Last Sunday, Charlene Thomas caused quite a stir in the home straight in Stockholm's Olympic Stadium – and in the media interview area up in the east stand. On Monday, it was much the same when the heroine of the British track-and-field squad at the European Team Championships, the only female Great Britain winner of the weekend, arrived back in Blighty.
"It was quite comical getting the train from Manchester Airport to Leeds, when everybody had their newspapers and there was me," the Wakefield Harrier reflected, chuckling at the memory. "People were pointing at me and looking at me. It was an interesting journey back."
For Thomas, it had been an interesting journey around three and three-quarter laps of the Stockholm track the previous afternoon. In a typically feisty international 1500m race, the wee slip of a West Yorkshirewoman was bumped, barged and boxed in on several occasions. But after coming off the final bend in fourth place, she showed of what stern stuff she happens to be made.
First Thomas surged past Nuria Fernandez, a 4min 02sec metric miler from Spain who won the European Championship title in Barcelona last summer. Then she shot through the slenderest of gaps, in between Anna Mishchenko of Ukraine, twice a winner on the Diamond League circuit this summer, and Yekaterina Martynova of Russia, a bronze medallist at the European Indoor Championships in Paris in March.
At 29, Thomas had claimed the biggest victory of her running career, clocking 4 min 06.85sec – eclipsing the surprise win she achieved at the 2009 World Championship Trials in Birmingham, ahead of Steph Twell and Hannah England. As she did back then, she could not stop herself jumping up and down with joy, even when the media microphones were thrust in front of her.
In the midst of the furore about the absence of Phillips Idowu, it was great to see how much it meant to perform – and to win – in a GB vest. It rather begged the question of how the Tiggerish Thomas might calm herself if she found herself in a British vest at the home Olympics next year.
"Oh, I'd get my head round it and be ready and focused," she said. "It's the ultimate dream, to be an Olympian. I just feel so proud when I represent Great Britain and put that vest on. It fills me up and I feel quite emotional when I think about it.
"That's why I do it: to represent Great Britain, and to win medals. That's what I want to get out of my career. I'm not materialistic one bit. I couldn't care less about the money and winning loads of money at Diamond Leagues."
In Stockholm, Thomas became only the fourth British winner of the women's 1500m in the 46-year history of the European Team Championships and the European Cup, following in the footsteps of Kirsty Wade, Kelly Holmes and Helen Clitheroe. She also won the admiration of Charles van Commenee, head coach of the Great Britain team. "It was the run of a warrior," the hard-to-please Dutchman proclaimed. "That is how she is."
Thomas, who will run next Thursday at the Diamond League meeting in Lausanne, gave up her job as a design and technology teacher last year to train full-time under the direction of her husband and coach, Aaron Thomas. The couple live at Menston on the Leeds-Bradford border, and Charlene does much of her training on the trails around the nearby Ilkley Moor.
She has shown her warrior spirit in overcoming the ruptured plantar fasciitis that kept her out of action last summer and is striving to emulate Jenny Meadows and Clitheroe, fellow northerners and good friends, who have achieved international championship medal-winning success in their late twenties and early thirties. "Jenny and Helen are a massive inspiration to me," the West Yorkshire warrior added.
Charlene Thomas is an ambassador for Alfa Romeo, official car supplier to UK Athletics. www.alfaromeo.co.uk