Glasogw 2014: Texan Scot steeplechaser

Lenny Waite will compete for Scotland in the steeplechase at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Picture: Getty
Lenny Waite will compete for Scotland in the steeplechase at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Picture: Getty
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IT ISN’T that Lennie Waite is a Texan by residence and a former college soccer player that gives the steeplechaser such a curious backstory among Scotland’s Commonwealth Games’ team.

It isn’t even the fact that the Paisley-born 28-year-old attended Scotland’s World Cup opener against Brazil in 1998 with her English father that does so. What sets the engaging Waite apart is her recollection of that day she spent in the Stade de France as a 12-year-old.

“I remember being kind-of shocked,” she says. “To see all the drinking and swearing and indecent exposure. My dad was quite scared to get me out of the stadium as quickly as possible,”

It is refreshing to hear an outsider’s viewpoint that does not make unworthy concessions to the loutishness of the Tartan Army, yet by France 98, the athlete’s father Barry was a veteran of several Scotland World Cup campaigns. Hailing from Northamptonshire, his work with Motorola took him all over the globe and led to him pitching up at the company’s factory in East Kilbride. As a result, Lennie, the youngest of four sisters, spent her first seven years in the country. The heart of her father, in the 1970s a member of the US national rugby team, never seems to have left it.

It will be a heart that swells when his daughter competes at Hampden, the spiritual home of Scottish football but the athletics hub for the Glasgow Games. That delight is sure to be shared by the family that Waite has in Motherwell, where she was once a matchday mascot, and the two sisters who studied at Edinburgh University. It is those connections which help explain why Waite is not an American soccer player but committed to the 3,000-metre steeplechase for Scotland, having finished sixth at the Delhi Commonwealth Games four years ago.

“My dad always really loved living and working in Scotland,” she says. “He always took pride in the fact that I was born in Scotland and he had a really strong connection with the Scottish people when he worked in East Kilbride. I was running at university and I realised I had the chance to run in the Commonwealth Games. It was a no-brainer for me. Scotland reached out and I was really excited about the opportunity.

“My dad always had a little rivalry between me and my closest sister because she was born in England and I was born in Scotland – I was always the Scottish sister and she was always the English one. I think he got an OBE for some of the work he did in Scotland at Motorola. That East Kilbride factory was a big thing for the Scottish community. He really loved that.”

Waite jokes that her father didn’t love the fact that, after three daughters, the gender of his fourth child didn’t provide him with someone to share his love of the round-ball game, and be active in it. “I think my Dad was like ‘It’s not another girl, this should be a football player’, she says. Yet, that is exactly what daughter No.4 proved to be... until 2006, anyway. “We travelled round to watch a lot of matches – that’s what we did together,” she says. Lennie also proved a winger/forward of such accomplishment that she earned a soccer scholarship to Rice University in Houston, where she studied economics and psychology. It was there that the athletics coach saw her potential on the track.

“I didn’t go straight to steeplechase,” explains the Austin resident, who says she comes from “a real mutt of a family” when it comes to accents. “I was more speed-orientated because soccer players are quite quick so it took quite a while to build my endurance and become a steeplechaser. I think because of the agility required as a football player – the side-to-side movement, jumping, stopping and starting – steeplechase suits me quite well.”

It suits her pop now, with Waite agreeing that her moment in front of a near-50,000 crowd at Hampden – the steeplechase is a no-heats, straight final – will be the next best thing to watching his child run out into the arena as a Scotland football player, as well as a special day for all her kith and kin with connections to this land. She adds: “I feel like, after I stopped playing football, that I’d better be good at running, otherwise he [dad] is going to be quite upset.

“This will be the first time I’ve been to Hampden. I’m so excited and I’m so glad that I can do it for my parents, for my family. It gives them all an opportunity to come back here – my sisters are coming back, my parents are coming back. They have friends they keep in touch with [in Scotland] but the connections are really growing strong now because they know I’m going to be competing and a lot of people have reached out.”

Waite is in no doubt that the adrenaline injection provided by a frenetic home crowd rooting for her could provide the impetus for her to force her way to a better placing than Delhi. As far as a medal goes, however, she is circumspect.

“It’s hard to say because of the Kenyans. I definitely think I have some personal bests in me this year and I do think I can run where I finish top five if everything goes perfectly on the day. Even though I’m an older athlete I feel like I’m constantly learning because I’m still relatively new to the sport. And the thing with a home crowd, if you’re on [form] on that day, and you suddenly get the extra push from the environment, it can really make a huge difference.”

Based in Teddington for the past two years in preparation for the Games alongside fellow athletes Beth Potter and Steph Twell – “there’s a group of us from Scotland that run together”, she says – for the home crowd the intriguing competition she faces comes from Eilish McColgan. The pair were scheduled to race each other in Gothenburg yesterday.

“Aside from that, we haven’t lined up against each other, except for the UK trials, but that’s always more of a tactical race,” she says. “I’m actually happy to have a team-mate. It will be fun to go through the racing process with a friend.” When she runs at Hampden, Waite will be willed on with the help of many friends she never knew she had.