Athletics: Sonia's cool head for great heights

Her sport has changed but, says Simon Turnbull, her goals have not
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The Independent Online

Sonia Lawrence could not help smiling at the irony at the Welsh National Indoor Athletics Centre last weekend. There were the national media, down at trackside, besieging Amy Spencer and making a big fuss about whether the winner of the women's AAA indoor 200m title was too young, at 16, to compete in the European Indoor Championships and in the Commonwealth Games. And there was Lawrence, sitting unnoticed up in the stands, nursing an injured thigh. She went to the 1994 Commonwealth Games as a 14-year-old – and came back with a silver medal.

"At the time I was the youngest girl to win a medal," she mused. "It didn't get that much publicity. It would have been different if I'd done it in athletics. It actually means a lot more to me now, because at the time, at 14, it was just another competition to me. I was trained to compete in these big competitions and that's what I went out and did."

At 14, Lawrence was a member of the Welsh gymnastics team at the 1994 Games in Victoria, Canada. She won her silver medal in the vault. Eight years on, a month past her 22nd birthday, she has qualified for selection in the Welsh Commonwealth Games team as a vaulter again – as a pole vaulter, that is.

It was only 17 months ago that Lawrence picked up a vaulting pole for the first time, and just 13 months ago that she started using one in a competitive arena. Yet she has already competed for Wales and the Great Britain Under-23 team as a pole vaulter and propelled herself into contention for a place in the British team at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna next month. She stands second in the British rankings to Janine Whitlock with a height of 4m, and if she recovers from her thigh strain to clear 4.10m in the Lansing Linde home international meeting in Cardiff today, or in the Under-23 international at the Welsh National Indoor Athletics Centre on Saturday, the bright-as-a-button young Welshwoman from Bedwas in Caerphilly will make her debut for the British senior team in Vienna on 1 to 3 March.

Lawrence can already look forward to a major championship as an athlete in Manchester in July. Though the Welsh track-and-field team for the Commonwealth Games will not be confirmed until June, the new pride of Cardiff Amateur Athletic Club has exceeded the selection standard in her event by 16cm. "It would be unbelievable to go to the Games as an athlete," Lawrence said, physically bristling with excitement at the looming prospect. "I don't think many people could say they have gone in a second sport."

Some can say they have gone on to success in other fields, such as rugby legend J J Williams, who sprinted for Wales in the 1970 Games, and TV presenter Gabby Logan, née Yorath, who competed as a rhythmic gymnast for the Principality in Auckland in 1990. Lawrence, though, has made the most dramatic of conversions – not least because a knee injury forced her to retire as a gymnast three years ago, at the age of 19, and because it was only in September 2000 that the coach who has subsequently guided her on her meteoric way bridled at the very audacity of her vaulting ambition.

Dave Lease laughs now at the memory of his first meeting with Lawrence – on the campus of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, where she studies leisure and sport management and where he works at the National Indoor Athletics Centre as a High Performance Centre manager for UK Athletics. A former international trampolinist who himself became a Commonwealth Games pole vaulter, Lease also happens to be the coach of Jason Gardener, the European indoor 60m champion, whom he was about to put through his high-speed paces when Lawrence approached him – prompted, somewhat belatedly, by a suggestion from Jamie Baulch at the 1998 Commonwealth Games that she should try pole vaulting when she ended her gymnastics career.

"She came along one day," Lease recalled, "and said with that bubbly personality of hers, in a mischievous way almost, 'I want you to coach me pole vault'. I said, 'Why don't you ask me the proper question? Why don't you ask me for 15 years of my life, which is what it takes if you're going to do the job properly?'

"She said, 'I'll be a good pole vaulter. I said, 'I know exactly who you are and what you can do, but it's not good enough to be a gymnast. You've got to be able to run and jump'. And she said, 'Oh, I can run and jump.' Anyway, I had Jason Gardener and a couple of other sprinters there and I said, 'Join in with this group and I'll decide if you can run.' Well, she did enough. I was surprised how quickly she learnt, but I came to realise that's a phenomenal asset she has, together with her attitude and her work ethic."

The work ethic is a legacy of the six years Lawrence spent, from the ages of 13 to 19, living with her gymnastics coach, Gareth Davies, at Ashford in Surrey, fitting her studies around the six hours she spent training in the gymnasium five days a week. "I know I wouldn't be where I am today as a pole vaulter without my gymnastics career," Lawrence, an Atlanta Olympian in 1996, reflected. "It's given me the conditioning and the spatial awareness and also a lack of fear. You've got to be able to run up there and forget about the scary side and just launch yourself into the vault.

"The weird thing is sitting here now, thinking that this time last year was my first-ever competition. I have to tell myself sometimes, 'Hang on a minute. You've only been doing this a year. Just take it one step at a time'." The next step – fitness permitting – being to follow Jason Gardener into the team for Vienna.