Interview: Hall of Fame inductee Lee McConnell on her highs and lows
“Not any more,” laughs Lee McConnell. “My son was watching one of my old 400 metres races the other day and afterwards he just shrugged and said: ‘Nah, Mum, I could beat you.’” This is Ethan, aged five, and if anything she probably expects even more cheek and casual disrespect from the lad’s three-year-old brother Drew when he gets a bit older.
Nether-Lee. Maybe that’s McConnell’s status as well as her address, having just turned 40, but tonight her achievements as one of our most decorated athletes will be properly acclaimed. The three-times Olympian, four-times World Championship medallist and winner of Commonwealth and European gongs is to be inducted into the Scottish Athletics Hall of Fame.
For that notable birthday, McConnell’s husband, investment manager Craig Bonthron, is whisking her off to Venice. Nice, I say. “Yeah, but it’s flooded,” she says. McConnell, though, isn’t really complaining. Ask her what she doesn’t miss about her sporting life and the answer quickly comes back: “All the travel. People might be surprised. They assume it’s glamorous. Don’t get me wrong, athletics has taken me right round the world, I’ve visited some wonderful places and I’m grateful for those experiences. But sometimes I only ever saw a hotel and sometimes that hotel could be horrendous.
“The worst? I can’t even tell you which country this was; I must have blotted it out on my mind. The place was the absolute pits. The shower ran brown water. My team manager’s room was not quite as awful and she swapped with me but I still ended up sleeping in all my clothes. Letting the sheets touch my skin seemed too risky!
“I used to be an extremely fussy eater but being an athlete knocked that out of me. I’m not talking about Games Villages or holding camps with their nutritionists but the weekend meets when I was away for one or two nights and I had to submit to mass catering otherwise I’d have starved. Athletics is a funny sport. There was one time – this was Germany – where I opened the door of my hotel room to find two people in the bed. I went to tell reception and they said this was where I’d been billeted. Did they expect me to snuggle up with the other two? I wasn’t sure. Eventually I got moved to another room. There was no one in this bed – great. But then someone slipped in later. It was another athlete but I didn’t know this person. In what other profession would you be expected to wake up next to a complete stranger?”
But the least-loved aspects of McConnell’s career are soon sparking memories of the most-loved. “The thing I miss the most is the camaraderie of athletics. One of my favourite races was in Italy where I shared a room with a young Ethiopian 1,500m runner. Neither of us could speak each other’s language but we managed to bond; it was really sweet. Before my race she helped me on with my number and after it she was there to congratulate me. We watched a nature programme on TV together and made each other laugh naming the animals. One thing I did get an understanding about was the differences between us: I had sponsorship and support; she had very little. It made me appreciate my life more.”
McConnell’s life today is much-changed. The school run has replaced the training run although her days are still dominated by schedules and timings, these being as important to young children as they are an elite athlete. “I’m organised,” she says, “very organised.” But she loves athletics and continues to fly the flag for it, both as a sport and a way of keeping fit. Punditry work on Radio Scotland is greatly enjoyed although, in such a football-dominated land, opportunities are limited. A gym in the basement will, when the boys are older, allow her to establish herself as a personal trainer. And McConnell sits on the board of Glasgow Life, the charity which seeks to inspire its citizens to “lead richer and more active lives, through culture, sport and learning”.
We discuss “legacy”, the buzzword from the 2012 London Olympics where she competed and Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games two years later which she was disappointed to miss having just given birth to Ethan, although there was only going to be one winner: she didn’t want to miss out on so much as a single day of motherhood. The success of both Games got everyone talking about sport, how inspirational it was and how improving, even for mere mortals who were never going to compete. While there was an initial upsurge in participation, this didn’t seem to be sustained. After that, “legacy” got bandied about in a lazy manner, which was ironic, and far from the original intention.
McConnell, though, is an optimist. In Glasgow, once dubbed “the sick man of Europe”, she can discern real and ongoing benefit, especially from 2014. “After the Commonwealths, athletics clubs and kids provision were full to the brim and as far as I can see they’re still doing really well.” She also traces the current high standing of Scottish athletics at elite level back to those two glorious summers of sport. “This is the reason why so many of our athletes are doing so well at a world level right now. They perhaps wanted to be at London and Glasgow, not quite getting there. But the success of those Games spurred them on.
“I think Scottish athletics is in a great place at the moment. We’ve a lot of really good athletes who’re not just making teams but looking to medal. They’re getting to finals, they’re really competitive, and to be the best Scottish athlete in your field now you have to be world-class.”
Obviously Laura Muir is in that category and equally obviously McConnell is a fan, but for reasons beyond sheer running prowess. “For a lot of people they get to a certain age when they have to make a decision: education or sport? Because the chances of succeeding in sport may seem lower, they opt for education. But look at Laura who’s become a qualified vet while still doing incredibly well on the track. It’s fantastic to have her as this role model. I think we’ve lost a lot of people from athletics who opted to concentrate on their studies but really they can be mutually beneficial. Exams can be a worrying time, highly pressurised, but sport can act as a release. Laura has shown the two can co-exist.”
