Athletics: Watkins announces arrival with war cry

Budding Alf Tupper of the track can be an even bigger noise as he swots up on his Ovett-Coe history
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The Independent Online

It seems fair to say that, one way or another, we will be hearing quite a lot more of Jimmy Watkins.

It seems fair to say that, one way or another, we will be hearing quite a lot more of Jimmy Watkins. When the emerging bright young thing of British athletics lined up for his first big race, the 800m final at the AAA Indoor Championships in Sheffield last Sunday, the raw middle-distance runner from the Rhondda Valley emitted a whooping noise that would have been more at home at the Battle of the Little Big Horn than at the indoor arena of the English Institute of Sport.

"What it is," he confides, in his rich Treorchy male voice, "I'm worried about making an arse of myself out on the track running in front of so many people. So I figure if I do that on the start line people are going to look at me and think I'm an arse anyway, so I don't have to worry about anything when I run."

It is not exactly drawn from the inter-national middle-distance manual, but there is a certain method in the apparent madness of the novice who has brought a touch of Alf Tupper and Wilson of the Wizard to the stern-faced sharp end of top-level track-and-field competition. "The first time I did it I ran a personal best," Watkins elaborates. "So I did it in my next race and ran a PB [personal best] again. Did it in my next race and ran another PB. And my coach told me it's proven to relieve tension before a race."

It is by no means the only little quirk of the runner who this time last year, when the rivals he is on course to face at the European Indoor Championships in Madrid in a fortnight were on the indoor circuit preparing for the Olympic outdoor season, had just finished treading the boards as Scrooge's nephew in pantomime in the Rhondda. "I've started to drink iced tea when I'm getting ready for a race," Watkins says. "The other guys look at me as if I'm knocking back beer or something. It does the trick, though. It takes away the dryness in the throat."

The rapidly rising star of Cardiff Amateur Athletic Club also races with a big red heart drawn in felt-tipped pen on the back of his left hand. "That's my heart-rate monitor," he says. "If it starts smudging with sweat, then I'm going too fast. I can't afford a real one."

Another pre-race ritual for Watkins is painting his running spikes in vivid colours and placing them in different rooms the night before competition, "so that when I put them on they're so happy to meet up with each other". Whatever the theory, his racing shoes have been happily propelling their owner towards international-class territory.

It was only 12 months ago that Watkins - who played as a rugby union wing-threequarter with Welsh Schools, Pontypridd Academy and Sydney University - started to train as a middle-distance runner. Last Sunday in Sheffield, as James McIlroy hared off in ultimately vain pursuit of Sebastian Coe's British indoor 800m record, Watkins closed to within a stride and a half of the Northern Irish athlete, who in recent weeks has shown signs of recapturing the form that took him to fourth place at the European Championships in 1998. Watkins's time, 1min 48.32sec, eclipsed the 21-year-old Welsh indoor record held by Phil Norgate.

It also strengthened his claim for selection in the Great Britain team for the European Indoor Championships, which open a week on Friday - and in which the new boy of international 800m running would face the new Olympic champion, Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia, a name that meant little to him until lately. "I was running near the back of the field in one race," Watkins reflects, "and I heard someone shout, 'Look, he's doing a Borzakovskiy'. I thought it was a phrase that meant 'being relaxed' or something."

As someone who now happens to be following in the footsteps of Steve Ovett and Coe, Watkins has also been obliged to educate himself about the golden boys of British middle-distance running. Having not been born when the great Britons fought their epic Olympic duels in Moscow in 1980, he has invested a shrewd £14.99 in The Perfect Distance, the excellent exploration of the Ovett-Coe rivalry penned last year by Pat Butcher, the athletics correspondent of The Financial Times, and himself a medal winner in the AAA Indoor Championships (bronze in the 2,000m steeplechase in 1972). "It's a brilliant read," Watkins says. "What a tough man Ovett was. I'm a massive fan of his now."

Watkins is a young man of seemingly limitless talents - a student of creative writing at the University of Glamorgan and a rock 'n' roll guitarist who has recorded his own six-track album. He was born in South Africa but, he is keen to point out, "made in Wales - my mother was pregnant before she went out there with my dad for three years".

The first string to his large bow was his prowess at rugby, which earned him a scholarship to Millfield School in Somerset (where he followed in the stud-marks of Gareth Edwards) plus two appearances in the Welsh Schools' XV and a stint in the Sydney University first team during his gap year. It was not until he returned from Australia and decided to kick rugby into touch that he turned his hand seriously to athletics - initially, in the summer of 2003, as a sprinter.

In his Millfield days he had been persuaded to compete as an athlete in the English Schools' Championships, as Edwards had before him, the great Welsh scrum-half having won the 200 yards hurdles back in 1966. Watkins finished fifth in the 800m in 2000 and fourth in the 400m in 2001, and when he started training as a middle-distance runner under the guidance of Arwyn Davies last winter he brought with him the basic speed of a 10.8sec 100m man - continuing his move in the opposite direction to another Welsh rugby legend of the 1970s. J J Williams, the father of his Cardiff house-mate and training partner James Williams, ran as a sprinter in the 1970 Commonwealth Games before utilising his pace as a flying rugby union wing for Wales and the British Lions.

"I really want to make it as an international athlete," Watkins says, looking towards Madrid and beyond. "I don't want to be one of those athletes who comes along, gets a bit of attention and then disappears like a flash in the pan."

Like Alf Tupper before him, though, it seems that the whooping young Welshman is going to be around, and making quite a noise, for some time yet.