Simon Turnbull: East Ender hoping to turn heavyweight heritage into heroics over the hurdles

Olympic Diary
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The Independent Online

Having finished 2010 with a bronze medal from the European Championships, and ranked sixth in the world in the 400m hurdles, Perri Shakes-Drayton has to be considered a contender for a medal at what for her will be a close-to-home Olympic Games next year. At 5ft 7in and 10st, though, the spidery-limbed East Ender could hardly be described as a heavyweight contender – unlike her father's one-time charge.

"My dad used to be part of Lennox Lewis's training camp," Shakes-Drayton says. "He looked after the running aspect. That was my dad's role."

Lewis, of course, won an Olympic gold medal. He was a member of the Canadian team that included Ben Johnson in Seoul in 1988. While the sprinter went "From Hero to Zero in 9.79sec," as the Toronto Star famously lamented in the wake of his positive drugs test in the South Korean capital, Lewis was the toast of the Maple Leaf nation after defeating Riddick Bowe to win the super heavyweight title.

It was when the West Ham-born Lennox Claudius Lewis turned professional and moved to London to join Frank Maloney's stable that he worked with Patrick Drayton. Perri's father and Harold Knight were co-trainers of the 6ft 5in, 17st 11lb WBC world heavyweight champion.

"I met Lennox Lewis when I was younger," Shakes-Drayton says. "I went to his house. It was a big mansion."

Shakes-Drayton's house happens to be just down the road from the arena where she will be chasing Olympic glory a year from now. "Yeah, I live with my mum in Bow," she says. "You can see the Olympic Stadium from the end of our road. It's an inspiration, seeing it there on your doorstep. It makes you more determined – having this big global event in your back garden virtually."

Shakes-Drayton is an Olympic contender forged in the East End of London. She started out as a cross-country and 1,500m runner at Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets Athletics Club. She was 13 when she tried the hurdles and caught the eye of Chris Zah, the coach who puts her through her daily paces at Mile End Stadium.

In surging from fifth to third in the home straight of the 400m hurdles at the European Championships in Barcelona last year, the Londoner with the double-barrelled name blasted to third place on the UK all-time rankings with a lifetime best of 54.12sec. The only Britons who have run faster in the one-lap event are Sally Gunnell (52.78sec) and Tasha Danvers (53.84sec). Both won Olympic medals, Gunnell striking gold in Barcelona in 1992 and Danvers claiming a surprise bronze in Beijing three years ago.

Might Shakes-Drayton be following in their footsteps in 2012? "A lot of people have been saying good things about me but I've got to get to the world stage yet," she says. "That's the next level for me. There are girls running 52sec, 53sec and I haven't broken the 54sec barrier yet. Hopefully it will come, but I need to be running 53sec to be in contention for a medal.

"We shall see how this year goes. It will give a good indication. My goal is to get to the final at the World Championships. If I do that, then anything can happen in the final. Of course I'd love a medal. Everyone would."

Her family having drawn a big fat blank in the ballot for Olympic tickets, Shakes-Drayton has been given every incentive to go all of the way to the 400m hurdles final in 2012. "I applied for tickets for my auntie," she says. "I got none. I know my family are behind me, though.

"We get two for each round we run in and now that I've got the qualifying mark I automatically get two tickets for the first round. Then, if I get through that, I get another two... No pressure there, then."