ATHLETICS: Neef raring to live up to expectations

Scotland's sprint prospect at the World Indoor Championships talks to Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online
Scotland is not overwhelmingly endowed with top-class international athletes. It is hardly surprising, then, that Melanie Neef - bright, articulate, talented and 24 - should have achieved a high profile north of the border.

The fact that Britain's fastest up-and-coming 400 metres runner is the daughter of Gerry Neef, the German goalkeeper who played for Rangers in the late Sixties and early Seventies, has helped her publicity hugely.

But those positive factors have a down side for the City of Glasgow sprinter. In certain football-crazy quarters, Neef will always be Gerry's Girl. And to many of the public, used to significant victories from Scottish athletes such as Liz McColgan, Yvonne Murray and Tom McKean, Neef is a puzzle - prominent and yet not a world or European champion.

"When I came back from the European Championships last year my coach and I were delighted for me to have reached the final and come sixth," she said. "But certain people said to me: `What happened to you? You didn't win.' They have seen what the likes of McColgan and Murray have achieved, and they don't realise that I am not at that level yet."

The World Indoor Championships in Barcelona this weekend will assist her quest to reach that kind of level - particularly as she appears to be entered in one of the most competitive events in a championship which many lite athletes have ignored. Irina Privalova, Russia's world 60 metres record holder, has chosen to do what will be only her third indoor 400 metres. Other entrants include Jearl Miles, America's world outdoor 400m champion, and Sandie Richards, of Jamaica, the world indoor champion.

Neef admits that the prospect is terrifying. But Bob Inglis, who has coached her since 1993, takes a less alarmist view.

"If she goes out and finds there is an athlete with three legs she's to phone me straight away, because then I know we have got a problem," he said. "If not, she knows she is only racing against other human beings."

Since she arrived on the international scene in January last year, when she delighted the crowd at Glasgow's Kelvin Hall by becoming the only British woman winner in the match against Russia, Neef has taken giant strides in the 400 metres.

She took full advantage of the horrendously packed 1994 fixture list, competing in the European and World Cups, the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games, finishing sixth in the last two competitions.

This indoor season she has picked up where she left off, setting 10 Scottish records over 60, 200 and 400 metres - six of them in one afternoon at the national championships - and reducing her 400m best from 52.9sec to 52.57sec.

That puts her third in the all-time British indoor list behind Verona Elder, the current team manager, and Sally Gunnell, whose indoor record of 51.72sec is a realistic target for the Scottish runner this weekend.

"I think she can break the UK record," Inglis said. "What that will mean to her in terms of her position in the race I don't know. But the whole thrust of the indoor season is to improve her miles per hour. Without the capacity to sprint at X miles per hour there is no point in hoping to be a really good 400 metres runner. If you can't sprint, you can't hold your speed.

"This world indoor thing is a nice little add-on for her in terms of experience this season, the kind you can't buy. The 400 metres is a different event indoors. It's a competition from the break, and there's a lot of physical contact. You need to be a wee bit track-wise, and sprinters don't generally have to demonstrate that. It becomes almost like an 800 metres race.

"We are hoping she'll do well, but we will not be cutting our wrists with a Stanley knife if she doesn't. It will be something we can learn from."

Neef is no stranger to learning. Having completed a degree in sports science from Glasgow University, she is involved in marketing conferences which adapt sports psychology for business use. Not surprisingly, Neef carries her work into her own life, not always, according to her coach, with the desired result.

"She is terribly analytical," Inglis said. "When you are out there in the cold and wet and dark she wants to ask you questions about why you want to do this or that. I would rather deal with questions in a nice warm sports centre.

"To some extent you have to ignore some of the analysis she comes up with because she sometimes comes up with some very bizarre points of view. If I paid heed to everything she said I would start going round the twist." But all debate ceases once Neef gets on to the track. "When gun goes," Inglis said, "she becomes a very, very competitive person."

And Inglis has clearly developed an approach to bring the best out of his charge, even if it hardly qualifies as super-subtle psychology. Before her last race, at the KP Invitation in Birmingham last month, she announced to her coach that if she did not run under 53 seconds she would not bother to go to Barcelona.

"If you don't run under 53 seconds, don't bother to come home," Inglis said. The result: another Scottish record. And there are more to come.