Nicola Sanders to race

From The Times
May 23, 2007

Disregard for past enables Sanders to keep focus on present
David Powell, Athletics Correspondent

Nicola Sanders has only a vague recollection of her first race, but she remembers clearly one small detail. It was the fear that she felt when, arriving for an open meeting in Watford, she saw the opposition. “I was so scared because all the other girls looked professional in their spikes and I turned up in trainers,” Sanders, 24, recalled. Now even the world No 1 does not frighten her.

Sanders paints a sketchy picture of that day in Watford. She was 12 or 13, “thinks” that the distance was 100 metres, sounds unsure when she says that she won and admits that she is not certain it was her first race, although it is the first she remembers.

Fast-forward to 2007 and every athletics fan in Great Britain will have instant recall of her most recent outing.

Not only did Sanders win the 400 metres at the European Indoor Championships in Birmingham in March, she also broke Katharine Merry’s British record. Recording 50.02sec, she won by almost a second, became the fifth-quickest woman across the distance in indoor history and ran a time that was a throwback to an age when Sanders was in nappies.

This weekend she opens her outdoor season and expectation is high.

Having run the fastest time of the year going into the European Indoor Championships, Sanders started as favourite and shouldered the burden well. “I had a lot of expectation on me then because, if I had not won, people would be thinking, ‘What’s gone wrong?’ ” Sanders said. “So I dealt with that expectation and I am sure I can do it in the summer.”

Before her first 400 metres of the season, at the Bislett Games in Oslo on June 15, Sanders will sharpen her speed over 200 metres at the Inter-Counties in Bedford on Sunday and over 300 metres a week later at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Glasgow. In Oslo, she is scheduled to face Sanya Richards, the IAAF world woman athlete of 2006, having won all 13 of her 400 metres finals.

Through her performances and her bubbly personality, Richards, of the United States, has turned one of the main global spotlights towards the women’s 400 metres and now Sanders is to be caught in the glare. She is eager for a season in the competitive company of Richards, but no one yet gives the Briton a chance against the Jamaican-born resident of Texas. “I’d relish running against her,” Sanders said. “I ran my [outdoor] personal best against her at Crystal Palace last year, so it is not like I’d crumble under the pressure.”

Sanders’s European title-winning run caught the attention of Richards, who named the Briton on a list of five athletes she needs to watch out for. “If somebody can run 50.02sec indoors they should be able to run 49sec in the open and once you get into that territory you are competition,” Richards said. “So she is on my radar and I am looking forward to seeing how she will race and how much faster she will compete outdoors.”

But can it be presumed that Sanders will break 50sec outdoors? “You would feel that you are going to run faster outdoors, but you would be surprised how many people run faster indoors,” Clyde Hart, Richards’s coach, said.

Sanders’s twin goals remain as they were before the indoor season: to beat 50sec and to reach the final of the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, in August.

After a spring spent training in Eton and Florida, Tony Lester, Sanders’s coach, is upbeat. “I have no doubt that Nicola will run a lot quicker. How much quicker is just a matter of staying healthy,” Lester said. Quick enough to challenge Kathy Cook’s 23-year-old British record of 49.43? Sanders said: “I have no idea if it is achievable and I am not using it as a focus.”

Sanders was 2 when Cook set the record, in the days of Marita Koch and Jarmila Kratochvilova, sub-48sec territory and heavy suspicion with regard to doping. “We cannot sit here and start plucking times out of the air [for Nicola],” Lester said. “People in the past have run 48sec and we have questioned how they did it.”

Lester calls Sanders “boring”, but in a complimentary context, because “she gets here on time, trains well, hits her target times pretty much and communicates well”. Spending two hours in her company, one is struck by a degree of nonchalance outside her dedicated approach to training.

Ask Sanders whom she regards as the greatest woman 400 metres runner in history and she says: “I have no idea. I don’t even know that many names from the past. I am not much of a statto.”

Ask her where she keeps her medals and again she is indifferent. “Don’t know,” she says. “They used to be in a cabinet, but we got rid of it and they are in a box somewhere.”

Neither does Britain’s latest continental track champion live in the land of pretence. One of her early successes was a gold medal over 400 metres hurdles at the 2000 Commonwealth Youth Games in Edinburgh. “It was not much of a competition, though,” she said. “It was like the home countries plus one dodgy Australian. It was a straight final and I won in about 59sec.”

Sanders lives with her parents in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, and she is not even sure where her European Indoor gold is. “I think it is in my bedroom,” she said. I mention that, on a visit to Richards’s home in Austin, I was shown into “Sanya’s Memorabilia Room”, full of trophies, medals, photographs, certificates and cuttings.

Amersham, though, is not Austin. “We don’t have a big display, that would be awful,” Sanders said. “Can you imagine it? Everyone who comes through the door . . . a big shrine to me . . . I could not think of anything worse.”

Or perhaps she could. How about a trip in the Tardis back to Watford, circa 1994, and her first sighting of those scary girls dressed to kill in spikes.

Track record of a former hurdler

— There was no track at Nicola Sanders’s first club, Chiltern Harriers. Now runs for Windsor, Slough, Eton & Hounslow

— Failed to qualify for final in her first English Schools Championships

— Stayed up all night, at 14, to watch 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Remembers 100 metres disqualification of Linford Christie and the 200/400 metres doubles of Marie-José Pérec and Michael Johnson

— Ran for Britain as junior but gave up serious competition from 2001-04, having “lost a bit of passion for the sport”

— A former 400 metres hurdler, injuries forced Sanders to switch to flat last spring