The tears flowed, the emotions bubbled over and for Laura Muir it briefly seemed the end of the world was nigh. Primed for a breakout at the age of 20 at the 2014 World Indoor championships on Poland’s Baltic coast, the prodigy crashed and burned in the heats and it was left to wise old heads to offer her comfort and reassurance that there would be further opportunities and better days ahead.
How right they were. Muir, so close to standing on an Olympic podium in Rio, has been the standout athlete of 2017 so far with two European records topping up her CV. But still, after three years of positioning herself amid the elite of middle-distance running, she remains without a major medal to her name. Next weekend’s European Indoor Championships in Belgrade is set to be the veterinary student’s coming out party. Surely this time, she will make the leap from contender to champion.
Every metric, every analysis, suggests the wait is about to be over, admits Barry Fudge, the Highlander who heads up UK Athletics’ endurance programme as well as acting as Mo Farah’s coaching adviser.
“Everything she’s doing in training, in competition, suggests she is head and shoulders above everyone else,” he says. “She’ll go in as the favourite but we want to see her execute and win. That’s going to help her for the Worlds in the summer. Learning how to win in big races is a skill and that’s why she’s targeted the Euro indoors, to figure that out in a competition. There’s no doubt when she’s running that she’s so much better than anyone else.”
Almost unsurpassed indoors at 1,000m, over which she ran the second-quickest time ever in Birmingham last weekend, and resolute at 5,000m after a solo push in Glasgow last month, Muir’s range is admirable. In the Serbian capital, Milnathort’s marauder has asked to double up over 1,500 and 3,000m, with designs on winning both.
Quite right too. “In the past with Laura, she’s gone to championships where it’s been said ‘she could win a medal’,” says Fudge. “There have been different reasons why it hasn’t happened. This time, it’s expected. Not necessarily by us but from everyone out there. It’s really important for Laura that she does. But you don’t have a crystal ball. You don’t know what will happen.
“What we want is a good performance. If you don’t win then, so be it. But with how she’s trained, it should equal a gold.”
Six Scots, almost one-fifth of the entire British squad, are Belgrade-bound, with Eilish McColgan matching Muir’s schedule, Steph Twell settling solely for the 3,000m, Guy Learmonth possessing a medal shot over 800m and Allan Smith out to make an impression in the high jump. Add in Eilidh Doyle, a double hope in the 400m and 4x400 relay, and there are high expectations all round within a squad that has ample strength in depth.
The Caledonian contingent will make its mark, Fudge forecasts, and crank up the feelgood factor. “It’s good isn’t it? I was talking to [Scotland’s former Olympic and Commonwealth distance running medallist] Ian Stewart and [Muir’s coach] Andy Young about it and people forget Scotland has such a rich history of distance running, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.
“There’s still a big culture for it and what Andy Butchart, Callum Hawkins, Lynsey Sharp, Laura and others have done recently is basically saying: ‘Let’s go out and get after it and give it a go.’ It only takes someone like Laura to show that a Scottish kid, based in Glasgow, can have a crack at it and be the best in the world. It just inspires lots of other people and there’s a lot of momentum.”