Perri Shakes-Drayton has been busy putting in a tea-time shift at her East End office. No sooner has the European 400m hurdles bronze medallist finished her track session at the Mile End Stadium than the heavens open with a vengeance. It was here, at the home of Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets Athletics Club, that Chris Zah first spotted the girl from Bow who has emerged under his guidance as a realistic prospect for a place on the Olympic podium up the road in Stratford next summer.
Shakes-Drayton – Perrisha Shakes-Drayton, to use her Sunday name – was a 13-year-old cross-country-cum-1500m-runner at the time. "Yeah, course I can remember her," Zah says, chuckling at the memory. "Little gangly, skinny young girl."
So when did Zah, the London Development Coach of the Year in 2005 and London Podium Coach of the Year in 2007, first peg the Bambi-esque distance runner for a 400m hurdler of thoroughbred potential? He laughs again. "She started doing the 300m hurdles when she was about 16, to get to the English schools' championships," Zah says. "That was just by mistake, because I was coaching my daughter at the hurdles and Perri just asked to have a go. And that was it. That's where a star was born."
Six years on, the accidental hurdler is getting into her stride for the 2011 track season as one of a small cluster of British hopes for home medal success in the principal Olympic sport some 14 months from now. In her case, that success would be very close to home. "Yeah, I live with my mum in Bow," Shakes-Drayton says. "You can see the Olympic Stadium from the end of our road."
The 22-year-old East Ender has enjoyed a heady rise. At the end of 2009, Shakes-Drayton stood 17th in the world ranking list for the 400m hurdles. By the end of the 2010 season, she was sixth.
The star that was born when she asked to join in with Millie Zah's hurdles practice at Mile End Stadium six years ago rose to prominence during the course of the European Championships in Barcelona last summer. Runner-up in the European Junior Championships in 2007 and winner of the European Under-23 title in 2009, she improved her personal best by 1.08sec last summer. In the heat of senior continental battle in Barcelona, she knocked off a chunk of 0.73sec.
In the final in Montjuic Stadium, she entered the home straight fifth but surged into bronze medal position, behind the peerless Natalya Antyukh of Russia and the Bulgarian Vania Stambolova. In doing so, she hauled herself to within 0.75sec of a top-three placing in the world rankings. With a time of 54.12sec, the young Briton with the double-barrelled name blasted her way to third place in the UK all-time rankings.
Ahead of Shakes-Drayton in the historical national order of merit are Sally Gunnell (52.78sec) and Tasha Danvers (53.84sec). They are the only British athletes who have won Olympic medals in the women's 400m hurdles. Gunnell struck gold on the Montjuic track in Barcelona in 1992; Danvers was a surprise bronze medallist in Beijing in 2008.
Given the somewhat ragged fashion in which Shakes-Drayton cleared the hurdles in her desperate charge for a European medal in Barcelona, there would seem to be considerable room for improvement yet. "This year I'd love to run under 54sec," she says, looking to the challenges ahead of her in the 400m hurdles this summer – beyond an outing over the flat 400m for the England team in the Loughborough International Meeting at the Paula Radcliffe Stadium today.
"My training's going well," she continues. "My first 400m hurdles will probably be in Eugene on 4 June. I'm looking forward to the World Championships [in Daegu, South Korea, in August]. To make it to the final will be my goal. If I get through to the final, anything can happen. It would be nice to get a medal."
Whatever happens to her in 2011, the pride of Bow will carry the same approach into 2012 and those home Olympics. Her aim will be to get to the final and give it a crack.
Shakes-Drayton might see the gleaming bowl of the Olympic Stadium when she heads off for training each day and again when she returns home but she has yet to visit the finished article of the 80,000-seater arena. "I keep missing out," she says. "Whenever UK Athletics arrange a visit for the athletes, I'm always away at a competition or something."
It is perhaps equally surprising that an athlete of Shakes-Drayton's calibre has never been away from home at a warm-weather training camp. "No," she says, "because of uni, I've just stayed put."
Having completed her degree course in sports science at Brunel University in April, though, presumably she will be heading for foreign climes next year – like the bulk of Britain's Olympic medal hopes, preparing for the London Games away from the pressure of home?
"No, I won't change it," she says. "Things have been going well for me, training here, so why change it?"
Because of the mounting pressure and expectation, perhaps. "No," Shakes-Drayton says. "It's my first Olympics. I don't feel nervous about it. I put my own pressure on myself – that's to get to the final." Then we'll see what happens when the East End girl goes for Olympic glory in what will be close to her own back yard.Reuse content