Athletics: Olympic flame burns bright for fireman Turner

Former schoolboy footballer has a job in the emergency services waiting but first, writes Mike Rowbottom, the emerging 60m hurdler's ambitions are kindled by London 2012
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The Independent Online

Ask most young lads what they want to be when they grow up and the chances are that footballer and fireman will be mentioned. As a youngster, Andy Turner was no different, but he has become instead a world-class high-hurdler who now looks likely to claim a place on the podium at next month's European Indoor Championships in Birmingham.

Having been the only Briton to earn medals at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships last season, both bronze, Turner has kicked on to produce a sequence of outstanding indoor races over 60 metres hurdles within the last three weeks, culminating in a victory at Sheffield on Sunday that elevated him to joint-third in the all-time British list with a time of 7.55sec.

This Saturday he takes on a field that includes the current world leader, Dayron Robles of Cuba, at the Norwich Union grand prix in Birmingham. Two weeks later the 26-year-old will be back at the same arena seeking to add another senior international honour to his collection.

As it happened, Turner got closer than most to his two dream jobs, and he still intends to pursue a career as a firefighter some time after the 2012 Olympics, where he plans to race as a 31-year-old.

While attending Nottingham High School, Turner was scouted at the age of 11 by Notts County and signed up for two years. It was not quite the perfect place, as he was a mad-keen Forest fan. But he was thrilled enough with the opportunity.

"It felt a little weird. I would always have wanted to have worn red rather than black and white, but you've got to take what you can get. While I was there we played in a national tournament which ended with a semi-final and a final at Wembley. We were beaten in the final by Liverpool, but we were presented with our medals afterwards by Bobby Moore.

"The only problem I had with County was that they tried to turn me into a defender and I was a natural centre-forward. I used to score 40 goals a season in all the local leagues, so I don't think I was given a fair crack of the whip. But I can't complain too much about playing at Wembley two days on the trot."

When County eventually told him they did not think he would make it, the disappointment was keen. "I was soccer-mad as a kid. I used to play three times a weekend, I couldn't get enough of it. So when they told me, yeah, it was hard."

Plan B was already in place however, as his father, a county standard 800m runner with Notts AC, had already introduced his son to the local track, getting him to train there once a week. One day a coach decided that Turner might make a pretty decent high-hurdler and he turned out to be right.

Two large hurdles stood in his way, however. For the first year or two, Turner, who was only 5ft 9in at the time, struggled to manage the switch from junior hurdles, which are 3ft 3in high, to the senior ones, which stand three inches higher. "It was a mental thing," he said. "I saw them as huge and they defeated me even before I tried them. But one year I went training in Portugal and the whole thing clicked for me."

Turner still had a way to go to reach his present position, however, and money was the problem. When he made his Great Britain debut in 2003 he ran in bargain-buy spikes. "I was doing all sorts of jobs trying to earn some cash," he said. "I was taxi-driving for a bit. Then I worked 15-hour shifts in a warehouse for £60 a day." Gradually however, as his times improved, sponsorship and Lottery money began to ease his burden. But not before he had set himself up for a job in the Fire Brigade.

Turner's motive in this case was more than financial. "I'd always wanted to be a fireman as a kid. I think it was from watching London's Burning on TV every Saturday. Obviously it's not how it is in real life, but it is something that has stayed with me and I still want to do it when I retire from athletics.

"In 2002 I wasn't doing as well in athletics as I am right now, and I passed all the tests to join the Essex Fire Brigade. The hardest bit was doing what they called the hose run. You had to run along in full firefighting gear unravelling a 30m hose, and then roll it back up again. You had to do that eight times in something like 12 minutes and I only managed it with something like 10 seconds to spare.

"It was a baking hot day and you had to run half-crouching. I thought it would be a stroll, but it was using different muscles to the ones I used in athletics. The sweat was pouring off me, but I desperately wanted to be a fireman so I kept going."

Although Turner passed all the tests, he was rejected on the grounds that he would not be able to combine firefighting with his growing athletics career. "It was a knock-back, but I see it now as a blessing in disguise," he said.

Since then, other sidelines have proved more successful for him. While training at Crystal Palace last year he was spotted by a casting crew looking for athletes to feature in a car commercial. "I ended up running along a beach in Norfolk for a day, but it never got above nought degrees. I was supposed to look as if I was free and enjoying life, but I was in jeans, a T-shirt and soaking trainers, and it was freezing and miserable. It looked good in the end, though."

Turner's career is also looking good as he has benefited from a welcome period of steady training after having his preparations for the 2004 Olympics undermined by an ill-timed thigh injury.

"I was just happy to be in Athens and I didn't expect to win anything," he said. "But last year at the Commonwealths I went knowing I could do something, and I did. And I was able to take that on to the Europeans. It's hard at first to deal with competing in front of a crowd of 50,000 people. But I've learnt to take that on board. And when you hear the crowd calling out your name, it's a great feeling. I've learnt not to be scared of the noise. If I keep on like I am I can be running 7.40-something before long. I can win this thing."

Fortune also appears to be favouring Turner for this year's European Indoors, with two of his biggest potential rivals, the former winner Stanislavs Olijars of Latvia and the defending champion, Ladji Doucouré, of France, likely to be absent with injury. "I spoke to Olijars recently, and he said he would definitely not be running because he had hurt his knee," said Turner. "I said, 'Oh well, never mind.' But I was thinking, 'Yeah!'"

After his long years getting to where he is now, a little bit of extra luck is surely due to a man who now lives in Sutton with his partner and two young daughters and has a determinedly down-to-earth assessment of his own worth: "I'm just an average guy from Nottingham that's worked hard and never gives up."

British all-time 60m hurdles list

7.30sec: Colin Jackson, 1994 (still world record)

7.42: Tony Jarrett 1995

7.55: Andy Turner 2007, Andy Tulloch 1998

7.56: Jon Ridgeon 1988, Hand timing

7.70sec: Alan Pascoe 1972

7.90: David Hemery 1969