By Simon Turnbull, Athletics Correspondent
The clock is ticking for Britain's athletes. There are 1,691 days to go now before the Olympics of 2012 arrive on home ground. There are just 242 remaining, though, before the 2008 Games begin in Beijing. A great British winner in the final international competition of 2007 would be the perfect send-off into the Olympic new year.
At the European Cross Country Championships at Toro in Spain this afternoon, British hopes will be pinned most expectantly not on a member of the senior teams, but on the18-year-old who lines up as the defending champion in the junior women's (Under-20) race.
Steph Twell is a young woman who keeps a 2012 pin attached to her running vest, and even her pyjamas, as a sharp reminder of her long-term aim. Such is her rapid development, though, it would be no surprise if she were to make it to the Olympic stage next year.
Running in the Italian town of Rieti in September, in the same Grand Prix meeting at which Asafa Powell blitzed to his 9.74sec world 100m record, Twell reduced her personal best for 1500m to 4min 06.70sec, 0.30sec inside the A standard Olympic qualifying time.
That is 10.12sec faster than Paula Radcliffe ran for the distance as an 18-year-old and just 1.33sec slower than the best time the marathon world record holder has managed as a senior athlete. With a 5,000m personal best (15min 47.53sec) significantly quicker at the same age, and a 3,000m time (8:53.34) only marginally slower, Twell's development clock happens to be more than keeping time with the Radcliffe rate and she still has until 17 August to improve as an 18-year-old.
Twell's birthday falls on the third day of track-and-field competition in Beijing, and if she were to make it to the Olympics as a teenager, the Army major's daughter from Farnborough, Hampshire would be another step ahead of her role model.
As an 18-year-old, Radcliffe narrowly missed selection for the 3,000m at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, though she made her mark at global level that year, winning the junior title at the World Cross Country Championships in Boston and finishing fourth in the 3,000m at the World Junior Championships in Seoul.
The year ahead for Twell includes the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh in March and the World Junior Championships at Bydgoszcz, Poland in July. The former affords the opportunity to emulate Radcliffe's success in the junior women's race; the latter clashes with the Olympic Trials in Birmingham, though with discretionary places available in the British team for Beijing it would be possible to go for gold at age-group level.
No matter which events she ends up contesting in 2008, Twell is sure to have encouragement along the way from Radcliffe, who keeps in contact with her. "She sends me 'best luck' wishes and congratulatory texts after races," Twell says. "She's very supportive. Of course she's a role model. She's pushed the boat out and shown African runners can be beaten."
Radcliffe has also shown what can be done by allying talent with meticulous preparation, and Twell is leaving no stone unturned on that score, having undertaken a strength and conditioning science degree at St Mary's College in Twickenham, where her coach of eight years, Mick Woods, is based as performance coach at the UK Athletics Endurance Centre. It was Woods who passed on to her the quote she will have in mind when it comes to carrying the pressure of expectation into this afternoon's race in Toro.
"It's from Al Oerter," Twell says, crediting the four-times Olympic discus champion, who died in October. "He said that pressure is nothing more than opportunity, so why not embrace it? I look at it fromthat perspective."Reuse content