Christine Ohuruogu: I’ve still got that will to win
Although she claims not to be fastest person in her family, 400m gold winner at World Championships has many remaining goals, she tells Matt Majendie
Monday 09 December 2013
As Christine Ohuruogu pulls out of the car park at Lee Valley Athletics Centre, she does not feel like a world champion. Watch the clip of her dipping, almost staggering over the line in the 400m at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow and even now it seems hard to believe.
Has there been a more nail-biting individual sporting performance this year by a British athlete than that of the Londoner? By the first bend, American Natasha Hastings was already on her shoulder and, while Hastings faded coming into the home straight, Ohuruogu seemingly had too much ground to make up on the pre-race favourite Amantle Montsho.
But stride after stride of the blue Mondo track, she reeled in her one-lap rival, finally producing a lunge for the line. No one there, Ohuruogu included, was quite sure whether that desperate dip was sufficient to win gold.
Such a doyenne has she become of the dramatic finish, it is no wonder her coach, Lloyd Cowan, could not watch in person, instead preferring to be in the bowels of the Luzhniki Stadium with a television for company.
It is four months since that second world title – adding to the gold won in Osaka, Japan, six years earlier – and five years since her career high at the Olympics. But she does not currently feel on top of running in her family, let alone the world.
“I’m getting whipped by my sister in training,” she says of 20-year-old Vicky, who was added to Britain’s 4x400m senior relay set-up last season and has showed promise of following in her older sibling’s admirable footsteps.
But as Ohuruogu mulls over her current struggles in training, the first of a number of infectious giggles comes to the fore. The laughter is not nervous, it comes from genuine amusement, from her love of her sport.
Few sports personalities are more engaging when on form. At times she can be distant, at others captivating in conversation, able, unlike most athletes, to skip subjects from Lee Valley to literature – a nod to her degree in linguistics from University College London.But then again, she is not your typical athlete by her own admission.
“For me, I’m different,” she says, “in a strange position to other people, very different to others. I have my goals and push on with those. Sometimes you stop and celebrate too much then get passed and I don’t want to do that.
“Take Moscow. I don’t really think about it that much. Maybe I should think about it more. It’s not that I didn’t, that I don’t enjoy it but I can think more about it when I retire.”
The journey to Moscow had been harrowing from the moment of that Olympic triumph in Beijing, and lesser athletes might well have hung up their spikes, deflated and defeated. She relinquished her world title in Berlin in 2009, a hamstring problem curtailing her build-up to the World Championships, where she finished fifth.
Then, in 2010, she tore her left quad from her hip and the problem repeatedly hampered her, curtailing her athletic campaigns. It was not until the latter part of the 2011 season that she finally started getting back to anywhere near her potential at that year’s World Championships only to be disqualified in her heat of the 400m, one of the first victims of the IAAF one false start rule.
Come the London Olympics, she was desperate to match what she had achieved four years earlier, only to come up just short of America’s Sanya Richards-Ross and end up with silver, a more than admirable medal considering her previous difficulties.
“People said I couldn’t get back and, at times, I thought I was pretty much down and out,” Ohuruogu reflects. “2011 was a horrible year – one of the worst I’ve ever had. Nothing seemed to work at all, then I was disqualified when I was on my way up. It was pretty awful. This wasn’t where I was supposed to finish.
“I felt going into London I wasn’t panicking but that it was a concern I might not be all right. I was asking myself to run in London and recreate the form I had four years ago. That’s a tough ask of your body. I had some doubts. Could I realistically ask myself to do this? Was it sensible to expect so much of myself? It was virtually impossible with the awful injuries I’d had.
“I didn’t quite get there in London but it got the ball rolling for me again. I was ready and after that there were no limits on myself.”
The tears of the build-up to London and Moscow have very much been replaced by laughter. For one, her career has come full circle with her returning to the top of the sport. There is a feeling that there is nothing much left for her to achieve.
But hers is a laugh that also disguises a serious and on-going will to win. So, approaching 30 – she will celebrate the mark in May – how does she keep motivated?
“There’s still things that I want and the motivation is always there,” she says. “The thing is that I love what I do, I just love it, and thankfully I’ve been blessed with a gift.”
The immediate motivating factors are the Commonwealth Games and European Championships in the summer of 2014. “I’ve a feeling that I’ll be doing both,” she says. “I don’t know in what capacity I’ll be doing the Europeans. Everything depends on how fit I am. It’s hard to peak for both.”
More immediately, she also has her sights set on the World Indoors in Sopot, Poland, in March, although in the 4x400m relay rather than the individual event, and with the same caveat. She adds: “Again, I’d like to do that if I can get fit in time. As defending champions in the relay it would be nice to do that but I’m taking the slowly approach in getting back.”
More broadly, she talks with a child-like enthusiasm about the year ahead for British athletes. She describes the Commonwealth Games as “the ideal place for youngsters to make their mark on the global stage”, the perfect springboard for British athletes to get ready for the World Championships the following year. “I genuinely believe next year will be really exciting for our athletes,” she says, “if people make the right decisions and stuff. I think it will be a really good year.”
Coach Cowan, a former 110m and 400m hurdler, will be the one constant in her corner in her own personal quest, the calming influence as well as the person seemingly able to prepare his athlete just right for the big occasion.
There is an overwhelming fondness between the pair. Ohuruogu says of her coach: “Lloyd knows me very well, what to do to get the exact result. It’s a great relationship to have when you can just trust each other. He likes to call himself a wily old fox, and he’s incredibly sharp. I trust him completely and we’ve learned together – we’re still learning.”
Ohuruogu, who is on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist, claims Cowan still despairs at the way she runs her races and the manner in which she still has room for improvement. Off the back of last season, when she finally claimed Kathy Cook’s British record set at the 1984 Olympics, with a time of 49.41 seconds in that Moscow final, the despair must surely be diminishing – although the sense from Ohuruogu is that there is yet more to come in 2014 and beyond.
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