Zoey Clark went into last weekend’s world championship trials with the fastest British time of the year – a 51.84 seconds personal best achieved in Geneva last month – so she wasn’t exactly an underdog as the gun went on Sunday for the women’s 400m final.
Nevertheless, when the 22-year-old Aberdonian held her form perfectly to take the national title in 52.30sec, edging out Emily Diamond on the line, it was arguably the most satisfying victory for Scottish Athletics on what was a brilliant weekend in Birmingham.
British titles for Eilidh Doyle, Chris O’Hare, Andrew Butchart and Steph Twell justified established reputations, while for Clark it was an announcement of her arrival as an international world class one-lap runner.
The young Scot took some impressive scalps on the way to the podium in Birmingham, blowing away the legendary Christine Ohuruogu in the heat. The former Olympic and world champion finished third, didn’t qualify for the final, and went on to confirm she would retire from outdoor athletics at the end of the season.
Lavia Nielsen, one half of the much-vaunted up and coming twin sisters, was also knocked out before Clark then bested the likes of Diamond, Anyika Onuora and Perri Shakes-Drayton in the final to secure her place in the GB team for next month’s IAAF World Championships in London.
“Coming into the trial I knew I needed top two. To get the win is a bonus,” said Clark, who had the qualifying time but needed to deliver then and there to claim her individual spot in the British team.
“It was a great weekend. This year has been a real improvement for me and I’ve made a lot of progress. To get the scalps I did in both the heat and the final was amazing. I will be much more confident now knowing I can be competitive at that level.
“I came in with the best time but you never know. It’s been really close this year at the top of the rankings, literally hundredths of seconds in it but having my name at the top put on a bit of extra pressure.
“It’s been really good for me to have handled that. I’ve not even been in the British final before, in three previous attempts, so to get through then keep my cool and get the win has given me a lot of confidence.”
The former Aberdeen Grammar School pupil found her way to athletics via dancing and rugby, before being encouraged by a teacher to give Aberdeen AC a try. She has since won relay gold for GB in the European Under-23 championships in Tallinn after anchoring the Scottish team in an ill-fated bid to reach the Commonwealth Games final at Hampden the previous year.
Clark has come of age on the track this year despite also having the pressures of completing her five-year chemical engineering Masters degree at Aberdeen University.
“It has been a breakthrough year but I have no idea on what’s changed,” she said. “I think it’s just maturing as an athlete, knowing how to race better and be aware of my abilities. I’ve been in my fifth year of uni so it’s been hectic and it’s not like I’ve had extra training time. Something has worked.
“I’ve been doing chemical engineering. In Scotland that’s four years standard and five for a Masters. It has been long but I have finished now. I’m now going to take a year out to focus on athletics because it’s not something you can come back to at a later time. I’m going to focus on it and see. I’m really excited to see how things will go doing it full-time.”
That decision had to be planned a while ago, in order to get organisation and funding in place, and Clark revealed that it wasn’t a clear-cut choice.
“It was a bit of a risk because I made the decision last year when I was struggling a bit with a hamstring injury,” she explained. “I didn’t necessarily know it was going to pay off. But this year has gone well.
“Initially we were thinking aim for next year’s Commonwealth Games and maybe a relay spot in London. That’s changed now.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily sunk in that I’ll be there in London for the worlds now but I’m sure it will soon. I’m really looking forward to having that individual spot. In all the big championships I’ve been to it’s always been in relay spots so this is my first senior solo chance and I’m really happy and excited about it.”