It was only last summer that Helen Clitheroe was contemplating life on the scrapheap. "I remember walking off the track depressed, with my head down, thinking, 'What's the point?' the Lancastrian recalled, her face wreathed in a huge smile after the women's 3,000m final on the concluding day of the European Indoor Championships here yesterday. "It was my husband who kept me going. He said, 'You're a long time retired. Don't give up until you're ready to do it on your own terms.'"
Neil Clitheroe could reflect on the wisdom of his advice as he sat among the capacity crowd in the Palais Omnisports de Bercy watching his wife standing on the top step of the medal rostrum as the new, 37-year-old, golden girl of British athletics. It was the proudest of moments for Mrs Clitheroe, a Preston Harrier, having hauled herself from the brink of retirement to her first international championship title at the same age that Tom Finney was when he hung up his boots for Preston North End – and two years older than Colin Jackson when he became Britain's previous oldest European indoor champion, in Vienna in 2002.
Clitheroe – a one-time lifeguard who has been off the Lottery funding list since 2009 – has been an inspiration throughout the indoor season as she has grafted towards "the dream" of making the British team for the home Olympics of 2012. She has switched her attention from the 3,000m steeplechase, and the extra training miles she has been putting in for an outdoor season at 5,000m and 10,000m have got the best out of her legs.
The benefit was clear to see as the British captain played an inspirational, starring role for a team who added four other medals yesterday – all silvers – to finish the championships with a haul of eight, double the tally they gained in Turin two years ago.
Like Mo Farah in the men's 3,000m on Saturday, Clitheroe found a Midas touch in the final of the women's 15-lap event. She drew on all the grit she has learned in a 14-year international career spent mainly on the fringes, save for a bronze medal-winning 1,500m run at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002.
With three laps to go, she hit the front and increased the pace. Round the final turn, Russia's Olesya Syreva tried to pass her but Clitheroe gritted her teeth and held on to win by 0.03sec in 8min 55.66sec. "To win a gold medal at 37 is just unbelievable," she said. "It's a bit of payback for all of the hard work I've put in over the years."
It was very nearly a glory day for the 17-year-old kid in the British team, too. On her senior international debut, Jodie Williams finished within 0.01sec of a medal, clocking 7.21sec for fourth place in the women's 60m final.
In the men's 60m final Dwain Chambers took silver just 0.01sec behind Francis Obikwelu of Portugal in 6.54sec, with the big home hope Christophe Lemaitre third. The British men's 4 x 400m relay team were also runners-up, while Jenny Meadows anchored the GB women's 4 x 400m quartet to second just 75 minutes after taking silver in the 800m behind Yevgeniya Zinurova of Russia.
Not that that the French crowd took much notice, as Parisian Teddy Tamgho improved his world indoor triple jump record to 17.92m.
Britain's medal haul
GOLD Mo Farah, 3,000m
Helen Clitheroe, 3,000m
SILVER Tiffany Ofili, 60m hurdles; Jenny Meadows, 800m; Dwain Chambers, 60m; Kelly Sotherton, Lee McConnell, Marilyn Okoro and Jenny Meadows women's 4 x 400m relay; Nigel Levine, Nick Leavey, Richard Strachan and Richard Buck men's 4 x 400m relay.
BRONZE Richard Buck, 400m