Only two British women have won gold medals at the European cross-country Championships. Paula Radcliffe, who took the senior title in 1998, has gone on to do quite well for herself at world level. How far Charlotte Dale, who won the junior version on 15 December last year, will go remains to be seen.
But she has made an impressive start to a career that almost came to a premature end four years ago when she had to take the best part of two seasons off because of an eating disorder.
It was good and bad news for the 18-year-old from Whitstable, Kent, that her big moment in Medulin, Croatia, where she also led Britain's junior women to team gold, should have occurred on the day when Radcliffe received the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. The obvious link ensured a fair measure of attention for Dale's achievement. But it also provoked inevitable comparisons.
The task of ensuring Dale does not get engulfed by the suggestions that she is "the next Paula Radcliffe'' falls to her coach at Invicta East Kent AC, Peter Brenchley, and Alan Storey, who runs the UK Athletics High Performance Centre she attends at St Mary's College, Twickenham.
"I think the comparison is inevitable,'' said Storey. "But it's probably going to be done by people who don't actually understand that Paula and Charlotte are completely different animals. What they do have in common is great talent and a preparation to work hard. And they're both tough as old boots.''
Dale's powers of endurance have been amply demonstrated in European cross-country events. At the 2001 Championships in Switzerland, she suffered a heavy fall while in second place, but recovered to finish fifth.
She entered last year's race with the stated intention of finishing higher than she had in 2001 and set about that goal with unyielding determination, despite high winds which made the conditions far from ideal for someone of her light frame.
But Storey believes they worked to her advantage, as she established a telling lead. "She knew she had to get clear because there were faster finishers in the field,'' he said. "The conditions were difficult for all the runners but she was able to take advantage of them because, although she is not physically strong, she is mentally very tough.''
Dale, currently training at altitude with Storey's group in Potchefstroom, South Africa, derived extra motivation for medalling in Medulin from her previous misfortune. "I was going well in the 2001 race but then I was pushed over,'' she said. "I started the 2002 race wanting to get a top-three place at least.''
In the event, she established a decisive lead on the second lap of a 3730m course that was shorter than she would have liked, and although Finland's Elina Lindgren challenged her hard at the end, she remained a second clear. "The wind was so strong in my face in that finishing straight, I thought I was running on the spot,'' she recalled. "I realised the Finnish girl was close at the end. I could see her shadow behind me and I thought the finish was never going to come. But I wasn't going to give up a gold medal after leading for all that time. I just fell over the line.''
The victory marked the latest high point of Dale's career, whose other exploits have included 31st in the World Junior cross-country race, after suffering cramp while leading, as well as smashing the British Junior 10,000m record on her track debut at Stretford last summer with a time of 33min 10.6sec.
Part of the reason for Dale's success is no secret; she is renowned as a hard worker. "I think I train harder than most people of my age I've spoken to,'' she said. "I do more mileage than most, between 70 and 80 miles a week. The longer the distance, the more I like it.''
But her ability to last the distance as an athlete was called into serious question in 1999 when her weight plummeted alarmingly. She had to take a year out, not just from running, but school as well, in order to return to health.
"It was a case of being allowed to run once I had reached my target weight,'' she said, "although I don't know what my weight was, because I wasn't allowed to check it myself. I missed an entire year in 1999, and I didn't really come back until the end of 2000.
"It was a question of getting the balance between eating and working right. I did wonder at times whether I would ever get back to serious running. But it made me more determined, really. It's all sorted now; I don't even think about it. I hope what I have done will encourage any other girls in the same position, because they will be able to look at someone who had the same problem and was able to get back to running well,'' she added.
Continuing to run well is the only sensible ambition for an athlete who hopes to reach a world-class standard in her sport and, perhaps, to emulate Radcliffe's plan of contesting an Olympic marathon.
"Charlotte will ignore what anyone else says and she will simply try to be the best Charlotte Dale she can,'' said Storey. "Our job is to give her every chance of getting to that point.''
Fingers crossed, it could be well worth the wait.
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