Athletics: Tower of Blackpool aims for highest peak in Paris

It's been a long time coming but Britain may have found its new Geoff Capes. Simon Turnbull talks to the strongman who can be the golden shot today
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The Independent Online

At 6ft 10in, Carl Myerscough can't quite rival Gustave Eiffel's gargantuan Tour de force. The young man known as the Blackpool Tower will be in Paris next month, though, and judging by the elevated position he occupies in the world shot-put rankings, the Lancastrian giant should make his mark. On performances this summer, with four weeks to go before the World Championships open in the Stade de France, only Kevin Toth, the US champion, stands above the burgeoning British thrower in the global order of merit.

"No, it's not scary," Myerscough said, as he prepared for his introduction as a Paris-bound medal contender on the final day of the AAA Championships in Birmingham today. "It's great, really. But it doesn't mean anything unless you produce it on the day in Paris. The guy who's ranked ahead of me is quite a bit ahead of me, too, so I'm conscious of that as well. It's OK to be second, but then I'm nearly a metre behind. And that's quite a bit."

In fact, the 21.92m Myerscough putted to win the American collegiate title in Sacramento on 13 June is only 0.75m behind the 22.67m with which Toth has led the world rankings since the Kansas Relays meeting on 19 April. It remains to be seen whether the 23-year-old Briton, who hails from Hambleton, near Blackpool, can close the gap on the 35-year-old American, a one-time World's Strongest Man contestant from Hudson, Ohio.

If Myerscough can finish on the medal podium, though, he will have achieved what no bona fide British shot-putter has ever accomplished. Even Geoff Capes, whose 23-year-old British record the 24-stone Myerscough shattered in Sacramento, never managed to win a medal in a global championship. Twice a Commonwealth champion and twice a winner at the European Indoor Champion- ships, Capes finished sixth in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and fifth in the 1980 Games in Moscow. Denis Horgan won a silver medal competing for Great Britain and Ireland at the London Olympics in 1908, but he was an Irishman, from County Cork. He was also a New York City policeman. A year before he won his Olympic medal, his skull had been broken by a shovel when he attempted to stop a brawl.

Myerscough has had tribulations of his own to overcome. In May 1999 he failed a drug test. Traces of anabolic steroids were found in his urine sample. Myers-cough insisted he was a victim of sabotage. "It was someone who had motivation for no longer wanting me in the sport," he said. He was, however, banned for two years, and he still faces a battle to clear himself for Olympic selection. Under the rules of the British Olympic Association, athletes who have failed drug tests are barred from selection. They do have the right to appeal, though, and Myerscough's claim for clearance to compete in Athens next year is being backed by UK Athletics, the governing body of track and field in Britain.

He also has the moral support of Geoff Capes, who was a Lincolnshire police officer when he competed on the international stage. "I'm a justice of the peace now," Capes said, "and people who commit crimes are given second chances in life. Yeah, Carl did blot his copybook, but he's done his time. It's in the past now. Let him put the copybook right."

Capes, who spends his time these days running a security firm and a budgerigar-breeding farm, long predicted that Myerscough would remove his name, and his 21.68m mark, from the British record book. Now he expects him to wipe Randy Barnes's 23.12m from the world record book. "He's got awesome potential," Capes said. The former British record- holder first glimpsed that potential when he met Myerscough at the English Schools' Championships 11 years ago. "I think he'll tell you that it was me who told him to go to America," Capes reflected. "I said, 'You get out there, get a good background, a good education, and all the facilities, everything that I didn't have. And you'll be back here by 23, ready to take on the world'."

Not that Myerscough has been made entirely in America. He developed his talent putting from a concrete throwing circle his father, Dave, a British veterans' discus champion, built at the bottom of the garden of their Hambleton home. He was also a prolific British age-group record breaker and a World Junior Championship bronze medallist before he accepted a five-year scholarship as an art student at the University of Nebraska in 1999.

"It's difficult to say if I would have got this far if I hadn't gone to America," Myerscough, a lifelong member of Blackpool and Fylde Athletics Club, pondered. "But it has helped me enormously. The coach that I'm working with, Mark Colligan, has really helped me improve. The standard of competition has helped, too. You have to get used to the mindset that if you throw 20m it's not going to win. If you throw 20m in Britain you're going to win by 5m most of the time."

The sporting psyche at the University of Nebraska probably also helps. Bill Bryson alluded to the university gridiron team's reputation for ruthlessness in the pages of The Lost Continent, his portrait of small-town America. "They were always racking up scores of 58-3 against hapless opponents," Bryson wrote. "Most schools, when they get a decent lead, will send in a squad of skinny freshmen to give the losers a sporting chance. Not Nebraska. The University of Nebraska would send in flamethrowers if it were allowed. Watching Nebraska play football every week was like watching hyenas tearing open a gazelle."

Myerscough showed some of that Nebraskan competitive spirit, if not quite the gore, when winning the national collegiate title in their colours in Sacramento last month. After five rounds of the final he was trailing to a 21.56m throw by the big young American shot-putting hope, Christian Cantwell from Missouri, but snatched victory with the final throw of the competition, his British record-breaking 21.92m. A week later a jetlagged Myerscough took second place to Manuel Martinez, the world indoor champion from Spain, at the European Cup in Florence before jetting back across the Atlantic to marry Melissa Price, a fellow member of the University of Nebraska throws team. Having won the US hammer title last month, the new Mrs Myerscough will also be competing in the World Championships next month.

After a week honeymooning in Malibu, where he trained every day, Myerscough is back in Britain - with his sights on the top step of the podium in Paris. "I'll be as prepared as I possibly can be, and I'll be going there believing that I can win. I have to go there with that belief to stand a chance, and that's what I intend to do."

No one would be happier than Geoff Capes to see the Blackpool Tower standing tall and proud at the medal ceremony in the Stade de France a month from now. "But he'd still have some way to go to match what I've done," the multi- gifted Capes said, with a twinkle in his voice. "World Highland Games champion, World's Strongest Man champion, world budgie-breeding champion."