LYNSEY Sharp always knew that athletics is “a rollercoaster where the highs are great but the lows can be just terrible”. Yet, even she had no idea the ride would be quite this wild.
Just 23 and planning for another decade at the top, one of Scotland’s brightest Commonwealth Games medal hopes has already packed more into her short career than most top-line athletes do by the time they retire. Death, disability, injury, a selection furore and being embroiled in a drugs controversy have all played a part in a story that is still only part written.
If the early years were difficult enough after her father Cameron, an Olympic sprinter and Commonwealth Games gold medallist was permanently disabled when Lynsey was just two years old after the minibus he was driving ploughed into a tree, the past two years have sorely tested the resilience built up during her Edinburgh childhood.
First came the high – a stunning second place in the 800 metres at the Helsinki European Championships in the summer of 2012 that was upgraded to a gold medal when race winner Yelena Arzhakova tested positive for drugs. At the beginning of this year, despite the disgraced Russian refusing to hand back her medal, Sharp’s father presented her with the gold that she should have got in Helsinki in a ceremony at Glasgow’s Emirates Arena.
“Picking up the gold medal from my dad was unbelievable, you couldn’t ask for it to have been done in a better way,” said Sharp. “They made it such a special day that it was a great start to 2014. Dad doesn’t really talk about his feelings too often but I could see in his eyes how much it meant to him – he was quite emotional about the whole thing and I was just glad that he could be part of the day.
“Athletics is up and down by its nature but then I knew that from a really early age. Both of my parents rammed that home to me. My dad in particular said that the tough times will make you stronger and the highs will be so much sweeter knowing what you’ve come through to be there. My tenacity is partly nature, partly nurture. Having a mum [Carol was also a Scotland 800m runner] and dad like mine has made sure I’m tough but I’ve had some harsh experiences, too.”
She’s not exaggerating because the athlete who, along with Laura Muir, is Scotland’s brightest 800m prospect, has endured some brutally tough times. Perhaps the most galling reversal of fortunes came when she won the Olympic trial and was selected to compete at the London Olympics despite missing out on the “A” standard qualifying time that Marilyn Okoro, Jenny Meadows, Jemma Simpson and Emma Jackson – none of whom appeared in London – had all achieved. Several prominent pundits, such as former Olympian Steve Cram, didn’t feel her inclusion was merited and wouldn’t let it go. For the reigning European champion, it was a damning sleight and, despite being a canny tactician with a scorching finish who routinely finishes higher up the field than her times would suggest, she didn’t get further than the semi-final.
“The whole questioning of my bona fides and right to be there before the Olympics wasn’t the ideal preparation, which meant that the Olympics probably weren’t the highlight of my 2012 as they should have been,” she said. “I was so thankful for the opportunity, and it was so great to have that experience, because nothing will probably ever be bigger than that for me but, while there were some good things, the whole set of circumstances was not great.”
Worse was to come, with a calf injury, that eventually required surgery, keeping her out for the whole of 2013 and meaning she missed the recent world championships. The only upside in a wasted year of frustration was the completion of her law degree, consolation for 12 months confined to the gym.
Sharp also split with Dave Sunderland, the coach who took her to gold in Helsinki, and moved to Loughborough, where she now works under highly-rated American Terence Mahon.
“It was difficult to go from such a great year in 2012 to pretty much nothing in 2013,” said Sharp. “It was a difficult year – at times it was rubbish, just miserable – but I feel like I’ve turned a corner and made a fresh start. First of all, I received my medal, and warm-weather training in South Africa was really important because it was like turning a page before spending six weeks at home and then heading off to Florida to see my coach Terence in Orlando.”
Yet nothing is ever easy in at the Sharp end. Last month, she was “devastated” to hear that Sunderland, who was to be the England team manager at Glasgow 2014, had died suddenly.
A fitting tribute to Sunderland – and dad Cameron, who was too frail to go to London but who will be in Glasgow – would surely be to emulate her father and win a Commonwealth medal. She is aware of the pressure but is remarkably relaxed about competing against the likes of Kenya’s world champion Eunice Sum and the top Jamaican and English runners.
“I’ll do a couple of races over in the States, and then, hopefully, the Diamond League meeting at Hampden in early July,” she said, “and then it’s the Commonwealth Games before defending my European Championship title [in Zurich in August]. But I keep telling myself that I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. I just want to make myself proud by getting 100 per cent out of myself. If I can do that then, hopefully, I’ll make everyone else proud too. People keep talking about me winning a medal at Glasgow but, to be honest, I’ll just be happy if I am able to perform properly. I’m really not sure what my chances are in Glasgow but I’m just so pleased to be back racing and enjoying myself.”
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