Athletics: Merry in a hurry to move up

A former teenage sprint prodigy is itching to build on signs of success at 400 metres. By Mike Rowbottom

NOT FOR the first time in his life, Linford Christie was under pressure. This time, however, the demands were coming from the group of athletes whom he has coached with such success for the last couple of years. And the subject of the debate was Katharine Merry.

The former teenage prodigy had just completed what was only the second competitive 400 metres of her career on the Nuremburg track, having made a late decision to switch from the 100 metres. Luckily for her there was a spare lane in the race; unluckily for the seven original entrants, the late arrival won in style in a time of 51.09sec. Not bad for a 200 metres runner.

And therein lies the problem. "Are you going to let her move up now?' asked the gang. The answer was no.

"Linford carried on for about half an hour explaining why it would be better for me to be patient before switching events," Merry recalled. "He's right, because there is a big difference between doing a one-off 400 and running rounds at a championship.

"All my winter training has been geared towards another season of 200 metres racing, and I have too much respect for the kind of work you need to put in to run the 400 properly to want to go charging ahead." But Merry's potential at one-lap, first evidenced at Glasgow last September where she ran a close second to one-lap specialist Allison Curbishley in 51.02sec, is clearly huge.

It is only a matter of time before she starts to move up the all-time British rankings from the ninth place in which she currently stands.

This weekend in Paris she will run in the European Cup for Britain in the 200m individual event, and the 400m relay - for which Nuremburg served as practice. And she is seeking to make a similar impact to that achieved in 1994, when, as a 19-year-old, she finished runner-up in both sprints at the European Cup in Birmingham.

Merry is still only 24, but if she seems to have been around for ages on the international athletics scene it is because she has. As a 12-year- old, she set a world age best for 200m of 25.2sec.

The following year at 13 she became the youngest athlete to represent Britain, and as a 14-year-old she set two more world age bests for 60m and 100m - respectively 7.35sec and 11.47sec wind-assisted.

Unlike so many other precocious achievers in the sport, however, Merry, whose housemate in Birmingham is the world triple jump record holder Ashia Hansen, has maintained her position, even if injuries have made her career look precarious at times.

After the success of 1994, her 1995 season was restricted to just one race by knee problems which eventually required two operations.

"It was a real bugger," she said. With real feeling.

But working with Christie's group alongside athletes such as the newly installed European 100m champion Darren Campbell and world indoor 400m champion Jamie Baulch has proved to be just the kind of joshing, challenging but supportive environment she thrives in.

After reclaiming her British indoor 200m record with a time of 22.83sec at the Ricoh meeting in February, Merry travelled to Sydney for a training break with Christie and company and concentrated her attention on the forthcoming outdoor season.

"I'm getting frustrated at going to major championships and not making an impact," she said. "I've got to start making finals now." Merry believes that would be significantly easier for her to do at 400 than at 200 or 100 metres. You can feel the prospect tugging at her. "I can go under 51 seconds in my next 400," she says. But she soon returns to the Linford line as she considers her European Cup prospects at 200m, encouraged by the memory of her first outdoor race of the season, in Martinique, where she recorded 22.91sec.

"The European Cup is usually won in a time that is good or reasonable," she said. "If I can get a decent lane draw and I'm feeling good, I'd like to think I can be right up there."

You can imagine coach Christie nodding sagely at this point.

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