THE last time we chatted in the build-up to a Commonwealth Games, it was 2008 and Lynsey Sharp was gearing up for the youth event in Pune, India. But, even then, the focus was on the prospect of stepping up and taking a shot at glory in Glasgow this summer.
It was a plan that was almost derailed, with injury hampering the build-up and turning the past year into a tumult of emotion. However, she has come through it, faster and mentally tougher, proving she inherited more than athletic prowess from her parents Cameron and Carol.
“Definitely everything that has happened in my childhood has made me the person I am. I do think I am mentally strong and I have seen that a lot having been out for the past year and I appreciate that maybe I took 2011 and 2012 for granted, thinking ‘yeah, this is great’ but now, I know what it felt like to have that all taken away from me for a year and that makes me very grateful. I relish every opportunity because a year ago things were the opposite.”
In that early meeting she was effusive in her praise of her parents, who competed at the highest levels themselves and who have been forced to deal with setbacks on a personal level. She said at that time she hoped she had inherited some of their gumption and mental fortitude. Having weathered the highs and lows of the past few years, she has realised that she does.
“That conversation feels so long ago and so much has happened since then. I’ve been injured and I missed all of 2009 and in 2010 I just did 400 metres because I wasn’t fit enough, yet 2011 and 2012 were amazing and 2013 I was injured and now, luckily, I’m OK. I am so glad that last year didn’t happen this year because it would have been a total disaster. I would have been devastated and it has been a close thing because even as recently as April I didn’t know if I was going to make the Commonwealths. I’m just so happy that we have made it this far and I’m now just keeping my fingers crossed and wrapping myself in cotton wool.”
The memory of winning was enough to keep her going. She is the European 800m champion, one of the high points of 2012. One of the lows was the Olympics in London, where she finished seventh in her semi-final – a result she was disappointed with.
But one of the plus points to have come from her enforced absence from the track is a greater sense of perspective. It’s not foolproof, though. Last weekend she ran the second-fastest time of her life at the Diamond League meeting at Hampden, but, having finished fifth in behind Commonwealth rival Jessica Judd, she described her performance as “rubbish”.
She knows that Judd could pose a threat along with Kenyan world champion Eunice Sum, but there were still issues with the weekend’s race.
“It’s weird because I’m obviously in the best shape I have ever been in and Saturday was my second-fastest race ever. But when I walked off the track I was disappointed because I didn’t catch the ones who crossed the line just ahead of me. I wasn’t that bothered that I didn’t win, but it was the ones who finished just ahead of me that I was disappointed with. There were just 700ths of a second between us and I knew there were things throughout the race, like getting tripped from behind and having to cut my stride because it was so packed and then, even with 100m to go, the Cuban girl stepped out in front of me and I feel that even if that one incident hadn’t happened then I could have got over the line ahead of them and that was the frustration for me. I don’t want to make excuses because that’s what racing is all about and I know that anything could happen in a race and that could have been the Commonwealth final, but, having watched it back, although I said it was rubbish, it wasn’t rubbish. At the time I was harsh on myself.”
That was the heat-of-the-moment stuff. A few hours later, she was able to analyse things with more detachment. “I saw my mum straight afterwards and in the past I would have cried, but I didn’t. Later that night she said I had dealt with it really well and I said ‘I know, I think it’s because I realise it wasn’t that bad’. I can process it better now. But it was frustrating because I could immediately see what I had done wrong during the race.
“I learned more in that one single race than all the other races I have done this year put together. I didn’t learn anything at trials because I won and I didn’t even really have to think about it – it was great, but I learned so much at Hampden. This season I ran 2.06min, then 2.03, 2.02, 2.01, and then 1.59 and I knew that at some point things wouldn’t go as planned. You can’t win every race, you can’t run a PB in every race, so at some point that improvement was going to stop, so it wasn’t a disaster. It was my second fastest ever, but it does make me determined to put it behind me.“
Her current personal best is 1:59.67, set in Lausanne, Switzerland, in July, slashing over four tenths of a second off her PB, which is why she is feeling as positive as she has for a long time.
Although the current European champion, she didn’t compete in Delhi, so this is her first senior Commonwealth Games. She also missed the Worlds in 2011 and 2013, so next year will be her first experience of that. She wants to make the most of every big opportunity.
But with injury making it difficult to plot too far ahead, she made the conscious effort not to get too caught up in the Glasgow 2014 hype. While she was out, it kept her sane. Now that she is back on track, it has helped her stay calm.
“I have been trying not to think too much about it. Because I was injured, I’ve avoided a lot of the hype. I have been just sailing along and things have been good.
“I wouldn’t want to be some of the people who everyone seems to be talking about. There are people like Michael Jamieson and Eilidh [Child]. People expect so much of them, but people have to remember that these guys are human and they are not machines. You can’t expect them to be perfect every single time. Everyone goes into work and has a bad day sometimes, but for some reason people expect something more from athletes. Maybe because it is a performance-related environment. But no-one wants to do badly. I hate losing. I hate losing more than I love winning. Most athletes are the same, so although we have medal chances, nothing is certain. A lot of things can influence an outcome.
“I’m quite glad I am kind of coming in under the radar. Even on the way here I was listening to the radio and there was something about ‘poster girl, Eilidh Child’ and I am so glad that’s not me. But I think Eilidh has coped with it all amazingly and she ran an amazing race at Hampden at the weekend. She will be great.
“But it is ridiculous. Even in the week leading up to the trials I had a chest infection and I wasn’t sure whether I should run. I knew I was going to win it, but I didn’t want to step on the line unless I knew I could do what I was capable of doing. For something that seems as small as a chest infection or a cold, or even with Eilish [McColgan] who had food poisoning, it may seem something small, but it’s everything. It’s scary.”
The recognition of what could go wrong does not stop Sharp aiming high. By the end of the season she wants the Scottish record, she would also like a Commonwealth medal and another European bauble.
“I am ranked really highly and I think everyone should be aiming for a gold medal, especially in something like the 800m, which is tactical so anything can happen. It is tricky negotiating the rounds, but once you are in the final, anything can happen. I wasn’t meant to win the Europeans on rankings, no way. And I wasn’t even meant to win the trials, but I really enjoy championship racing and if I go into it mentally right then I know I can compete. I just really enjoy it. I never want to walk away from a race disappointed and I was disappointed at the weekend and that is a horrible feeling. I just don’t want to feel that at the Commonwealths. In London, I was disappointed and when you see other people winning medals, you know that that feeling, compared to the feeling of disappointment, is such a difference and it’s only you that can control that.
“I couldn’t do a team sport. I’m not a team player. I can handle a 4x400m, but other than that I like to be the one who is responsible if it goes right or it goes wrong.”
She isn’t anti-social, though. She does want people around her. She is thrilled that her whole family will be at Hampden and is loving that fact that while she will be competing as an individual, she will be doing it as part of Team Scotland, surrounded by friends who will share the experience.
“Me, Eilidh, Jamie Bowie and Gemma Nicol have a WhatsApp group and we have had it for over a year now. We just chat random rubbish. It will be nice to all be together because we are very rarely in the same place at the same time and it will be nice to have people like that around you, who you know so well and can have banter with outside of athletics. Then there’s people like Eilish and Chris O’Hare who were at the Commonwealth Youth Games.”
That experience six years ago may seem a long time off, but the goals set then remain true. She wants to shine in Glasgow and through all the highs and lows in the intervening period she has managed to keep things on track, where she feels her most comfortable.
Lynsey Sharp uses Multipower Sportsfood. Visit www.multipower.com