Bring on 2012 for the girl next door
Britain's sprint surprise plays the reluctant heroine
Athletics' reluctant heroine has spent much of the past week embracing celebrity status. Christine Ohuruogu has done so with an ambiguity that suggests she is unlikely to be enticed to become a housemate on Big Brother.
The 20-year-old student did not imagine for a moment that she would triumph in her Olympic trial at Manchester last Sunday. But even when she did - defeating the Scot Lee McConnell with a devastating late injection of pace in the 400 metres - there was a marked disinclination to undergo the post-race rituals. "The steward made me do a lap of honour, although I was so tired," she recalls. "I wasn't too happy."
As she did so, she was unaware that she had registered a personal best. Less than two months ago, Ohuruogu had recorded 54.21sec. Now her time was 50.98, more than half a second inside the Olympic qualifying time of 51.50. "It was only when Sally Gunnell told me my time I thought, 'Wow. That's quite fast...'"
Then the calls on her mobile started. "My brother phoned and I just heard my mum screaming." It was a long call. She is big sister of the Ohuruogu family. "There are seven children. I'm the second oldest. The youngest is six months and my older brother is 21."
The family home is in Stratford, east London, within a short bus-ride of the proposed 2012 Olympic Park. Convenient, that. Always assuming, of course, that the London bid prevails, and her burgeoning career continues to prosper until the age of 28. "I'll feel like I'm going shopping," she says, smiling, presumably at the prospect of nipping down the road for a loaf and a gold medal.
It could never be said about the Newham and Essex Beagles 400-metre runner that she's in your face. More that she enjoys her own space. Hence her rationale for eschewing netball for athletics only within the last year. "I enjoyed competing on my own," she offers as an explanation. "I could be more independent."
Nevertheless, it is an absurdly brief gestation period to concentrate on any other sporting activity, let alone to embrace it sufficiently to claim an Olympic place. The frightening thing is that she betrays the distinct impression that she possesses as-yet-untapped reserves.
Earlier in the week, when she was paraded before the media as the Great Britain squad for Athens was announced in London, Ohuruogu (even Britain's head coach, Max Jones, has been tongue-tied by the name, which is pronounced Oh-hoo-roo-koo) appeared faintly bemused by the interest in every facet of her life. Certainly, the experience has probably ended all thoughts she has had of "becoming a journalist" in later life.
Although she is studying linguistics, German and psychology at University College, London, the athlete would comfortably claim a Masters in self-deprecation. "I watched the race [at the Norwich Union Olympic trials] properly for the first time on Monday and I hated everything except for the last couple of metres. It was just awful. I didn't think I had that in me."
She adds: "Maybe I'm being harsh, but you have a race plan and I supposed it was good enough. I got a good time. I shouldn't complain. But there's loads of areas I need to work on. It was so cold and I was ill, with flu and and headaches. I got up on Saturday and I couldn't wait to get home. But when you're out there, fighting for a position, everything just goes out of the window. You don't really care how tired you are or how cold it is. When you've an aim like that [Olympic qualification], you just go for it."
Ohuruogu is a former England Under-17 and Under-19 netball player whose metamorphosis from team player to individual performer began last summer after she claimed the bronze at the European Junior Championships in Tampere, Finland. "I'd always played netball, but I started to get involved in track after I finished my GCSEs in 2000," she says. "My athletics coaches said that I couldn't combine the two. It would just be too much. But I started training - just for a laugh at first. I was just training because I enjoyed running. It was hard, but I didn't take it seriously."
She pauses. "Well I suppose I did, but I just didn't realise the enormity of what I was achieving. It was only after the European Juniors that I made up my mind that maybe I'd enjoy it a lot more; that it would suit the kind of person I am."
As for her inspirations; well, from the sound of it, they included Bugs Bunny. Ask about her Olympic reminiscences, and she replies, as though she's really letting you down: "To be honest, I never actually followed athletics. I used to find it so boring. When it came on the TV, I'd either leave the room or I'd change the channel."
She adds: "I was very young. It was only when I started competing that I started following it quite closely. Now we're lucky because we have all the sports channels, but I remember on Saturdays there was only Grandstand and the horseracing. I think I just used to watch the cartoons. I have a better knowledge of the women at the top of the sport now. But it's only been this year that I've taken an interest in that and looked at their times."
Such insouciance may suggest that it will all be too much, too soon, in the crucible that is Athens. Equally, it may just sustain her.
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