Perri Shakes-Drayton needs no reminder that the clock is ticking down to 2012. From the end of her street in Bow, she can see the rising bowl of the stadium that will open for London Olympic business 715 days from now. "It is an inspiration, seeing it there on your doorstep," the 21-year-old East Ender said yesterday, before a training session in preparation for the Aviva London Grand Prix which opens at Crystal Palace tomorrow night. "It makes you more determined – having this big global event in your back garden virtually."
That determination was clear to see when the Londoner with the double-barrelled name came off the last barrier in the 400m hurdles final at the European Championships in Barcelona a fortnight ago. Shakes-Drayton blasted her way from fifth to third, snatching the bronze medal behind the peerless Natalya Antyukh of Russia and the Bulgarian Vania Stambolova.
Her time, 54.18sec, was as eye-catching as the fighting spirit that earned her a medal. Only two female British one-lap hurdlers have ever run faster: Sally Gunnell (52.78sec) and Tasha Danvers (53.84sec) – and both won Olympic medals. Gunnell struck gold in Barcelona in 1992 while Danvers was a surprise bronze medallist in Beijing two years ago.
Two years out from the 2012 Games, the long-legged Shakes-Drayton is making strides in the direction of the Olympic podium. Rapid strides. At the start of this season her personal best was 55.26sec, when the European Championships opened it was 54.91sec. That makes her improvement for the summer 1.08sec, and over the course of the championships 0.73sec. She stands sixth in the world rankings, 0.75sec away from a place in the top three.
"It is possible to get there," Shakes-Drayton said, pondering the question of where she would need to be in the global scheme of things to get on the London podium two years from now. "I shouldn't put limits on myself. But all in due time. Chris Zah, my coach, is good at planning. He gets me peaked at the right time and I have faith in him that it will happen each year – that I will keep improving and be among the best world-class girls."
Shakes-Drayton has been guided by Zah since she joined Victoria Park and Tower Hamlets Athletics Club as a 13-year-old long-distance runner. "I used to do cross-country, mini-marathons and the 1500m," she reflected. "Then I dropped down to the 200m and didn't get through to the semi-finals at the English Schools Championships, so Chris said, 'Try out the hurdles'. So we tried that and I've been doing that ever since."
Not on Saturday, though. On the second day of the Crystal Palace meeting, Shakes-Drayton will be testing her speed over the flat 400m rather than taking on Antyukh in the one-lap hurdles. It is a shrewd move on the part of her coach, with the long-term aim of improving her hurdles time. The Russian who won the 400m hurdles in Barcelona in a championship record of 52.92sec happens to be a 49.85sec flat 400m runner; Antyukh won a bronze medal in that event at the Athens Olympics in 2004. Shakes-Drayton's best time for a hurdles-free lap is 51.81sec.
"I've got Allyson Felix in my field on Saturday," she said, referring to the American triple world 200m champion. "I'm hoping I'll get dragged along to a personal best."
Perri Shakes-Drayton is an ambassador for McCain, partner of UK Athletics. Through a £5m five-year sponsorship deal, McCain are encouraging children to become more active. www.mccaintrackandfield.co.uk