Jenny Meadows: 'I am happy for Semenya but not all the girls agree'

Jenny Meadows can't wait to take on her rival for the 800m Olympic title but first she wants gold at this month's European Championships
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The Independent Online

Jenny Meadows isn't offended that we are starting this interview by talking about someone else, that someone being Caster Semenya, who ran (and won) in a low-key meeting in Finland on Thursday night.

It was Semenya's first outing after being readmitted to international competition following suspension pending gender tests, and Meadows knows that the eligibility of the South African teenager remains a burning issue in her sport. Besides, in Berlin last year Semenya – with questions about her gender already circling – won gold in the World Championships 800m final in which Meadows took bronze, making Meadows one of a handful of people with a real vested interest in the controversy.

So, does she welcome Semenya back to competition? "I do, actually. Now that the IAAF are in agreement that Caster can run, that should be the end of it. But it never is." A pause. "All the girls should welcome her back, but I don't know whether some of the foreign girls are as gracious as I am."

Nevertheless, her graciousness would have been challenged had it been determined that Semenya is biologically more male than female. The result of the World Championships final would not have been retrospectively altered, the logic being that there had been no intention to cheat, and had that happened, Meadows concedes that she might have felt a belated claim to the silver medal.

Happily, it didn't happen, and her satisfaction with bronze is fully restored. Moreover, she relishes the prospect of racing against Semenya in the future and will continue to show the South African a friendly face. "Before the final we were put in a holding pen kind of thing," she recalls. "Nobody says much but it's an opportunity to look at each other and smile. From the very start, though, Caster had her head down, not wanting to make eye contact. I tried to smile at her, but she just didn't look up, and I understood why, because some of the Eastern European girls were staring at her and laughing, just being really rude. It wasn't nice. And really, she did brilliantly after that to come out and perform how she did." Behind her, Meadows secured bronze with a timely personal best of 1 minute 58.93 seconds, exceeding the expectations of an athlete who is happy to admit to being a late bloomer. So late, indeed, that at 29 she feels confident that her best is yet to come; a smidgen over two years away, she hopes. She thinks about the 2012 Olympic Games every day. It's hard not to, especially when she's in her home town of Wigan, and even the hairdresser wants to knows how her training's going for the Olympics, and whether she intends to bring the gold medal back up the M6 from London. Meadows laughs. "They talk as if silver would be a disappointment," she says. Which it wouldn't be, but she wants the top of the podium. "I've definitely got to say that," she says.

In the meantime, she has more pressing challenges to consider. We are talking in Manchester, shortly before she heads to the holding camp in Portugal where she will acclimatise for the European Championships in Barcelona, which begin on 26 July. She has shaken off the Achilles tendon trouble that forced her out of the UK Championships, and her excellent pre-injury form, including a 1:58.89 run in Rome that remains the second-best two-lap time in Europe this season, makes her a hot medal prospect for Barcelona.

Meadows says that she still has to pinch herself when she reflects on the company she is keeping on the track these days, but humility has no place in the fiercely competitive world of international athletics, and usefully she has a coach, Trevor Painter, who reminds her all the time that she has earned that kind of company. Even more usefully, Painter is also her husband. "I keep thinking the bubble's going to burst, but he takes it all in his stride," she says, mixing her metaphors with a bright smile. She is the most engaging of interview subjects; warm, chatty, open and smart. Yes, she says, she has tried sports psychology but it didn't do a great deal for her. "We talked about the symptoms [of pre-race nerves], the clammy hands and all that, but it's still hard to cope with them when you get to the race. You can never get rid of it, so it's about how you manage it. You have to tell yourself that it's normal, that the girl in the next lane is feeling the same."

It has been her burgeoning mental fortitude as much as any physical or technical improvements that has yielded so much success these past couple of years, and that has equipped her with the valuable knack of rising to the biggest occasions. In Doha in March, the silver medal in the World Indoor Championships was secured with another personal best, one that broke her own British record, set in Birmingham less than a month earlier, which had dislodged a certain Kelly Holmes from the 800m record books. "I decided I'd had enough fourths and fifths," she says. "I'd always accepted my position on the GB team, as first reserve in the relay or whatever, but by the start of 2009 I was not only in fantastic shape, I also had a new mental approach."

