Athletics: Nick of time as a middle-distance star rises in Cram country

Even the two toddlers playing in the long-jump pit are oblivious to him. Only a coach standing with a stopwatch in the centre of the arena notices Nick McCormick, the emerging young British middle- distance man who had Steve Cram in a state of high excitement in the BBC commentary box at the AAA Championships last weekend.

Even Cram, at the peak of his metric-miling powers, never won an AAA 1500m final quite as thrilling as McCormick made last Sunday's race in the Manchester Regional Arena. Setting a fast pace at the front from the start, the tall, elegant-striding Morpeth Harrier resisted the challenges of Andy Baddeley and Mike East in the final 300m to emerge victorious in 3min 37.05sec, a new personal best.

It might have been East's first competition of the year following knee and hip problems, but in holding off a runner with the pedigree of a Commonwealth title and with a sixth-placed finish from last year's Olympic final - particularly in such bold, front-running fashion - the 23-year-old McCormick took a notable scalp and a notable step forward.

The signs of a breakthrough were already there: last summer, when he improved from 3:42.73 to 3:39.50; in January, when he was a clear winner of the middle-distance race in the View From Edinburgh Cross Country International; and in Gothenburg last month, when he ran 3: 37.66. On Sunday, though, McCor-mick delivered when it mattered, clinching selection for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne next March and edging closer to the qualifying time for the World Championships in Helsinki next month. With the benefit of a little towing from high-class international opposition, the Northumbrian could well achieve the required 3:36.20 in the Norwich Union London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace next Friday night. That would put him on the plane to Helsinki, where Cram won the 1500m at the inaugural World Championships back in 1983.

Not that McCormick, who was born in 1981, has any recall of Cram in his middle-distance majesty - let alone of Steve Ovett or Sebastian Coe in theirs. "The first memory I have of athletics is probably the Atlanta Olympics in 1996," he confesses later, relaxing in the beer garden of a local hostelry. Lindsay Dunn, the coaching guru who has masterminded McCormick's emergence, mentions that when they were formulating their strategy for last Sunday's final he received a query on the matter from the runner's agent, Nic Bideau, who texted his support for the front-running ploy simply with the name: "Jürgen Straub". Dunn was obliged to explain to his young charge that Straub was the East German who wound up the pace from the front in the 1980 Olympic 1500m final in Moscow and succeeded in splitting Coe and Ovett in the race for the medals.

"I've never seen that race," McCormick says. "I haven't seen many races from the past. When I was at St Mary's College in Twickenham, James McIlroy [the AAA indoor 800m champion] had a DVD of world record performances and I saw El Guerrouj's 3:26. It was good watching that for the first time."

If Hicham El Guerrouj's 1500m world record run in Rome in 1998 qualifies as a blast from the past in McCor-mick's perspective, his progress as a rising star of British middle-distance running is unencumbered by any notion of attempting to bear the mantle of Ovett, Coe and Cram. He does, however, happen to be making his way with more than a little help from another of Britain's all-time running greats.

Brendan Foster, whom Dunn helped to steer to world record breaking heights, assists McCormick in a mentoring role. "Brendan has been a big help with Nick," Dunn acknowledges. "When it comes to handling the pressure of a big race like last weekend, I know all the thought processes and what to say, but it reinforces it when it comes from Brendan."

It is Dunn's shrewd nurturing, however, that has brought McCormick through to major championship level and also resurrected a career that not long ago was effectively lost. A former squash player who ranked in the British top 20 in his age-group, McCormick ran for the British junior team at the World Cross Country Championships in 2000 but hung up his racing shoes, and even his training shoes, after unhappy spells on athletics scholarships at Providence College in the United States and at St Mary's in Twickenham.

"I came home from St Mary's with the idea of just jacking it in," McCormick reflects. "I worked in a pub in Hexham and didn't even think about running but eventually I found I missed the training and I got in touch with Lindsay in the summer of 2003. I wasn't interested in doing anything serious. I just wanted to get back into club athletics and to enjoy it."

Two years on, the former Wetherspoons barman is enjoying himself at the top of the British rankings, with a date at the Palace on Friday and a place in the Dream Mile in Oslo a week later - the race in which, for his historical information, Cram broke the world mile record 20 years ago.