Athletics: Spencer steps into limelight

Schoolgirl hits headlines at Indoor Championships as BBC demotes season-opener
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The Independent Online

Volleyed down to Cardiff because Birmingham's National Indoor Arena is being prepared for Davis Cup action, the Norwich Union AAA Indoor Championships got under way yesterday with the BBC's Young Sports Personality of the Year thrusting herself into the limelight – though not, unfortunately, into the BBC television spotlight.

Kicked off Saturday's Grandstand by Jonny Wilkinson and the rest of the Six Nations boot-boys, the traditional curtain-raiser to the domestic track-and-field year was in danger of becoming a stars on Sunday event this year at the behest of the Beeb.

With a BBC 2 slot available after the rugby union from Lansdowne Road this afternoon, the men's 60m, featuring Mark Lewis-Francis and Jason Gardener, and the women's triple jump, starring Ashia Hansen, have been shunted from their usual Saturday niches on the championship programme on to a Sunday schedule that already includes the men's 60m hurdles and Colin Jackson.

It was with some irony, then, that Amy Spencer should emerge into the void yesterday as the shining new star of British athletics. Two months ago she was a rising star on Sunday at the BBC's prime-time Sports Review of the Year show, as the first recipient of the Beeb's Young Sports Personality of the Year Award. The 16-year-old schoolgirl now has a AAA senior championship gold medal to display in the trophy cabinet at her Wigan home, alongside the prize she collected from Michael Owen two months ago.

With a mighty surge off the final bend at the Welsh National Indoor Athletics Centre, Spencer pulled clear of Sarah Reilly to win the 200m final yesterday. In doing so, she did not quite become the youngest winner of a AAA senior indoor title; Linsey Macdonald won precisely the same event when she was 15 in 1980 – the same year she reached what proved to be her peak, as a 16-year-old Olympic 400m finallist and 4 x 400m relay bronze medallist.

Like Macdonald, Katharine Merry could testify to the perils of treading a long-term path as a teenage track-and-field prodigy. Like the Scottish 400m runner, she made the British senior team at 15 but took the best part of a decade truly to start fulfilling her youthful potential. Only time will tell whether Spencer will suffer similar struggles down the path towards seniority. The powerful 5ft 11in Wiganer was peerless yesterday, though, as she left Reilly – at 28, her senior by 12 years, and a 200m semi-finalist for Ireland at the World Championships in Edmonton last summer – trailing in her high-speed wake.

Spencer, a silver medallist at the World Youth Championships last year, finished 0.23sec clear of the Birchfield Harrier in 23.74sec. "I didn't expect to win," she said. "My aim coming here was just to reach the semi-final."

Had the Cardiff track not been constructed with unhelpfully tight bends, Spencer might have been aiming towards the European Indoor Championships by now. Her time was outside the qualifying time for the continental competition in Vienna next month, 23.40sec, though the fact that she clocked 23.44sec at the Midland Open meeting last week – beating the Sydney Olympian Joice Maduaka in the process – suggests the standard could be within her grasp.

"I'm not sure about Vienna," the Belgrave Harrier said. "I haven't discussed it with my dad, Graham. He's my coach. It would be an amazing experience to go to the European Indoor Championships but it would extend my season by quite a bit. At the moment I've got an Under-20 international here in two weeks and then the Under-17 national championships. I'm just taking everything one step at a time. My education is my priority."

Spencer happens to be a fast learner as well as a fast runner. She sat her GCSEs a year early last summer and gained 10 A grades. She is now studying AS levels in history, maths, classical civilisation and English literature at Bolton School. Her track-and-field education this year is geared towards the World Junior Championships, which take place in Kingston, Jamaica, in July.

As a resident of Greater Manchester, though, the Mancunian Commonwealth Games are creeping into the back of her mind. "They're in my home city, so it would be nice to be involved," Spencer mused. "We'll just see what happens."

If Spencer does make it to Manchester she is likely to find herself in the same English team as Merry, whose Under-17 British 100m record she broke last summer. "She's a great talent and there not many of those around," Merry said after watching the young sprinter in action for the first time yesterday. "There's still a void in British sprinting – we've been waiting for the next Kathy Cook for 20 years now. I'd like to see it filled and I'd love to see Amy take every record I've ever held. I just hope she won't step up to the 400m until I've retired."

At 35, Doug Turner is long past normal retirement age for a 200m runner, but it was the seasoned Cardiff sprinter who emerged victorious from the men's final yesterday. He did so in impressive style, too, finishing 0.21sec clear of Ireland's Gary Ryan in 21.24sec.

With 19 years to make up on him, perhaps the young winner of the women's 200m final will be going as fast, not to mention as strongly, at the same grand age.