Moira Gordon: Talented Dudgeon has rich pedigree

Emily Dudgeon has whittled away at her time and is closing in on the two-minute goal. Photograph: Getty
Emily Dudgeon has whittled away at her time and is closing in on the two-minute goal. Photograph: Getty
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EMILY Dudgeon makes it into the media courtesy of her exploits at the 800 metres, but there is an awful lot that makes her noteworthy.

There’s the fact she has combined competing at a level that has earned her a place in this summer’s Commonwealth Games team with studying medicine at Cambridge University, there’s the mental fortitude honed by a childhood punctuated by hospital visits and skin grafts and then add to that the family tree, where branches droop under the weight of sporting achievement.

Great-grandfather Herbert Waddell. Picture: PA

Great-grandfather Herbert Waddell. Picture: PA

This is a young woman who is as fascinating off the track as she is on it.

“I don’t make it easy on myself,” she says with a little laugh, discussing the difficulties associated with combining medicine at one of Britain’s most illustrious universities with preparing for what she described as “the biggest thing by far I have ever done”.

“Even when I applied to go to university at Cambridge for medicine, people were saying how difficult it would be, but it was all I have ever wanted to do. I spent a lot of time in hospital myself when I was younger and I have always wanted to do medicine, but I also want to be the best athlete I can be. It is a double dream, and it always has been. I suppose when you want something enough, you find a way to make it work.”

Those early hospital visits were the horrible consequence of an accident she had as a toddler that left her with third-degree burns over a sizeable proportion of her body. “I was in and out of hospital for years,” she explains, matter of fact. “I had my last skin graft when I was ten but then I had an infection in my elbow and had to go back into hospital for that. That was when I was 15.

Uncle Gordon Waddell, against France.  Picture: PA

Uncle Gordon Waddell, against France. Picture: PA

“So medicine has always been a dream but so has athletics.”

She has an impressive sporting lineage. Her great grandfather Herbert Waddell was a Scotland rugby union player, as was her great uncle Gordon Waddell, and both were also British Lions. That covers the maternal side of the family, while her father, an amateur jockey, also showed sporting prowess, competing at the Grand National.

“I also have two older brothers, so as I grew up I spent every Saturday morning watching them play rugby, and we played lots of sports together. We played cricket, rugby, hockey, tennis, I think I tried lots of sports, but I can remember thinking I can’t wait until I get into primary five because, at my school, that was when you could join the running club! I don’t know why that always interested me but that’s always what I wanted to do.”

Growing up in Edinburgh, the fascination never waned; not even when she had to find the right balance between studying for exams and fitting in training and competitions.

While others squeezed in some last-minute cramming for exams, she was travelling throughout Europe for competitions or camps, reading on the journeys and swotting when she found a spare minute.

Learning to accept adversity is something she got used to at an early age, though, with those hospital visits, the painful surgeries and the realisation that it made her different from others her own age.

“It did make me stronger. Athletics is difficult and I have different skin but everybody has their own idiosyncrasies.

“I remember when I was younger and someone thought I had bubblegum stuck to my arm but it was just my skin. People do look at me and might notice that my skin is different the first time they see me but the way I look at it, I was lucky it happened when I was so young because I can’t remember when I had ‘normal skin’. It can be sore when I stretch as the skin reacts differently from others, but I am used to that.”

It never dented her self-confidence, the way it might some young girls and the focus never flickered from her twin goals.

“When something means so much to you, you can always find a way,” she says.

While many of her team-mates are full-time sports people, others took a sabbatical from work, or suspended their studies for a year or so to ensure they are at their best by the time they step out in front of a home crowd at Hampden. Dudgeon doubts that approach would have gone down well with the Clare College hierarchy. “Cambridge is a weird and crazy place and I don’t think they would have been open to that, so I didn’t even investigate it.”

After the summer, she will return to university but it won’t be to Cambridge. Instead she has switched to Dundee, closer to her coach Stuart Hogg, who has nurtured her track career since 2011.

The following year she achieved a sixth place finish in the 800m at the World Junior Championships and finished fourth in the British Olympic Trials. But edging closer to the two minute mark, she recorded a new personal best of 2:01:89 at the end of June.

“Yeah, I’m in great shape and that PB gives me the belief that I am peaking at the right time. For me it was never just about selection and going to the Games, I want to be at my best. It may be that takes me to the semi-finals or it might take me to the final but the only target is to do my best.”

The fact that the US athletes, who occupy many of the top slots in the world rankings, will be missing at Hampden is a blessing but it doesn’t open up the field completely, not with so many strong Commonwealth competitors in the field.

“The fact that three or four Americans won’t be there, athletes who have broken the two minutes, does bode well for someone like me. It will still be a very high level but I am looking forward to it. It’s the biggest thing by far that I have ever done but the flipside is I still have to try to treat it like any other race. It’s still just an 800m race.”