Sophie's choice to be golden shot
Schoolgirl McKinna could be GB's surprise package at inaugural Youth Olympics
If Simon Cowell had as keen an eye for sporting talent as he has for precocious hip-hoppers and matronly warblers, he would have been walking on air (as well as platform heels) at Heathrow's Holiday Inn last week. For assembled there, being kitted out prior to flying to Singapore, were 40 of the nation's finest young sportsmen and women. Britain may well have talent when it comes to showbiz, but it also has it abundantly in the games our young people play.
The place was teeming with teenage talent from just about every Olympic sport, all excitedly heading for the inaugural Youth Olympics and hoping to make a name for themselves. A few already have, such as world champion diver Tom Daley, no longer a boy wonder at 16 and worldly enough to inform us in the Team GB handbook that apart from scooping even more medals his dream is to meet Cheryl Cole. No doubt Simon can fix it.
But by and large the British Olympic Association's youth squad are not familiar to the general public, appreciated as they may be by families and friends. Their hope is that these Games will be a springboard to fame, perhaps even fortune, in London 2012, or more likely Rio in 2016. These kids hold the key to Britain' sporting future, and so widespread are their accomplishments – from archery to taekwondo, athletics to triathlon – that it augurs well for some golden moments in the Olympics to come.
But it is a not-so-little big shot from Great Yarmouth who may well emerge as the surprise package of Team GB during the next 10 days. Sophie McKinna is the 15-year-old shot-put protégée of Geoff Capes, a muscular Norfolk schoolgirl who possesses a Daley-like self-assurance and is described by her iconic mentor as "a fantastic young lady with huge potential".
The granddaughter of the former Norwich City player and manager Dave Stringer, McKinna arrives in Singapore fired up after winning a bronze medal in the European Junior Championships in Moscow with a throw of 14.66m, the best-ever by a British 15-year-old.
Images of lumbering Soviet sisters Tamara and Irena Press (irreverently known as the Press brothers) remain lodged in the consciousness when talking of the women's shot, so what attracted the former sprinter to such a relatively unglamorous event?
Sophie explains she started her career as a nine-year-old with Startrack, a nationwide scheme sponsored by Aviva, for whom her father Andrew works, in which youngsters are given a chance to try different events. "I had nagged and nagged my mum to take me down to the local club [Great Yarmouth AC] and I was a sprinter until I was about 13, winning county medals," she says. "I wasn't brilliant but I wasn't bad either. One day there was an open meeting in which you could take part in four events.
"I did the sprints and the long jump and it was my mum who said: 'why don't you give the shot a go?' It was an indoor competition and the shot was the only throwing event. I threw seven metres at my first attempt and everyone seemed quite shocked.
"When I got to 11.19m within six weeks the club reckoned that was pretty phenomenal. I entered the English Schools Championships and came second by two centimetres. Once I got that shot in my hand I felt, 'this is what I really want to do'. I know it's not a glamour event like the 100 metres, but I do it because I enjoy it."
She was spotted by Capes while he was mentoring a group of young throwers on a regional programme. "He invited me to join his Boston Academy in Lincolnshire," says McKinna. "I went the next day and afterwards he asked me if I wanted to join his training group at Loughborough. I have also spent some time at his camp in Brittany. He's been great. He's refined my technique, pulling it to pieces and then putting it together again. He's shown me how to glide the shot the way he used to. Some things he adjusted were minor but they have made all the difference."
Her association with Capes is not without controversy. This year three other athletes coached by the former Commonwealth champion have been suspended over drugs offences, one for taking a minor stimulant and two for refusing random tests. Capes claims that the athletics establishment "is out to get me". It is not an issue that Capes wishes to discuss further but McKinna insists she has never been approached to take illegal substances and if she was, her answer would be short and not sweet: "No way."
She adds: "The respect I have for Geoff is immense. I like the way he coaches. He doesn't bully but gives encouragement and criticism when it's needed. He is brilliant."
At 5ft 8in, she has the build of a middleweight boxer. "I work out with weights and eat healthily with a balanced diet. I just seem to be growing every day." She will be cheered on in Singapore this week by dad Andrew, mum Louise and sister Abbi, 11, who plays hockey for Yarmouth Ladies. Will there be another medal for the family McKinna to celebrate? Sophie promises she will give it her best shot.
Message from an icon: Geoff Capes
"I feel Sophie is the real deal. She is a fantastic young lady with huge potential and is already showing this with good performances at championship level here and overseas. Her improvement over the past three years is the product of hard work and great support from her family.
But at 15 she has a long way to go with many youth and junior championships before she becomes a senior, though she already uses the senior shot in competition. I think reaching the final in Singapore is realistic and if she can win a medal, as she did the bronze in the European juniors, she will equal my own daughter Emma's achievement of some years ago.
I first saw something in Sophie when she was throwing only nine or 10 metres. It was her attitude as much as her ability. She had that aggression one needs to be a thrower. A girl has to be a bit Amazonian to be a successful thrower – and people in the West seem to pooh-pooh the idea that a female can do a manly event like the shot.
I like the fact that she used to be a sprinter because I implement speed as part of the training programme – remember I once beat Brendan Foster over 200 metres! At the moment we are looking more at 2016 than 2012 in Olympics terms but anything can happen in the next two two years.
She has already won the AAA Under-20 Championship and she really does seem to have a special talent."
Geoff Capes, 60, Britain's most-capped male athlete, competed in three Olympics and is a former Commonwealth Games champion and twice winner of the World's Strongest Man. A former policeman and magistrate, he is president of the Budgerigar Society
The magnificent seven
The Youth Olympics feature 3,600 athletes aged 14 to 18 from 205 nations competing in 26 Olympic sports. Here are seven more GB hopefuls:
Tom Daley, 16, diver
The precocious Plymouth schoolboy, once British sport's best-known prodigy, has grown into a world champion diver. He is certain to make another big splash from the 10m board.
Victoria Ohuruogu, 17, athlete
The 400m runner from east London – the AAA indoor champion – yearns for the day when she is no longer known as Olympic champion Christine's little sister.
Sam Oldham, 17, gymnast
Tipped as a star in our Going for Gold series, the son of ex-Nottingham Forest player Bob won gold on the pommel horse and parallel bars at a European version of the Youth Olympics and is European all-round junior champion.
Jade Jones, 17, taekwondo
The Welsh-born World Junior Championships silver medallist at 55kg says she was introduced to the sport by her grandfather "to keep me off the streets and learn how to defend myself".
David Bolarinwa, 16, athlete
GB's Lagos-born flag bearer won 100m with personal best 10.68sec at European Youth Olympics trials, the world's fastest by an under-18. Also pretty nifty over 200m, taking silver in 21.49sec.
Mark Nesbitt, 18, archer
Earmarked as a podium prospect for 2012, the Ulsterman was on target with a double gold medal in Australia's "Youth Olympics" last year and won silver in both the world and European Junior Championships.
Zack Davies, 18, boxer
Like Amir Khan in Athens six years ago, the stylish Welsh bantamweight is Britain's lone boxing representative. His ambition is to meet Manny Pacquaio – socially.
British Olympic Association
The British Olympic Association, formed in 1905, are the national Olympic committee for Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver world-leading services to enable success for athletes and their national governing bodies.
Go to olympics.org.uk
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