The best-known member of Aldershot, Farnham and District Athletics Club – past or present – has been in the news this week. It was announced on Tuesday that Zola Budd is to run in the 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa in June – the ultimate running challenge for the woman who famously tangled with Mary Decker in the 3,000m at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
Budd was, of course, the ultimate Plastic Brit, to borrow the term coined for recent recruits to the GB athletics team by the very newspaper (the Daily Mail) that spirited the barefoot contessa of the track away from the sporting isolation of South Africa in those apartheid years – en route to British citizenship in record time. Budd settled in Guildford and joined Aldershot, Farnham and District, providing the club straddling the Hampshire-Surrey border with a ready-made world-class talent who went on to win the world cross-country title in 1985 and 1986.
It has been different with Steph Twell, Charlotte Purdue, Emma Pallant, Emelia Gorecka and Jonny Hay. It has taken years of patient nurturing on countless club nights for a golden generation to emerge from the AFD production line under the guidance of Mick Woods, a middle- and long-distance coach of 24-carat worth to British athletics. Twell is already a fully fledged Olympian, and also a Commonwealth 1500m bronze medallist. She ran in the 1500m heats at the Beijing Olympics as an 18-year-old in 2008 and is in the throes of a remarkable comeback from a potentially career-threatening injury, with her sights set on a second Olympic appearance, at London 2012. Purdue is 20, Twell's junior by two years, but is already a veteran of the Commonwealth Games – she finished fourth in the 10,000m and sixth in the 5,000m in Delhi in 2010.
At the European Cross-country Championships at Velenje in Slovenia last month, Gorecka, 17, succeeded Purdue as the Under-20 champion – a title previously held by Purdue and Twell. The Under-23 race was won by Pallant, 22.
At the Bupa Great Edinburgh Cross-country last Saturday, Gorecka won the junior race by 21 seconds and Hay made a stunning senior debut in the men's short-course 3km event, claiming the scalps of reigning Olympic champions Kenenisa Bekele and Brimin Kiprop and of former world 5,000m champion Eliud Kipchoge in finishing runner-up to Asbel Kiprop, the world and Olympic 1500m champion from Kenya.
After doing so, the Birmingham University chemistry student paid due credit to the coach with the Midas touch. "Mick Woods has coached me since I was nine years old," Hay said. "He knows me very well and what I react to. I think I've developed well due to Mick."
He has not been the only one. So what has been the secret to the continued success of Woods, a former Irish international marathon runner who works at the Endurance Performance Coaching Centre at St Mary's University College in Twickenham?
"I think his ethos of hard work just brings everyone forward," Hay said. "He has coached so many of us from a young age and, training together, we just progress from group to group. There is always something and someone to bring you on."
Whether Hay can progress from his marvellous scalp-taking in the Edinburgh mud to become a home Olympian this summer remains to be seen. A European junior 5,000m bronze medallist on the track last summer, he needs to lower his personal best at the distance from 13min57.16sec to 13:18.
Still, the teenager can hardly be short of inspiration when he looks at the quantum leap Twell has taken to get back on track for London. She did not have the best of runs in the women's 6km race in Edinburgh, slipping off the pace and finishing ninth, but the highly impressive individual has shown considerable mettle in making it back to international level after fracturing her right ankle in three places while running in a cross-country race at Hannut in Belgium in February last year.
The Bionic Woman reincarnate, Twell has a steel plate, six screws and a wire holding her damaged joint in place. "I'm quite amazed by the recovery Steph has made," Woods confessed. "It was a pretty horrific injury."
What you missed this week
Torch-bearers and Obama
The announcement that Derek Redmond's father is to be honoured with a torch-bearing role in the lead-up to London 2012 will have received a nod of approval in the White House. In a speech made in 2009, in support of Chicago's bid to stage the 2016 Games, President Barack Obama cited Redmond Jnr's celebrated limp of honour as one of the inspirational moments in Olympic history.
"The Olympic and Paralympic Games, they hold a special place in our psyche," President Obama said. "They lift us up. They bind us together. They're the sources of fleeting moments – instants, really – that have become permanently seared in our collective memories. The humble victory of Jesse Owens. The perfection of Nadia and Mary Lou [gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton]. Michael Johnson's astonishment at his own feat. Derek Redmond and Kerri Strug bravely making it through with a little help."
Redmond got his help from his father when he pulled a hamstring halfway round a 400m semi-final in Barcelona in 1992. Jim Redmond rushed on to the track and supported his tearful son around the final bend, down the home straight and across the finish line. Strug received her assistance from Bela Koralyi, coach to the US gymnastics squad, who carried her on to the medal podium after she completed the final vault to clinch gold in the team event in Atlanta in 1996 despite having a badly damaged ankle.
GB gymnasts shape up
Thankfully, there were neither tears nor pain for the British men's gymnastics team on the opening day of the Visa International, the London 2012 qualifying event at the North Greenwich Arena, as the 02 is to be known for Olympic purposes. The GB sextet – Daniel Purvis, Daniel Keatings, Kristian Thomas, Ruslan Panteleymonov, Max Whitlock and Louis Smith – finished comfortably top of the eight-country pile to book a home berth for the big event to come in the summer.
What's coming up
Today The Olympic trampoline qualifying and test competition, part of the Visa International Gymnastics competition at the North Greenwich Arena, should provide evidence that Martin O'Neill has a more than worthy rival in the jumping-up-and-down stakes on Wearside. Kat Driscoll, who lives in Durham and trains at the Apollo Trampolining Club, has already qualified for the Olympic Games and will be hoping to use the test event to consolidate her No 1 place in the world rankings.
Tomorrow Sadly, despite a mother from Kent, Sally Pearson never considered joining the Plastic Brit brigade. She was wearing the green and gold of her native Australia when she sped to 100m hurdles gold in what was considered by many aficionados to be the performance of the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, last summer. Voted World Female Athlete of the Year by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the golden girl from the Gold Coast opens her 2012 season with an outing in the 4x100m relay in the Brisbane Track Classic.
Tomorrow The US Olympic marathon trial race takes place in Houston. The women's field includes 47-year-old Lisbet Sunshine from San Francisco. It will be her fifth appearance in the trials. Alongside her on the starting line will be Caroline White, a US Air Force pilot. A pole vaulter in her youth, she has completed more than 600 parachute jumps.
Wednesday The Rhythmic finals at the Visa International Gymnastics. The British men's team need to achieve a benchmark score of 45.224 over two routines to stand a chance of qualifying for the Games.
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