Athletics: Karagounis has a head for heights of Athens

Student of classical civilisations is aiming to make her mark for Britain in 400 metres at Olympic Games
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The Independent Online

Anyone seeking to buy a hat in Nottingham's Broadmarsh Shopping Centre this week is likely to have been served by a bright, fresh-faced young woman whom they might or might not have recognised as an international athlete. Working two to three days a week at the Karroo stall on the Centre's ground floor helps Helen Karagounis finance a lifestyle that appears impossibly hectic, but which she regards as simply normal. It combines being a wife, a student of Classical Civilisations at Nottingham University, and one of Britain's most rapidly improving 400 metres runners. And, of course, a seller of hats.

The 22-year-old Nottingham athlete's impressive victory in last Saturday week's Norwich Union International at Glasgow in an indoor personal best of 53.31sec meant that she earned a qualifying time for next month's World Indoor Championships in Budapest, and she hopes to secure a place there this weekend by winning at the AAA Championships and World Indoor trials in Sheffield.

Karagounis' Glasgow flourish, early in a season where her domestic rivals are either injured - as in the case of the pair who were third and fourth in the last Olympics, Katharine Merry and Donna Fraser - or delaying their start to the year - as in the case of Lee McDonnell - has had the effect of raising the profile of a young woman who claimed her first big individual title in 2003 when she became European under-23 champion.

When you ask her if she is enjoying the increased media attention, her first reaction is a cautious one. "Not really," she says with a laugh. "I don't mind it, but I haven't had this sort of attention before. I suppose you get used to it as time goes by."

Although she only happened upon the hat stall job by coincidence - she noticed an advert on display as she was walking through the Centre - she has grown to enjoy the work in the course of the past year. "It's good fun," she said. "Some people come and know exactly what they are looking for and find it. But others aren't sure and they can spend a long time trying different ones on. I often advise people, but I don't think there are any hard and fast rules. Choosing a hat is a very individual and personal thing. No two people are alike."

The same, of course, holds true for athletes. And while the likes of Merry and Fraser have succumbed since their Olympic appearance to a depressing succession of injuries and illness, Karagounis has been pressing onwards and upwards with fingers metaphorically crossed. "It's the same in all sports," she reflected. "You can never tell what is going to happen in the future. We put our bodies under so much stress, and different people deal with it in different ways."

As Helen Thieme she established herself as a fine junior athlete, winning a relay gold at the World Junior Championships of 2000, where she captained the British women's team. A year later she married Leonidas Karagounis, a Greek javelin thrower who she met at the local track in 1997, and who is now studying at the same university as her for a PhD.

In April 2002 Greece asked her to switch nationalities in order to run for them at this year's Olympics in Athens, offering her a Government salary of £12,000 a year - a couple of thousand more than she is getting from Lottery funding now. Eventually she turned the offer down, fearing that it would prevent her taking part in that year's Commonwealth Games and the following year's European under-23 Championships.

She nevertheless retains a huge affection and enthusiasm for Greece. "I speak Greek quite a bit at home, and I love Greek food," she said. "I have been to Athens six or seven times. Some of Leonidas's family live there. I am awestruck when I visit, because there is so much ancient history. You could go for two or three weeks looking at all the different buildings and sites."

This year, however, Athens has become more than one of her favourite places - it is the major focus of her athletic ambition as she seeks an Olympic place. Should she achieve that, she will be one of the best informed athletes at the Games given that her dissertation is on the ancient Olympics.

Although her husband is a past winner of the Midland AAA title, he is not in real contention for a place to compete in his home city. "He will be going as a spectator," Karagounis said.

What role she might play as the focus of his interest remains to be seen, and is partly dependent on whether some of her main rivals can regain form in time. Karagounis, however, remains quietly determined to earn her place in the sun, especially after the relative disappointment of last summer, when she failed to get a qualifying time for the World Championships despite winning the trials, and was then not chosen in the relay final as Britain earned a silver medal.

"I was surprised and disappointed at that," she said, her habitual merriment stilled for a moment. "I think anybody would be. But you move on. Athens is my number one target now. I would say it is a realistic one."

It will be fascinating to see what transpires, now that Karagounis, as it were, has thrown her hat into the ring.