.

Rowland's lack of knowledge, however, was clear when Tullett - or Hayley Parry, as she was before her marriage to international pole vaulter Ian Tullett - sought his help after moving from Swansea to Woking last September.

She was already an international 800m runner but Rowland admits: "I didn't really know who she was. I just had not followed women's athletics. I had no idea who was who and what kind of times were international class or world class. This year was always going to be a learning experience for me and, with Hayley doing a new event, it's very much a transitional year for her too. We're not getting carried away with the situation. Hayley's running well but there's a long way to go - a long way."

Tullett does not disagree. "It's all been new territory for me," she says. "I didn't actually know Mark until I started working with him in September and now I'm training for the 1,500m instead of the 800m. We'll have a better picture at the end of the season, after we've discovered what I've responded to and what we think I can improve upon. But I'm really pleased with the way things have been going. I'm just looking forward to the trials and, hopefully, to making the team for Seville. If I do make the team it would be the first time I've run in one of the major outdoor championships."

It would be a first for her coach too. It was one of the great pities of Mark Rowland's truncated track career that he never raced in the world championships.