By Sarah Edworthy
It is 10am, the towers of Canary Wharf pierce a broad blue sky and Alf Vickers is setting out hurdles on the brick-red running track at Mile End Stadium. A group of 35 children, ages ranging from eight to early teens, chatter with excitement as they arrive with tracksuits and packed lunches for a day of specialist introduction to track and field events - with the promise of Great Britain’s 400-metre relay world bronze medallist, Donna Fraser, arriving later to offer advice.
Head coach Chris Zah greets individuals with the infectious laugh that makes him the pied piper of young athletes in the area that will be the Olympic heartland in 2012, and soon he has the gaggle out on a warm-up lap.
On track, too, is Christine Ohuruogu, Britain’s No 1 400 metre runner, slowly jogging up and down in a world of her own. In another corner, Simeon Williamson, a 100m silver medallist at the Under-20 European Championships, is doing endless stretches. Their presence reduces the psychological gap between the untried and the established. It makes the dream of being a professional athlete attainable, which is what this scheme is all about.
Since London won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games, Zah and Vickers have noticed an increase in enthusiasm reflected in the numbers attending junior club evenings. It is their aim - in conjunction with the Norwich Union UK Athletics star:track programme, to help identify and nurture talent.
The results are starting to show - Nathan Douglas, 22, who represents Britain in triple jump at the European Championships next month, took part in the star:track scheme as a youngster. One of Zah’s charges at Mile End, Perri Shakes-Drayton, has broken the UK best time for Under-17 300m hurdles.
Where do parents go when their children suddenly develop an obsession with hurdling, pole vaulting or discus? Where can they try out in a relaxed, fun environment yet be sure of specialist coaching in correct technique? Anyone who has enrolled a child in a star:track day or week has the answer - and, as one mother said: “At £1 per day here, it is the best and cheapest baby-sitting available.”
As with hers, two of my children had watched Kelly Holmes cross the line in Athens and spontaneously developed a passion for track and field. One is keen on hurdles, the other on javelin (though that may have more to do with the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings).
I took them with a friend and enrolled for the day at Mile End. Divided into groups of eight, and rotated between the disciplines, the children learnt how to hop, skip and jump in the manner of Phillips Idowu and get legs forward over obstacles, a la Sally Gunnell, all with encouragement and applause from fellow children.
Donna Fraser arrived in time to explain about baton changes and manoeuvre her long, skinny legs over dozens of mini relay races.
“Without being egotistical, I am always thrilled at how much I can enthuse kids,” she said before being besieged for her autograph.
"I went back to my old school and later learnt some of them had joined up with Croydon Harriers after my visit. This is the age group it is important to advise. They get a taster, and then what next? Some of the core athletics disciplines are more technical than they look.
“You need to start from an early age, when the mind is fresh and things you take on board become instinct. The earlier you learn how to focus, the more likely you are to be mentally tough and show the commitment necessary to take on athletics seriously.”
We left with goody-bags of T-shirt, rucksack and water bottle, plus Donna Fraser’s autograph and a telephone number for a hurdling coach who operates closer to home.
Who knows, I could one day be writing a letter similar to one sent to Norwich Union by Ian Samaden.
“A couple of years ago I wrote thanking your company for introducing my son Paul to athletics. He attended one of your star:track events and as a result became interested,” he wrote.
"He has since developed well and has taken up triple jumping and joined Cardiff AAC. He recently went over to Dublin for the International Schools and at the age of 15 jumped a very creditable 13.65m and took the bronze medal for Wales. I am just re-sending you our thanks.
“I hope Paul is in London in 2012. Signed a grateful and rather proud dad.”
Norwich Union star:track schemes operate across the UK throughout the year.
For more information, www.ukathletics.net