Athletics: Natalie's passport to a poignant reunion

Return to Melbourne acts as powerful motivation for adopted Englishwoman
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For Natalie Harvey, it will be a novel experience negotiating the tight bends of the 200m track at the English Institute of Sport Arena in Sheffield this afternoon. At 31, the South London Harrier is a veteran of two Olympic Games and eight World Cross Country Championships, but the women's 3,000m on the second day of the Norwich Union AAA Indoor Championships will mark her debut in indoor competition. "I have always wanted to run a race indoors," she said, "and this might be my only one."

Running in front of a handful of spectators in a quiet, enclosed corner of the Don Valley will not, though, be quite as unique an experience for Harvey as lining up in the Commonwealth Games 5,000m final next month. For one thing, she will be running in her old home town: she spent 10 years living in Melbourne and her parents, Dennis and Jan, still live there. She also happens to be a graduate of Melbourne University.

For another thing, Harvey will be racing on a track laid down especially for the Games in the 98,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground. "For someone who has lived in Melbourne and been to the Boxing Day Test in the MCG, to get to run there is something special," she said. In Harvey's case, particularly special.

Born in the Queensland city of Toowoomba, she spent her childhood in Sydney, where in 2000 she ran in green and gold in an Olympic Games on native soil, racing in the 10,000m heats in Stadium Australia. Six years on, she is getting ready to run in the MCG in the colours of the country whose cricketers will be defending the Ashes there in the Boxing Day Test of 2006. Harvey is competing in the English championships in Michael Vaughan's home town today in preparation for racing in Melbourne as a member of the England track-and-field team.

So what will it be like for the Aussie Sydney Olympian of six years ago, returning to her homeland as an adopted Englishwoman for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games? "I've been settled here since 2000," Harvey reflected. "I've been training with British athletes and I've been on a few British cross-country teams now. It's been a few years since I was on the Australian team, and I feel like I'm more part of the system here.

"I'm excited to be going back to compete in Australia again, especially at the MCG. That's certainly a big motivation - for someone who has lived in Melbourne and who knows what an amazing oval the MCG is."

Unlike many athletes who have switched nationalities in recent years, Harvey has not done so for the promise of easier international selection or greater financial gain, or while continuing to spend most of her time in her native homeland.

She has planted firm roots here, marrying an Englishman (Robin Firth, son of the former English cross-country international Mike Firth), settling at Caterham in Surrey, and working as a physiotherapist at East Surrey Hospital in Redhill. She has also become part of the British athletics scene, racing in the red-and-white vest of South London Harriers and training with the group of athletes guided by Mark Rowland, the British steeplechase record holder and British team coach.

"I'm certainly very happy here," Harvey said. "Where we live, the number of places you can run off-road is amazing. It's not as good in Australia, because even if you live in the countryside you cannot run over farmers' fields. There are a lot more opportunities to race here, too, whereas Australia is so isolated. I just relish the opportunities I get from being here."

The irony is not lost on Harvey that while she has been pounding the paths of Surrey in preparation to represent England in the 5,000m in Melbourne, Sonia O'Sullivan has been in Sydney securing a qualifying place for Australia in the same event. The leading lady of Irish running was granted Australian citizenship a fortnight ago; she has a house in Melbourne, and her partner and their two children are all Australian.

O'Sullivan's intention to run for Australia in Melbourne but to continue to represent Ireland in other competitions exploits a loophole in the current Commonwealth Games rulebook, though the Commonwealth Games Federation plan to consider her case before the Games open on 15 March.

"It's not like my situation at all," Harvey said. "I don't agree with it. You either go down one road, with one country, or down the other. You can't get the best of both worlds.

"It was a big decision for me. It was quite emotional. I was living here, immersed in life here, and it was difficult to keep going back to Australia to qualify for competitions. I was already part of the British system and my decision was that if I did it, I did it for good.

"I live here and work in the NHS, and I train with British athletes, so there was no question of me going back and running for someone else."

On Wednesday, though, the former green-and-golden girl will be going back to Melbourne to get ready to run as an adopted Pom in the MCG. "I'll be staying with my parents and training at my old track club," Harvey said. Before she gets back to Melbourne's Doncaster Athletic Club, though, there is the small matter of a race today on the boards in the Don Valley.