Athletics: Ballerina who went ballistic

Shirley Webb turned her ambitions through 180 degrees when she gave up dancing for hammer throwing
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The Independent Online

Decor-wise, the reception area of Edinburgh's Meadowbank Stadium is up to the minute. That minute, however, occurred in 1970, and the entrance now has a faded air that is compounded by out-of-service drinks machines and a noticeboard propped against a wall advertising past attractions.

Decor-wise, the reception area of Edinburgh's Meadowbank Stadium is up to the minute. That minute, however, occurred in 1970, and the entrance now has a faded air that is compounded by out-of-service drinks machines and a noticeboard propped against a wall advertising past attractions.

Outside, the sunshine illuminates clumps of yellow gorse on Arthur's Seat, whose peak is visible above the rooftops of Victorian tenements spaciously constructed from the products of Lothian quarries. Now that a party of schoolchildren has been bustled away via the appropriate corridor, the lobby has fallen silent, save for the low chatter of the radio, where a groundlessly smug DJ - appropriately enough given the setting - has just put on a record by Dawn.

But what's this? A powerfully built redhead in a blue tracksuit is sprinting towards the doorway, the wired ball of a throwing hammer dangling from one hand as if she has been summoned for emergency demolition work.

Bursting across the threshold, all apologies for being a couple of minutes late, Shirley Webb energises the listless scene. At 23, she has had a similar effect upon the relatively new discipline of women's hammer throwing, where she stands top of the British rankings ahead of the 34-year-old Gloucester athlete who has had things her own way in recent years, the Commonwealth champion Lorraine Shaw.

Unlike Shaw, and almost certainly unlike any other opponents she has met in a brief career that has already taken her to the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, Webb is a hammer thrower who trained as a ballerina. Having taken up dancing aged three at a stage school in her native Newcastle, she devoted the next 16 years of her life to gaining professional qualifications, as well as touring with a group which performed regularly at venues such as Disney World Florida and Euro Disney.

"I think it was just what an awful lot of little girls do," she says, "although I used to walk pigeon-toed and the doctors thought it would help to go to ballet."

And while an awful lot of little girls soon drift away from ballet once the novelty of those nice pink shoes and leotards has worn off, Webb remained, working with an intensity that characterises everything she does. The same determination - inherited from her mother Rosemary and father Andrew, a 400m hurdler who competed for Scotland at Meadowbank in the 1970 Commonwealth Games - has also enabled her to excel at diving, where she won the Great Britain Masters Under-24 title in 2000.

Now, happily for UK Athletics, it is being employed with the sole intention of becoming one of the world's best hammer throwers. Despite being less than ecstatic about throwing 64.81m in Sunday's Norwich Union International at Glasgow - where the field included Russia's Olympic champion, Olga Kuzenkova - Webb learnt yesterday that the performance had been sufficient to earn her a debut European Cup appearance in Leiria, Portugal, on 18-19 June.

At 5ft 9in and just over 14st, Webb had to recognise that her early notions of aspiring to the world of Darcey Bussell and Sylvie Guillem were unrealistic. "I knew from about 15 that my size would probably mean I was not going to become a ballerina, but I still loved dancing and wanted to get all my qualifications," she recalls.

For all the dissimilarity of her two main pursuits, however, there appears to be some common ground. All that twirling, for instance, all that rhythm. That must carry over to the hammer-throwing circle, right?


"My rhythm isn't all that great, actually," Webb confesses with a grin. "My footwork is OK, but the bad thing is my head movement. When you pirouette in ballet you are taught to look at the same spot the whole way round, but when I throw the hammer my head needs to follow my arms. It's a real, real nightmare to try and get rid of something you've learnt for 16 years..."

She pauses, aware of less than complete understanding in the mind of her listener. Suddenly she is on her feet, arms gracefully above her head, spinning on the spot. Her head switches constantly to the front, apparently disconnected from the blur of her turning torso.

Having made her point - and prompted some craning stares from the reception desk - she continues. "It's not actually my head that wants to move when I throw, it's my eyes wanting to see where I am," she says. "If I was blind my head wouldn't want to still keep moving."

In order to counter her unwanted reflex, Webb has gone to unusual lengths. For the past six months, in training and competition, she has worn a neck collar to inhibit her movement, and for a while she tried using fluorescent wrist bands to attract her eyes to the right place. Not effective.

Gesturing to the stadium behind her, she adds: "I tried wearing sunglasses throughout the winter, even though it was pitch black out there. But I could still see out the sides."

In the course of the last week, she has hit upon a more effective remedy, having dug out a pair of her old diving goggles.

"It's quite a sight for sore eyes," she giggles. "I'll have to try and get things right in training and hope it transfers to competition."

For all her tribulations, Webb has managed to progress with impressive consistency since taking up hammer throwing when it became an official international event for women in 1999.

In 2002, having won the British Universities title - she studied maths at Edinburgh - she represented Scotland in the Manchester Commonwealth Games. Last summer she achieved the Olympic qualifying standard with 2cm to spare, throwing a personal best of 67.52m to earn a trip to Athens.

Although she describes her performance there as "disappointing" - she managed only 61m in her qualifying event - the experience was hugely inspiring.

Her experience at the British camp in Cyprus, however, was the opposite as she and her Edinburgh-based coach Chris Black, a double Commonwealth medallist, discovered that the only site offered for hammer-throwing practice was entirely unsuitable.

"It was just a rubbish dump," she recalls. "There were dog kennels at one end, and lots of trees. I did a couple of throws, and my hammer got stuck in a tree, and all the dogs were going mad. It was just ridiculous. So Chris and I drove round the island and settled for throwing off a road into a cornfield. That was just a week before the Olympics."

Webb is nevertheless grateful for the support she gets through the World Class Performance Lottery programme - £4,000 towards living expenses, and the same amount for warm-weather training. You can see why she values her weeks in Spain so highly when she describes her winter training experience at chilly Meadowbank.

"I have to wear white tracksuits so that the video camera picks me up," she says. "We have to throw off the tartan 100m track at the back so that we can use the lights from the five-a-side football pitch to help illuminate me. I tie polythene bags to my hammers so I can see where they land. Then I go out with a torch to find them. And I do that every single night in the winter here."

It is the same spirit that drove Britain's Commonwealth champion Mick Jones to construct his own circle on the edge of a strawberry field. And this weekend it has earned Webb a chance to measure her progress against the best in her event. Although Kuzenkova has thrown more than 75m, one statistic still tells in her favour. She is 11 years the Russian's junior, with years of potential improvement ahead.

"If I can sort out my technique, the distances will come," she says with a laugh. "The world record is only eight and a half metres off my best. Saying it like that doesn't sound as much..."

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