The girl who swapped LA for Bridlington
Simon Turnbull hears why Humberside is a better base for a runner than California
Sunday 14 June 1998
An emerging talent with the Santa Monica Track Club, in whose colours Carl Lewis famously competed, she could have been a member of the United States squad at the world championships in Seville next year and also at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Instead, the rising 800m star has chosen to earn her international stripes in the red, white and blue of Great Britain.
"I'm really excited to get back in a British uniform," Blake said, her vocabulary betraying the six years she has spent away from Blighty - initially on a track scholarship at the University of Arkansas and latterly as a youth counsellor-cum-athlete in Los Angeles. She last wore the Great Britain uniform in her days as an Under-23 international 400m runner.
"It was in 1990," she recalled, "in a match against Spain, France and West Germany in Denia, Spain. I was in the 4 x 400m relay." Tomorrow, when the selection committee meet to pick the squad for the European Cup in St Petersburg on 27 and 28 June, Blake seems certain to be included in the British senior team for the first time.
She tops the British rankings in her event by more than two seconds. Indeed, she stands prominently in the world order with the sixth fastest 800m time outdoors this year: 2min 00.10sec. Blake recorded it two weeks ago, as runner-up to Maria Mutola, the world indoor champion and Commonwealth record holder from Mozambique, in the Prefontaine Classic meeting in Eugene, Oregon. It improved her personal best by 1.8sec and announced her arrival, at the age of 27, as a senior athlete of international class. Of precisely which international class, however, had yet to be determined.
Blake is eligible to run for Great Britain and the United States. She was born in London and her family home has been in Bridlington since she was seven but her father happens to be American. She has dual citizenship and would have been a welcome addition to the US track and field team, only one American having run faster than her this year - Regina Jacobs, the 1500m silver medallist at last year's world championships. "Things have really worked out for me over here," she said, "but I'd rather run for Great Britain because there is more support for the athletes.
"Out here I have a fantastic coach and it's great for training but you're kind of on your own, unless you're Michael Johnson or somebody. I've worked part-time this past year to concentrate more on my training and I've been broke the whole time. The only money I've made from my running is the $600 I got for finishing second in the Prefontaine meet. I'm not in it for the money anyway. I just want to get myself established.
"I'm coming back to Britain next week and hopefully I'll get selected for the European Cup. We'll see. That'll be my next race, if I'm picked. But there's the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games to go for - and the grand prix meets too. Over here the season's virtually over when the US Championships finish on 21 June."
Blake has already resigned from Santa Monica in readiness for her return to Britain. She will, however, continue to be guided by one of the club's coaches, Merle McGee. And, even as a relative latecomer to the world-class ranks, she can look forward to a long stay in the international fast lane if she is half as successful as McGee's most celebrated protege. An 800m finalist in the last four Olympic Games, Johnny Gray is still going strong - and quickly - at 37.
"The fact that Johnny has done so well under Merle was one of the attractions for me when I joined Santa Monica," Blake said. ""This is my second year with Merle and the training has been a whole new level for me. I ran 2:03.78 when I was at Arkansas in 1994 and Merle got me down to 2:01.90 last summer. Now, I'm definitely looking to go under two minutes this summer.
"I've watched replays of the Prefontaine race and it's frustrating. I just needed to speed up a little bit at the end to break two minutes. At the time I was knackered but I'm sure I can go faster. That has been my only really competitive race so far this year. I've been running races out in front, winning by four or five seconds in 2:02.15, 2:02.90. Racing Mutola was the first opportunity I had to test myself."
The second is likely to be in the Petrovsky Stadium, St Petersburg, the weekend after next. Having made it in America, Blake is ready to return home as a new face in the senior British team. "I'm not some kind of mystery woman," LA's Bridlingtonian protested. "I haven't simply appeared from nowhere - I've just been over here."
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