Athletics: Gunnell prodigy back in running

New faces for 1999: Julie Pratt (left) is showing the tenacity of her famous clubmate as she fights back from an early upset.
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The Independent Online
AMONG THE many success stories of 1998 for British athletics, that of a junior athlete bears re-examination. You could call it the Fall and Rise of Julie Pratt.

In the summer of 1997, at the European Junior Championships, she had led at the final barrier in the 100 metre hurdles final only to fall with such force that she grazed herself from head to toe.

A year on, the 19-year-old Essex girl made the most of her final opportunity of racing at junior level when she won the world title in Annecy, France, against a field that included four competitors who had run faster than her best of 13.52sec.

Both Pratt and the silver medallist, Hongwei Sun of China, were timed at 13.75sec, edging out the Chinese entrant Hongwei Sun, who had a best of 12.92.

That the runners got away after four false starts in teeming rain may have helped Pratt achieve her ambition. "It was absolutely terrible weather," she said. "When I woke up that morning I could see that it was going to be awful. But it didn't really bother me, because I was used to running in the rain."

After getting an outstanding start, Pratt found herself level with the Chinese girl with two barriers left. "When I cleared the last hurdle I just closed my eyes and went for the line," she said. "I didn't know I'd won until I heard the announcement." The news prompted loud celebration in the stand from Pratt's parents, David and Arlene. "It was very emotional," recalled Pratt, who now faces the tricky challenge of a transition from junior to senior ranks.

Pratt is following in a long line of Essex Ladies' athletes who have excelled over the hurdles. There was Wendy Jeal, who took silver behind Gunnell's gold in the 1986 Commonwealth sprint hurdles, Gladys Taylor, Jean Desforges and Edie Peacock. And, of course, there was Sally Gunnell, the most successful British female athlete in history.

Brenda Wilmot, who has been associated with Essex Ladies as an athlete and volunteer for more than 40 years, has a clear memory of the impact that the 11-year-old Pratt made on the club when she began training there - and it was not huge.

"She was a tot of a thing," Wilmot said. "She did not have the brilliant star quality that one or two of the other girls had, but she beavered away.

"When you have enormous natural talent, the temptation is just to get by on talent. Many of the very promising girls fell by the wayside because they couldn't work hard. But Julie is a very determined character who keeps her eyes fixed on the target.

"She has got the sort of tenacity that Sally had. There are definitely similarities between the two."

The tot, grown now to 5ft 6in, accepts that self-discipline is one of her strongest assets. The Chelmsford-based athlete only meets up with her coach, Ian Grant, at weekends when he travels from his home in Swindon to oversee her technical work. For the rest of the week Pratt is reliant on herself.

"I have to follow Ian's training schedules and make sure I do all the work properly," she said. "That takes a certain level of discipline." She also gives credit to her first coach, Les Corder, for being careful to bring her along gradually, limiting her outings to races against those of her own age.

"A lot of other girls in my age group were racing regularly against older competitors, which was tiring and sometimes demoralising."

As you might expect, Gunnell has been a source of inspiration and encouragement to the young clubmate who followed in her steps. In 1995, when Gunnell was Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth 400m hurdles champion - world record holder, too - she took a group of 10 promising young athletes, of whom Pratt was one, for a training trip in Portugal.

"She told us all to believe in ourselves," Pratt said. "She said if we could do that we could make it all the way. She's a very down-to-earth person, and when she came along and started winning everything it made all the British women in athletics realise that they could mix it with everyone and show the rest of the world what they could do."

Pratt's hopes of showing the world her full potential will be enhanced in 1999 by the second European under-23 championships, to be held in Gothenburg, where she will attempt to consolidate her success.

Although Pratt intends to contest the senior world championship trials, she is looking beyond 1999 to the 2000 Olympics as a more realistic focus for senior achievement.

Pratt's victory in France earned her the title of junior female athlete of the year from Britain's athletics writers. It would be nice to think she could figure again in the near future when the time comes to assess the best of British talent.