Athletics: Lorraine hammers out her future

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The Independent Online
THE TOP-LEVEL track and field season formally leaps into action in Britain this afternoon. The showpiece event on the programme at the Loughborough International meeting is Paula Radcliffe's attempt to set a new world best time in the women's two-mile race. The leading lady of British running has already been in record-breaking form on the track this year, having eclipsed her own British and Commonwealth 10,000m record in Bilbao last month. She is not, however, the only British athlete starting the summer with a fresh mark in the track and field record book.

In Lorraine Shaw's case, though, it is marks rather than mark. Had it not been for a preposterous bureaucratic rule still surviving from the dark ages of the sport, the Gloucester hammer thrower would be heading to the Loughborough University track with four 1999 records already in her bag.

In Stellenbosch on 17 February she set an Africa all-comers' record, 63.29m. In Bellville 10 days later, while still on a warm weather training trip to South Africa, she broke the same record, improving to 64.66. Then, back home on 25 April, she shattered her four-year-old British record at the West London Hammer School's annual Hammerama at Colindale. The 64.90 she threw that day remains the British record - even though Shaw herself has since thrown further.

She won the Worcestershire county title at Worcester a fortnight ago with 66.68. There was, however, just one other athlete in the competition and rule 141-17 of the UK Athletics constitution states: "No performance will be accepted in an individual event unless it has been accomplished during an official competition with a minimum of three competitors taking part."

How an orchestrated Gebrselassie world record attempt (complete with pace-makers, music and a coach shouting instructions on the in-field) can be deemed acceptable but not a performance made in an authentic championship is difficult to comprehend. To their credit, UK Athletics have agreed to consider Shaw's case. Given the Sale Harrier's rate of progress, however, by the time they resolve the matter she may well have broken straight through the red tape and into record books again. "I'd certainly like to get the record up to 68m-70m," she said. "I won't be completely satisfied until I do that."

Shaw is already close to world-class territory. She was ranked fourth in the world last week before a spate of global activity (including a world record 75.97 by Mihaela Melinte of Romania) knocked her down to eighth. "I want to finish the year as number three or four," she said. "Long-term, my aim is a medal at the world championships or at the Olympics. I don't think it's impossible, as long as I stay injury free and work hard."

Not since the javelin jousting days of Fatima Whitbread and Tessa Sanderson has a female British thrower been on the medal podium at global senior level. The women's hammer was only added to the programme for international championships last year and Shaw already has a medal - silver from the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. Whether she builds a collection remains to be seen, but she is clearly fully focused on her mission. Twelve months ago she gave up her job, making spectacles in Gloucester, to become a professional athlete.

The benefit of full-time training, supported by Lottery funding, has been measurable in her markedly improved performances this year. Less easily quantifiable has been the determination that has brought the 31- year-old back from the brink of premature retirement. A slipped disc kept Shaw out of action for the whole of 1997. Only an operation to remove it, and to pin together her lower vertebrae, saved her athletics career. "If I'd known how painful it was going to be I don't know whether I'd have had it done," she reflected. "But I knew deep down that I would have retired without having done what I'm capable of. That's why I've come back. And I've come back stronger - because this is a second chance for me."

It is also a chance for her to strike a blow for one of the marginalised events of track and field and for such unsung heroes as her coach, Alan Bertram, who devotes his time and effort for nothing more than his love of the sport. "It's nice that we've been moved from noon to 3.10pm on Sunday's programme because it means we're going to be getting some television coverage," Shaw said. "I understand that the women's hammer isn't seen as a glamour event. But I think if you've got someone good in your own country you should be supporting them 100 per cent. "For me, the hammer's an attractive event. I used to love the discus but if you can throw further in another event you're going to love that more. It's just so thrilling - the feeling of throwing a long way, building up the speed and just hitting the hammer away at the end. It really is thrilling."

And potentially threatening, too, as Shaw discovered - to her horror - in Stellenbosch three months ago. "The hammer circle was in the wrong place," she recalled. "It was right next to the 200m start and it would be easy to hook it into the crowd from there. I nearly did. I was lucky that there was stone in front of the seating area. It was certainly a shock."

At Loughborough today, though, Gloucester's emerging record breaker is more likely to be shattering records than bones.