Neef makes early start on indoor fireworks

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RECEIVED wisdom suggests that this indoor season is something to be avoided for those intent on bringing back honours from the Olympics. But Melanie Neef is so determined to start 1996 with a medal of some description that next weekend she will line up in the AAA indoor championships in Birmingham.

She will certainly get a good indication of her prospects for Atlanta, because the 400m race will also include Sally Gunnell, the British women's captain who will be taking part in her first competitive race after a series of injuries devastated her programme last year.

Neef, who yesterday ran a quiet 23.62sec for 200m Britain against Russia, is now 25. The daughter of a Scottish professional footballer, she feels that the only way to distinguish her own sporting career is to win a major international title. The European indoor 400m in Stockholm in March is more attainable than an Olympic medal, although she aims for both. Her coach, Bob Inglis, has advised her to keep her 400m races to a minimum this winter.

Neef has battled through winter training in Scotland. Because of that - or perhaps despite it - she has never felt more ready. "With so many people avoiding the indoor season because they're thinking more about the Olympics, there should be a better opportunity for me in Stockholm. It's a risk, but it would do me the world of good to get a medal of some sort. I'm really looking at making the Olympic final and I don't think the small indoor outings will detract."

Until a couple of years ago she was better known as a sprinter but had often been told that she was more suited to the 400m. She resisted simply because she thought the longer distance would be too painful. "It was," she said, "but I've come to terms with it. Even so, I'm not going to run all that many 400m until the summer, especially indoors - you get bumped around too much." Once able to face the pain of the extended sprint, she became more successful than ever, reeling off personal bests in 1994 and 1995 and reaching plenty of finals, not least the European Championships, Commonwealth Games and winning at the European Cup. But at last summer's world championships in Gothenburg even a personal best of 51.18sec was not good enough for a place in the final.

Infuriatingly, the Scottish record keeps eluding her. Held by the first athlete she asked for an autograph, Linsey MacDonald, in 51.16sec, she gets tantalisingly closer, but she says her main concern is to get below 51sec. "If I could do that the Scottish record would go anyway. In order to do anything you've got to get under 51sec." But she is not worried about facing Gunnell: "I don't think that's going to put any more pressure on me - I think it will put it on her. It will do her good to run a couple of easy heats before the final. But it will be good for me because in my other indoor races this season I've always run the last 100 to 150 metres on my own."