Five years of hard toil pays off for Zoe Clark
The 22-year-old will make her senior athletics debut for Great Britain and Northern Ireland at next weekend’s European Team Championships in Lille after inserting herself at the head of the country’s 400 metres rankings. That, however, was a target pencilled with some flexibility in the diary. Soon will come a date with a cap and gown as she collects her honours degree in chemical engineering from Aberdeen University.
Her academic pursuits have been as first-class as her performances on the track this season, the victorious time of 51.84 seconds she ran in Geneva eight days ago enough to compel the selectors to take her to France as part of a 4x400metres relay squad that also includes Olympic medallist Eilidh Doyle and their fellow Scot Kirsten McAslan.
Sacrifices, hitherto, have been required to cram effectively. “I don’t have much of a social life,” Clark reveals. “But I do have a small group of close friends who are very understanding of my commitment. It’s a group that I don’t need to see very often but I still know they are there.”
The Aberdonian is proof that it is possible to make strides while remaining in the north-east. She is part of the current tsunami of Scottish talent which has eschewed the once-magnetic lure of Loughborough and Bath to stay defiantly put.
“It so happened that I stayed in Aberdeen to prioritise my sport,” she affirms. “The resources we have now in Aberdeen are amazing and my coach Eddie McKenna is here. The set-up is really good. The degree was available. And my parents are really supportive. So I didn’t want to add extra stress by going somewhere else.”
It has helped, undoubtedly, that the construction of the impressive Sports Village in her home town, stacked with indoor and outdoor facilities, coincided with her ascent. In her youth, Clark was an aspiring dancer: “tap, ballet, you name it,” she says, with running confined to school sports days.
The coaches knew she was quick and nudged her gently towards the local athletics club despite the teenager’s traits of resistance and lethargy. “I was playing some rugby but one of my teachers was really encouraging and kept on at me to go,” she recounts. “One evening he was asking me about it again and I told him I’d go. Without that teacher, maybe I wouldn’t have tried.”
Sharing a relay gold at the 2015 European Under-23 Championships in Tallinn repaid some of that foresight, a shift of 180 degrees from the previous summer when Scotland’s showing at the Commonwealth Games simply stung. It was a turning point, she reflects, but disappointment duly morphed into motivation. “I used my emotions to work for me and I learnt more about keeping focus to get the job done. Because it was all a bit of shock, going into Hampden. It was a level above anything I’d done before and it felt quite scary. But now I go in and treat every competition the same, without getting overwhelmed.”
In Lille, the event formerly known as the European Cup will see UK Athletics offer some prospects an opportunity to impress while established names rest up for the subsequent World Championship trials. Not in the relays, however, where this is a live dress rehearsal for London in August.
Places are up for grabs. Yet a top-two finish at trials will guarantee Clark a solo show on the global stage. Last winter, coming off injuries, she had a glimmer of hope that top marks on the track might take her to the showpiece. “But even then, we were talking about the relay,” she confirms. “But with my run last week, there is that real opportunity now of making the individual event. It has all exceeded expectations.”