It was back in 1989 that Paula Radcliffe took receipt of her first Great Britain vest. It arrived through the post, and such was her excitement the 15-year-old put it straight on and ran round her house in it. Sixteen years later, the pride of Bedford and County Athletics Club was wearing the red, white and blue of her national strip again yesterday, with a spring of excitement back in her relentlessly quick step.
The 3,000 metres on the opening day of the European Cup First League match here in central Portugal was the first glimpse of Radcliffe in a Great Britain vest since the night she stepped off the track in Athens last August with more than eight laps of the Olympic 10,000m final still remaining. Ten months on from her double nightmare in the Greek capital, where she also failed to reach the finish line in the marathon, the former golden girl of British athletics added momentum to her competitive rehabilitation with her first win on the track since June last year.
Already back in the winning groove after her sprint-finish success in the New York Marathon last November and her tour de force of a speed-endurance exhibition in the London Marathon in April, Radcliffe provided another demonstration of her supreme class. Hitting the front after 70 metres and pulling clear from the 1,000-metre mark, she finished comfortably ahead of the nominal opposition, clocking 8min 50.18sec. Her nearest rival, Alesya Turova of Belarus, a former holder of the 3,000m steeplechase world record, was virtually half of the home straight behind.
"It was hard," Radcliffe maintained, referring to her physical state rather than the competition. "My pelvis was a bit twisted after I fell in the 1500m race I ran in Eugene two weeks ago. I felt a bit of a dip because of that but I think the race will have done me good. I'll have an ice bath and an early bed and get ready for tomorrow."
Having contributed eight valuable points towards the promotion cause of the Great Britain's women's team, Radcliffe will be back on track in the Estadio Dr Magalhaes Pessoa this afternoon, looking to double her personal tally with victory in the 5,000m. The opposition includes a woman who happens to have an Olympic gold medal in her trophy cabinet, although at 35 Fernanda Ribeiro is not the competitive animal she was when she won the 10,000m for Portugal in Atlanta in 1996. She was lapped by the metronomic Radcliffe in a 10,000m race at Gateshead last summer and, like the ailing Briton, failed to finish in the 10,000m final in Athens.
This time last year, before injury and illness conspired against her, Radcliffe was showing the glint of a Midas touch on the track. Her winning time in the wind and rain at Gateshead, 30:17.15, survived as the fastest of 2004 at 10,000m. It came a week after a similarly stunning solo demonstration as the British women slumped to relegation from the Super League section of the European Cup at Bydgoszcz in Poland, where she won the 5,000m in 14:29.11, a Commonwealth record time.
"I was probably a little further on in my training at this stage last year," Radcliffe said, keen to dampen expectation of great things today. "Everything was going well for me. It was later in the summer that injury cropped up and caused me problems.
"At the same time, I'm not worried that I'm a little bit behind this year because I took a long break after the London Marathon and I've only been back in training for four or five weeks. I need a good four- or five-week block of hard training after this weekend to get me ready for the World Championships in August."
That block of hard training, which will take place at high altitude at Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees, will determine whether Radcliffe will chase gold in the 10,000m or the marathon at the World Championships in Helsinki.
The maximum points gleaned from the 3,000m yesterday were precious enough to the Great Britain team in the revamped stadium where, once upon a time, one Jose Mourinho plied his trade as head coach for Uniao Leiria Football Club. They were equalled in value by Janine Whitlock, who has been obliged to survive at the breadline end of the international athletics scale since returning to competition after a two-year ban for a positive steroid test. The pole vaulter, who won with a clearance of 4.40m, has no kit sponsorship and no Lottery funding. She claims social security and lives at the home of her coach, Egryn Jones.
The British women were in pole position at the end of the first day, leading by eight points from Belarus with 69 points. There were also victories for Liz Fairs in the 400m hurdles (in a personal best of 56.66sec), for Donna Fraser in the 400m (52.34), and for Goldie Sayers in the javelin (61.37m), plus an impressive second place by Jemma Simpson in the 800m and a commendable third spot for Phillipa Roles in the discus.
Fraser has been plagued by injury since she finished fourth in the Olympic 400m final five years ago. The Croydon Harrier can been seen in a new advert for Range Rover; this afternoon she will have a different 4x4 in mind - the 4x400m relay, by the end of which the British women will know whether they are back on track with the élite nations.
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