First Night: Interview - Joice Maduaka - A little dash of history in the making

Simon Turnbull talks to a new standard-bearer of sprinting
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The Independent Online
JOICE MADUAKA hung her head in mock shame. She had a confession to make. "I would probably pass her in the street without even knowing it," she said. The fastest British woman of 1998 and 1999 cannot picture Kathy Cook, the fastest British woman of all time.

"I know her name, obviously," Maduaka continued, apologetically. "But at the time she was running I was still at school. I can't remember her at all. Everyone tells me that when she ran she used to lay down after every race. That's all I know about her."

It is not just for men, then, that time refuses to stand still. Kathy Cook's times have stood unchallenged in the British record books in the 12 years since she hung up her racing spikes but the image of her in full flight - her long, elegant stride eating up the ground, her long hair flowing in her slipstream - has faded with time. It is not even a memory to the young woman chasing with increasing velocity in her footsteps.

It's different, of course, for the male sprint pretenders gathering momentum in Linford Christie's wake. Jason Gardener and Dwain Chambers have both raced against the man whose British and European 100m record, 9.87 seconds, they have in their sights. Maduaka was three weeks short of her eighth birthday when Kathy Cook - or Kathy Smallwood, as she was at the time - shot from the blocks in lane eight in Rome's Stadio Olimpico and clocked 11.10sec as runner-up to Evelyn Ashford in the 1981 World Cup 100m race. The British records Cook set at the Los Angeles Olympics three years later - 22.10sec for 200m and 49.43sec for 400m - remain well beyond the grasp of her successors but, after 17 years and 10 months untouched, her 100m record could be living on borrowed time.

Maduaka is still a little way short of it, with a personal best of 11.24sec. Having improved by 0.52sec in the past 10 months, though, the little-known Londoner is on course to become the first British woman to remove a Cook mark from the record books. "People keep asking me what time I think I can run," Maduaka said, rightly anticipating another such request, "but, really, I've got no idea. You do all this training in the winter and it's like putting money away in a jar. I've got no idea exactly what I've got in there, what I've got in my legs. I haven't got a clue what I can run, which is good. I can shock myself."

She can shock others too, as she did in the European Cup 100m race at the Stade Charlety in Paris three weeks ago. For 60 metres, Maduaka was ahead of Christine Arron, Europe's fastest-ever woman. She ultimately finished third, behind Arron, the Frenchwoman who holds the European 100m title and record, and Natalya Ignatova, the European indoor 60m silver medallist from Russia, but in making an impression in such company, and reducing her best time to 11.24 sec, the emerging Briton showed how far she has come in a short space of time. It was only last year that she made her senior debut for Great Britain, at the European Indoor Championships in Valencia. "The good thing about the European Cup was that it didn't faze me," she said. "I just went out and did my own thing. But I train with Dwain Chambers and if I can hold him for five metres I know things are going well."

And things certainly are going well for Maduaka. Apart from the Paris match, she is unbeaten in 100m races this summer. Last weekend in Budapest she ran 11.26sec and defeated a field which included Nova Peris-Kneebone, the Commonwealth 200m champion. More scalps and more fast times would seem likely in the weeks ahead. According to Mike McFarlane, the sprint guru who has guided her since her junior days: "You ain't seen nothing yet."

Unlike her coach, Maduaka was no teenage prodigy. McFarlane, who tied with Allan Wells for the Commonwealth 200m title in 1982, first made his mark as a 15-year-old, winning the intermediate boys 200m title at the English schools championships in Durham - the same meeting in which 15- year-old Kathryn Smallwood of Hampshire, the future Kathy Cook, finished second in the intermediate girls 200m. Maduaka was quick enough at 18 to be called up for the world junior championships in 1992 - but only as a reserve for the 4 x 100m relay. She never got to run for the British junior team in Seoul.

It is only now, at the age of 25 and after seven years training with McFarlane's squad at the New River track in Haringey that the extent of her high-speed talent is becoming apparent. Just two years ago Maduaka was still an also-ran on the domestic scene. She watched the world championships go by on the television set at her Thornton Heath home, having finished sixth in the British trials for Athens in a modest 11.87sec. Next month she travels to Seville as a potential finalist in this year's World Championships, her appearance in the CGU British trials meeting in Birmingham on 23, 24 and 25 July a mere formality.

If Maduaka is struggling to catch up with the speed of her progress it is hardly surprising. Balancing the demands of a full-time job, as a business administrator for Iron Trades Insurance, with a burgeoning life in the international fast lane has become an increasingly difficult act for her.

"I can't afford to be a part-time athlete and I can't afford to be a full-time athlete," she said. "I work from 8.30am to 5pm at Tower Hill. Then I've got to battle the traffic up to Haringey. By the time I get to training I am physically and mentally tired. But I've still got bills to pay and food to buy.

"Do I have a right to say that people should invest in me ? No, I don't think I do. I'm not going to sit around with my hands open asking people to give me things. I was Britain's number one last year but what does that mean when you put it up against the rest of the world? I mean, in Kathy Cook's day were they chucking money at her? Probably not."

"Definitely not," a telephone call to Kathy Cook confirmed. "I always worked when I was running."

Britain's fastest ever woman still runs these days, 12 years after her retirement from track competition. "I run with the kids at school," she said. "I teach PE and games at Mayfield Prep School in Walsall."

At 39, one month younger than Linford Christie, Mrs Cook also runs a thriving family. She and her husband Garry, a member of Britain's Olympic silver medal-winning 4 x 400m relay team in 1984, have three children: Sarah, 11, Matthew, nine, and George, six. With their "little chefs" to look after, the Cooks have little time to follow their former sport.

Mrs Cook, in fact, cannot even picture the young woman who is threatening to catch up with her past. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know anything about Joice Maduaka. I only watch odd bits of athletics on television and I haven't seen her. We're just so busy, with work and with the children. Your life moves on, doesn't it?" Even if your British records don't - for the time being, at any rate.

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