Pattinson joins the middle class

New 1500m star is tasting success in the long run

Considering Helen Pattinson works as a lifeguard, at the Westfield Leisure Centre in Preston, it was only fair to enquire whether she had saved any lives in the course of her daily duties. "I don't know about that," she said. "I've dragged people out of the pool. I don't know if you can say that's saving lives. Whether they'd have died I don't know."

Considering Helen Pattinson works as a lifeguard, at the Westfield Leisure Centre in Preston, it was only fair to enquire whether she had saved any lives in the course of her daily duties. "I don't know about that," she said. "I've dragged people out of the pool. I don't know if you can say that's saving lives. Whether they'd have died I don't know."

Whether the British women's track and field team would have sunk from the Super League division of the European Cup without Pattinson's help at Gateshead last weekend is similarly debatable. At the very least, her unexpected 1500m victory was a lifeline for a squad who went into the final event, the 4 x 400m relay, just one point above the the relegation zone. Not that Pattinson would wish to be portrayed as the heroine of the piece.

"It's weird," she said, reflecting on the attention her winning run has attracted. "I'm quite a quiet person really. A lot of other people deserved a bit of recognition last weekend and didn't get any. Hayley Tullett ran a really good race in the 3,000m and she didn't get much recognition."

Pattinson, though, was the only British women's winner - and a thrilling one at that. The manner in which she powered around the final bend and pulled clear of the Russian Yelena Zadorozhnaya was reminiscent of Kirsty Wade's victory against Tatyana Samo- lenko in the same event in Prague in 1987. The Preston Harrier, in fact, is only the third British woman to have won the European Cup 1500m, having followed in the spikemarks of Wade, who was last week named Welsh female athlete of the century, and Kelly Holmes, who has won 1500m medals at the world and European championships and at the Commonwealth Games.

"Is that right?" Pattinson said four days after her victory, relaxing in the living-room of the house she shares with Neil Clitheroe, her boyfriend and sometime training partner, at Penwortham on the outskirts of Preston. "Gosh, I didn't know that."

Pattinson's success was a tale of the unexpected, though she has not exactly emerged from the planet Zog, as some seemed to think last Sunday. Unlike Wade and Holmes, she was no teenage prodigy (she failed to reach the 800m final in her two appearances at the English schools championships), but the chart of her progress over the last four years has been a constantlyupward one. At 26, moreover, the line on her graph is still climbing.

"I don't know," Pattinson said, pondering whether she ever thought she would make it this far. "I've been running with Preston Harriers since I was 11 and I was always county standard. I remember one day my coach asked me to do a longer run and I went out for an eight-mile run with one of the women at the club and I was absolutely blowing. I had to walk. It was ridiculous. I thought, 'Right. Either pack it in or start training properly'.

"My real breakthrough was in 1996. I was seventh in the 1500m at the Olympic trials in 4min 16sec. I knocked about 10 seconds off my personal best that weekend and got picked for the British Under-23 team. From then on I really got my head down, but I've had a lot of support. I've been with the same coach since I was 13: Jeremy Harries. We've worked hard, both of us."

That much has been obvious with each significant step Pattinson has taken these past three summers: in 1998, when she qualified for the Commonwealth Games; in 1999, when she reduced her personal best to 4min 06.72sec and made the British team for the World Championships in Seville; and again this year, having run 4:06.27 in Nice a fortnight ago and notched notable victories for Britain against the USA in Glasgow and against the Rest of Europe at Gateshead.

What has been particularly eye-catching about Pattinson this summer, alongside the forward drive she generates from her impressively strong shoulders, has been her positiveapproach to her racing. Whether she has been forcing the pace from the front, as she did in the Grand Prix II meeting in Seville last month and in Glasgow three weeks ago, or unleashing a late kick, as she did to such devastating effect at Gateshead, she has imposed herself upon the opposition. She has been no respecter of reputations. On paper, she was the fourth-fastest contender at Gateshead. On the track, it was a different story.

"Before races you do look at the times people have run and look at where you should be in the field," Pattinson said, "but I've never finished up in that position. I'm not afraid of people. I just think about my own race and about getting stuck in. I can't see the point in not trying your hardest and not going for it when you train every day for these races."

The pride of Preston will be going for another personal best when she runs in the Adidas Ciutat meeting in Barcelona on Wednesday and then aims at a first national title when she races Tullett, and possibly the injury-plagued Holmes, in the Olympic trials in Birmingham next month. Pattinson's ultimate goal for this year, though, is to reach the Olympic final in Sydney, to which end she has taken unpaid leave from her poolside duties.

"I don't just want to make the teams for the major championships now," she said. And, judging by the big splash she made at Gateshead last Sunday, the Lancashire lifeguard is ready to swim with the big fish of the middledistance world.

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