Athletics: Merry slips into the fast lane: Norman Fox tracks a young woman who should make a mark at next week's European Cup

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The Independent Online
BRITISH athletes are no longer much good at middle-distance running. They cannot keep up with the Kenyans over longer trips and as for the long jump, Lynn Davies, who has just celebrated his 30th year as holder of the national record, buries his head in the sand with embarrassment at today's puny efforts. But Britain is producing competitors who can run extremely fast, not least Linford Christie, and now Katharine Merry. Though only 19, she could bring Britain two crucial sprint victories in next weekend's European Cup in Birmingham.

This pale, fair-haired, determined girl from Rugby will, somewhat unreasonably, be under pressure to paper over the wide cracks in traditionally stronger events and help secure Britain's qualification for the World Cup. Since this year's final happens to be at Crystal Palace, it would be more than a shade disconcerting for the host country not to qualify.

The European Cup is one of those unnecessary, contrived and now, unfortunately, annual events in an already overcrowded calendar. But, by and large, sprinters do not mind going from event to event in quick succession. Their training is tough but the cost in depletion of physical reserves during such short races is small by comparison with the demands put upon middle- and long-distance runners. Christie himself ran outstandingly in Nuremburg on the eve of the KP National Championships. He flew back that night, slept for four hours and was ready to take on the heats of the 100m in Sheffield. But when he appeared to be using that as an example of what could be done and started appeals for everyone to do their duty and run for Britain next weekend, Rob Denmark and others, asked whether Christie had any idea how demanding it was to run 50 times 100m at a competitive pace.

So it will be the sprinters who have to put their best foot forward next weekend when Britain need to finish at least second to qualify for the World Cup final. Christie is obviously going to win his 100m as long as he manages to put one foot in front of the other. Merry is a novice by comparison, although she has also had an outstanding start to the season.

Britain has not had a really good woman sprinter since Kathy Cook set the national record of 11.10sec in the 100m back in 1981 and the 200m record of 22.10 in 1984. Although Merry's personal bests are 11.27 and 22.85 respectively, every time she runs the word on everyone's lips is potential, just as it has been for the past five years. It was first noticed by the late coach and commentator Ron Pickering who saw her run in 1989 and suggested that she could become a sprinter of Olympic final ability.

Pickering was rarely wrong in his predictions, but the compliment proved a millstone around the teenager's neck. The performance that impressed him particularly was the setting of an age group record for 200m when Merry was 14. She turned to the manager John Anderson for advice, and he took over the planning of her career when she was 17. 'She is the most gifted sprinter this country has produced,' he said at the time. This week, Malcolm Arnold, newly appointed the British Athletic Federation's chief coach, added: 'She has impressed me enormously. Recently she has been doing some relay practising and, again, she has been really impressive.'

Over the past few years Merry's progress has been far from easy, slowed by a back injury that even now nags at her confidence. This season, though, her running has seemed stronger and more sustained. She can overcome the occasional poor start - in the 100m at Sheffield it was poor enough to prove how good she had become over the last 15 metres - and looks altogether more powerful. Last year she won the European junior 200m but she thinks that the crucial turning point came in February when she equalled the UK indoor 200m record of 23sec: 'That was the one that gave me the confidence for this season.'

She says that her ability this season to achieve a series of best performances and the double at the KP National (AAA and WAAA championships) including her first sub-23sec 200m, is in part the result of training with the male athletes of Birchfield Harriers. Because she is still growing, she has refused to take part in any weight training but looks forward to seeing what she can achieve with more muscle. Keen family support (her mother had great difficulty in keeping her camera still enough to take pictures last weekend) has been important, especially on the big occasions. 'It was very hard last weekend,' Merry admitted. 'I don't think I have the strength yet to double up in big events and I'm not daft enough to try.' Yet next weekend she is down to run both sprint distances. At the European Championship and Commonwealth Games, though, she is determined to run in only the 200m.

And what if she should become a European and Commonwealth medallist? 'I'm not thinking about what I can make out of athletics. Getting paid is less important than getting into important races.'

(Photograph omitted)

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