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Great expectations but Twell has still to peak

New leading lady of distance running shows potential to surpass Paula Radcliffe

When you have competed in front of a global television audience and 80,000 spectators in the Beijing Bird's Nest, a new year cross-country race through the windswept wilds to the south of the Scottish Parliament could hardly be described as a pressure- cooker environment. Then again, Steph Twell was a junior athlete dipping a toe into the cauldron of the Olympic arena when she ran in the women's 1500m heats in the Chinese capital last August.

At Holyrood Park yesterday the 19-year-old from Farnborough in Hampshire bore the kind of great expectations on her shoulders that were thrust upon the young Charles Dickens when he turned up in the Scottish capital and was given his first civic reception and also the freedom of the city.

Since winning her third European junior cross-country title in Brussels a month ago, Twell has become a fully-fledged member of the senior ranks. Having emerged along similar lines to those of the young Paula Radcliffe, the highly gifted teenager has been identified as a major British prospect for 2012 and beyond. Hopes were high that she would make a significant impression in the 5.6km women's race in the Bupa Great Edinburgh International Cross Country meeting, and the army major's daughter did not disappoint.

Until the steep climb up Haggis Knowe, on the third of four laps, Twell was in contention with the leaders, battling against a clutch of world-class East Africans and winds that gusted up to 50mph. It was at that pivotal point that the Kenyan Linet Masai surged clear to a comfortable victory, in 19min 2sec.

Masai finished third in the senior race at the World Cross Country Championships on the same Holyrood course last March, fourth in the Olympic 10,000m last summer, and is the same age as Twell. The young Briton finished 14 seconds down on Masai but just three seconds shy of third place, behind Mestewat Tufa, of Ethiopia, silver medallist in the World Cross Country Championships last year, and another Kenyan, Viola Kibiwott. "I'm not totally satisfied with fourth," Twell said. "With 300 metres to go I need another injection of pace, like the other girls have at the moment. That's something I need to work on."

For all of the progress Twell has made under her astute coach of nine years, Mick Woods, she remains far from the finished article. She keeps a London 2012 badge pinned to her clothes, though if the careers of Radcliffe and the other leading British ladies of distance running down the years are anything to go by, she will not start to hit her peak until she reaches her mid-to-late 20s – in the Olympic year of 2016 and after.

Still, like Radcliffe before her, she has joined the senior ranks with a world junior title behind her, on the track at 1500m rather than at cross- country. She has also run 1500m and 5,000m quicker than Radcliffe managed at the same age. And, unlike the marathon world record holder, who missed selection for Barcelona in 1992, she has the invaluable experience of an Olympic appearance as a teenager,having narrowly missed the qualifying cut for the 1500m final in Beijing.

All of which has greatly raised those expectations. "It doesn't really faze me," Twell reflected. "I have high expectations of myself. I just embrace it rather than think of it negatively."