An early entry in McConnell’s back pages is headlined: “Unknown Scot jumps into the limelight.” She started out as a high jumper after, at 14, attending a “Come and try” sports workshop at the Kelvin Hall organised by Glasgow City Council. “I wasn’t the best there but the coach, Madge Carruthers, told my mum she thought I had some talent.” That was the year, 1992, of the Barcelona Olympics when the dramatic and poignant story of Derek Redmond, who tore a hamstring in the 400m but continued running and limped over the line with the help of his father, made a big impression on her. “I think I learned about the dedication of athletes that day and how fragile dreams can be.”
McConnell was Scottish high jump champ three years in a row. Rarely would there be a report of these successes which didn’t mention the tattoo of Chinese script on her navel. “It’s my name in Chinese,” she revealed. “At least I hope it is.” A restaurateur acquaintance of her dad’s had supplied it. “What if it’s really the price of the speciality lemon chicken?” she wondered. Happily it wasn’t; McConnell had the script verified later in Beijing. She didn’t go all the way out there for that reason; she was competing. But one thing was certain: Scottish sport had a new golden girl. Tabloids would drool about her flat tummy and long legs, descriptions so last century which the small funny papers couldn’t get away with now.
It was in 2001 that McConnell switched to track, running into a headwind to claim a 200m district title which astonished seasoned observers before moving up to the next distance. She’d been nervous about making the change after failing to break the magic 1.90m barrier at jumping, falling two centimetres short. She thought she’d be disappointing her old coach, Alan Scobie, but he understood, finding her a new coach who’d best suit her in Roger Harkins and passing her on.
The golden girl continued to deliver golden headlines with one about how she preferred Coatbridge to California. “Coatbridge was where I trained. It was basic but I didn’t need anything fancy. There was the chance of going to San Diego for a Scotland warm-weather training camp but that would have meant me leaving my team behind, guys like David Mulhearn who had a job and a family and had only come out of retirement to help me. I just decided to suck it up, rotten weather and all.”
The tabs loved that, and they loved McConnell even more when in 2002 she raced to 400m Commonwealth silver in Manchester and European bronze in Munich a few weeks later. Things she misses about running: “The adrenalin rush, the excitement, just the joy of it. As I’ve discovered, they can’t be replicated anywhere else.” To get in the zone she’d listen to her favourite music: Destiny’s Child and Eminem. How she envies the current generation with Netflix on their tablets; for downtime she had to make do with a good, and gruesome, murder novel. But she always slept soundly before races, just so long as there was no one else in her bed.
“It was a rollercoaster, though,” she adds. “The highs I got from running were the highest, but the lows were the lowest. There was no middle ground. The 400 was an extremely difficult race and I often got them wrong. Go out fast and you could blow up. Start off too slow and you might not get enough lactic into your legs to make up the ground.
“Being an athlete is 24/7. Whatever you do in the rest of you life impacts on it. Parties and nights out were rare. Someone would often say they couldn’t understand how I was able to deny myself a drink; I always thought it more strange that they needed alcohol to enjoy themselves. But if I’d had a drink it would still be having a detrimental effect on training a week later; I’d just have felt sluggish. And, because they happened in the summer when I was competing, I had to miss all of my friends’ weddings.
“Those lows … I don’t think people realise how horrible they can be when you’ve ran badly.” There was worse than that for McConnell, though: the feeling that she’d performed well, put every social sacrifice and bead of sweat and dreich night in Coatbridge into the race only to be beaten by a drugs cheat.
There’s an old quote from 2003 – “I don’t believe athletes do take drugs” – which brings a wry smile when I read it back. “Maybe that was me wanting to believe the best about others, probably that was me being naive. Don’t get me wrong: there were athletes who ran faster than me who were perfectly clean. But as I became more aware I looked at others, spoke to them, studied their times and thought: ‘You’re cheating.’”
All told McConnell thinks she’s won 13 medals. Only “thinks” because the tally is still rising as more finishes, these in the 4x400 relays, are upgraded retrospectively following the failed tests of rivals. The most recent will see her awarded silver in place of the original bronze from the Barcelona Euros of 2010, probably at a ceremony next year.
“It’s nice when that happens and gratifying but you’re denied the special moment of being on the podium and you lose out in other ways as well. You don’t get the momentum of the result that should have been yours. You don’t get the races it would have earned you, you don’t get the sponsorship and you go into winter training thinking you’ve failed.”
In 2006 McConnell made another career change: she switched to hurdles over 400m. She hoped this would give her more of a chance against the cheats – the race’s technical aspect reducing the “benefits” they enjoyed. It worked to the extent she claimed another Commonwealth medal –bronze in Melbourne that year – but she suffered injuries and eventually switched back.
Independent Women, the Destiny’s Child anthem, goes: “The shoes on my feet, I’ve bought it/The clothes I’m wearing, I’ve bought it/The rock I’m rockin’, I’ve bought it/’Cause I depend on me if I want it.” Lee McConnell depended on herself in her races and it resulted in that medal haul. Still, for many reasons she doesn’t think she realised her full potential. “My perfect race? I don’t think I ever ran one,” she says. We can imagine what that might have looked like but she doesn’t waste much time thinking about it as she cheerfully and all-consumingly runs round after her children. Happy birthday and happy Hall of Fame.