The previous year had been a turbulent one personally, with the death of her beloved father Keith just weeks before she was picked for the British Olympic squad. To see his daughter race in the Olympics had been one of Keith Meadows' most cherished dreams. "At athletics meetings he'd see Lynn Davies or someone like that and whisper to my mum, 'Barbara, we're just about to walk past an Olympic athlete'. But he knew I had a chance of going to the Olympics and he was so proud of me already. I remember him introducing me to his surgeon, saying: 'This is my daughter, she went to the World Championships last year in Osaka.'"

It was Keith Meadows who first recognised his daughter's precocious sporting talent. She was two years old, playing in the street outside their house in Abram, a suburb of Wigan, with her older brother Andrew and assorted friends. "Apparently he'd shout to my mum, 'Barbara, come and watch Jennifer.' Even at that age I was co-ordinated, balanced. I could run rings around all the other children. And my dad said to my mum, 'She'll be good at something, Barbara. I just don't know what.'"

She was, and it was athletics. She joined Wigan Harriers in April 1989, and remembers the day, a Friday, because it was her eighth birthday and she had been offered a party, but at eight years old you could become an official Harrier and that's all she wanted. Her training schedule soon came to dominate family life, not least because neither her mum, a housewife, nor her dad, an engineering fitter, could drive. "Me and mum would catch the 658 bus to Wigan bus station and then catch another bus from there, which could be quite daunting on a winter's night. Then it was two buses back and I can remember getting home at nine, with my dad stood at the window as we walked up the street. And if there was a meeting in Warrington or somewhere they'd be studying the bus or train timetable weeks before. We'd leave at seven in the morning and sometimes not get back until seven at night."

Her father's sad passing makes such memories deeply poignant, but Meadows relays them too chirpily for me to embarrass myself by getting moist-eyed. Fortunately, her parents' dedication to her burgeoning athletics career was exceeded by her own, even when she reached the age at which her friends were going out drinking and clubbing. "Peer pressure was never a problem because athletics was my identity," she says. "I always knew athletics came first. And when I was 16 I met Trevor, who was a 400m athlete."

He was also 10 years older than her, which caused her folks some disquiet at first, but significantly had played rugby league for Wigan, another of the Meadows family passions. "You can never say red and white, it has to be cherry and white," she says, with a merry laugh. "In the 1980s it was fantastic, because Wigan got to Wembley [for the Challenge Cup final] every year. We just used to take it for granted. It would be, like 'when's Wembley?'"

As for her own sport , she tried every discipline available – sprinting, long-jump, middle-distance – but it gradually became clear that her speciality would be the 800m, one of the most intriguing events because it attracts such a variety of athletes, with different strengths.

"There are the 800/1500 runners, like Kelly, but I'm a 400/800 runner. Endurance is the thing I need to work on most. Two minutes is the world-class barrier, and I remember thinking, '60 seconds twice, how hard can that be?' But it took me a couple of years. Even though I can run a 52-second 400, it's about doing the first lap without using up too much aerobic capacity.

"At the end, when you see someone really kicking ahead, it's not about who's going fastest as much as who's slowing down the least. In Berlin, me and Trevor knew that my optimum time through the first 400 should be 57.50, and that if I went any faster I'd struggle. In fact my time was 57.49, almost spot-on, but I also had to suppress the idea that I needed to be in the top three the whole way round. I was seventh at the bell, sixth with 200m to go, and fifth at 100m. You have to know your body so well."

Clearly, Meadows does, although she admits to being unusually petite for an 800m runner. "I'm not tall with a flowing stride like the Russian girls, or muscle-bound like Maria Mutola." Whatever, she is manifestly built to succeed, and has come to understand the advice from Dame Kelly Holmes that once made no sense to her. "She said, 'Sometimes you win races when you're not in the shape to do so, and sometimes you're in shape but you don't know how to win them.' I really didn't know what that meant, but I do now. You need to learn how to win medals."

It was knowledge that Holmes acquired, to spectacular effect. "I was sat at home watching the Olympics in 2004," Meadows recalls. "To be honest I was devastated not to have been picked for the 4x4. But I was so thrilled for Kelly when she won that 800m final, in fact I was surprised by how emotional I was. And then when she won the 1,500m... it was like waiting for a bus, you wait for ages and then two come along at once."

As someone who spent much of her early life waiting for buses, she should know.