The banner from the 2010 Commonwealth Games has only just come down. "Hurlford's Pride and Joy", it read, honouring Peter Kirkbride, the local weightlifter who brought a silver medal home. Today this small village in Ayrshire will suspend everything as its most famous son competes in the 94 kilogram category at the Olympic Games.
Hurlford, a few miles outside of Kilmarnock, is a place hoping for some good news amid the pain of the recession. "It is a typical valley village in Ayrshire," said Morean Hamilton, landlady of The Thistle, the local pub in which everyone will gather to watch 24-year-old Kirkbride today, as they always do. "It is not the most affluent area, since the closure of the Johnnie Walker factory and bottling plant, affecting hundreds of families," Morean said.
Sporting success is not an antidote to human hardship. No record or medal can bring jobs back to the area. But as Morean told The Independent, it is a place that is keen to have something to cheer.
"It is most famous now for the prison on its outskirts," she said of nearby HM Prison Kilmarnock. "We have not had a lot of good news over the last few years, or the most reasons to celebrate. But it is a very close-knit community, and when there is something of note people come together."
Hurlford has been rallying around Kirkbride for years. "Everybody knows everybody and everybody knows Peter," Morean explained.
Kirkbride has been chosen ahead of any local dignitary to open the village gala, which he was delighted to do. He is as active a participant in local life as an international athlete can be, and a proud representative.
Kirkbride's rise to the Olympic stage owes much to the bonds of his community. Charles Hamilton, Kirkbride's coach and the head coach at Kilmarnock Weightlifting Club, took up the story. "I worked with his dad on the roads while I was running the weightlifting club, and I saw him playing in the garden," Hamilton – Morean's brother-in-law – told The Independent.
"He was great, he could do backflips. He was quite gymnastically orientated already, so we just nourished him along, to take him up to the level he is now. But we knew we had a talent." From there Kirkbride showed early promise, winning gold in the 2004 Commonwealth Youth Games.
But it was tough for him as a young man, working as a concrete placer in Leven, driving for two hours every morning across Scotland to get there, training only late at night when he got back. "He was working in a construction company, working 12-hour shifts, and then coming into the gym at night," remembered Charles Hamilton. "Some days he would come back from work into the gym, I'd open it up first thing in the morning and he'd be there, asleep on the benches. He would have to balance his programme depending on workload."
Like many athletes competing for Britain here, the arrival of Lottery funding, which allowed Kirkbride to train full-time, made a radical difference. Since 2009 he has been a professional weightlifter, a change which swiftly bore fruit with his silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
"In the training camp he was getting stronger and stronger," Charles Hamilton, who was the head coach out there, recalled. "From first to fourth there was only one kilogram to separate them, but you don't know how much that medal means to him."
With their boy half a world away, Hurlford rose as one at dawn to watch in The Thistle. "It was nail-biting stuff, it was so close," said Morean Hamilton. "From the first thing in the morning we had a huge group of people there but you could have heard a pin drop." His homecoming party, which was probably rather louder, was in the same pub.
Since then, Kirkbride has been working hard, although his programme has been disrupted by injuries. "He is very dedicated and in his downtime he has been learning to play the bagpipes to switch off," said Morean Hamilton. "He is very good with the young kids in the club, dedicating his time to training with the youngsters based all around Kilmarnock. Some of those kids without that club would be no good on the streets."
Kirkbride is not widely expected to win a medal today. Charles Hamilton said that his plan was to win a medal in Delhi, qualify for London and then win gold at the Commonwealth Games up the road from Kilmarnock in Glasgow in 2014. "He's relaxed and very excited," Kirkbride's coach and mentor said. "I kept a wee eye on him, he looked pretty confident. He's looking forward to getting the first one in and, hopefully, getting a personal best." Whether it's Scotland or England, everyone who meets Peter likes him because he has a bit of character.
"The other day, when he met Princes William and Harry, he just said: 'Do you want to come along and watch me on Saturday?'"
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