Athletics: Merry making ready for a lengthy career: A British prodigy faces her first major test in a senior international championship. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
SHORTLY before last summer's Olympic Games, there was a televised documentary on the subject of teenage athletes featuring Katharine Merry. The programme ended with a line of information added after filming had been been completed: Katharine Merry was not selected for the Olympic Games.

The baldness of the statement caused quiet rage in the Merry household at Dunchurch, near Rugby. The fact was that she would have gone to Barcelona had the selectors not decided it was a waste of time sending a women's sprint relay team.

Merry has had few disappointments since announcing her huge potential four years ago, when she ran world-best times for a 14-year-old at 60 and 100 metres. But the dismay she felt over that missed opportunity, and the British board's lack of tact in failing to let her and the other runners involved know what was happening before the decision was announced, is something which has stayed with her.

'I would have loved to have gone,' she said. 'This year it has made me more determined. It has made me train harder to gain a place in my own right. They can't not take you then.'

This weekend Merry has that place, and her first major test in a senior international championship, as she runs the 200m for Britain in the European Cup final in Rome. Extrovert and assured as she is, the responsibility of having to score points in a team competition has had a sobering effect.

'It has just about sunk in with me,' she said this week. 'I know it will be the biggest race I've had to do so far. When you are travelling out to an event with people like Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell it brings home how important it is. When there is only one person per event, and you have the weight of the world on your shoulders . . . it will get to me.'

In an effort to prevent it getting to her too much, Merry and her coach, Keith Antoine, avoided talking about the European Cup until their scheduled training session this week.

Merry, whose most important senior run to date came four months ago at Britain's indoor international against the United States, got the nod for Rome after the British championships, where she set a personal best of 23.20sec in winning the 200m. Jenny Stoute, who ran 22.78sec in the Olympic semi-final, had withdrawn from the final with hamstring trouble without recording a significantly fast time in qualifying. That told against her; as did the impression Merry made as she held off Gunnell.

'It was a fighting performance,' Tony Ward, the British Athletics spokesman, said. 'Down the finishing straight it was a case of 'thou shalt not pass'.'

The promise Merry displayed four years ago, when she was setting her world bests - 7.35 for the 60m, 11.47 wind-assisted for the 100m - and winning the US High Schools Championship has been conscientiously maintained, in poignant contrast to her equally talented contemporary Diane Smith, whose career was ended by a medical problem.

Not that Merry has been without physical problems herself. After her British championship run, Merry's discomfort was evident as she half-sat, half-perched on a chair. Her back, she said cheerfully, was killing her. She has had pain in her lower back for the last four years, and although a succession of scans have indicated that there is no structural damage, it is something that is intermittently with her.

Inevitably with someone who was so good, so young, dark comparisons have been made between her and the Tracey Austin brigade of overstretched young tennis players pushed beyond their natural limits.

'I get incensed when I hear things like that,' said Merry's mother, Jennie. 'It is not like that at all. When we have taken her to surgeons about her back injury, they have concluded that the problem came about through her gymnastics, which she gave up when she was 10.'

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Merry, who will seek the 100 and 200m titles at her third European Junior championships next month, trains just four times a week. 'If I do too much too soon, I might not be around by the time I'm 25, and I want to continue running at least until I'm 30,' she said. 'You've got to give yourself space to expand.'

She will have all the space she needs in the Olympic stadium this Sunday. With luck, her international career will expand - judiciously - throughout the 1990s.