Interview: Liz and Eilish McColgan

WHILE strolling through Oslo ten days ago, Eilish McColgan hit on an idea for a picture for her mother, a reminder of an old friend and past glory.

She went to the Bislett Stadium, to the statue that celebrates the all-too-brief life and times of the great Grete Waitz, world champion in the marathon in 1983, silver medallist at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, winner of nine New York City marathons and now sadly deceased for just over a year, a victim of cancer – beloved by the people.

For a spell, Grete was coach to Liz. Not just a coach, a pal, too. Grete and her husband, Jack, came to visit even when the cancer was taking hold of her. Eilish remembers it well. “They came over about two years before Grete passed away. It was when Grete was really ill. She had just been diagnosed so she was really, really ill but she was still up at half-four or five in the morning to go for a jog on the treadmill just because she had done it every day. It was her routine to do it. I was lying in my bed and she was getting up to train. My mum kept mentioning her statue in Oslo, so I thought I would run out and get my picture taken so I could send it to my mum.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The picture landed and it meant a lot. Oslo had been good to Liz all through her career. She ran well there. On occasion she ran historically well. There was a time when Ingrid Kristiansen was considered unbeatable but beaten she eventually was and it was Liz who beat her and she did it in the stadium with the statue.

“You know, it was the first time it hit home,” says Liz, the world champion and Olympic silver medallist. “When she sent me back the picture from Oslo I actually sat down and thought it was really surreal. I was the first European to beat Ingrid Kristiansen, so I did a lot of good running in Oslo and Grete was my coach. I was thinking, ‘There’s my daughter doing what I used to do’. I’m really, really proud of her.”

Why Oslo? Well, that’s why we’re here, in a corner of a changing room in a park in Dundee. The night before the stroll and the picture outside the Bislett Stadium came the running inside it. A Diamond League meeting and a world class field. Some phenomenal operators including Usain Bolt – and Eilish McColgan, 21 years old and only starting out in the game her mother conquered. That night she broke the Scottish record in the 3,000m steeplechase and made the A standard for the Olympic Games. Some say she is a formality now for Team GB but the smidgeon of uncertainty can disappear entirely if she has a top-two finishing spot in the forthcoming trials in Birmingham. Nobody can doubt her at this stage.

But she has to tell a story. Oh. My. God. This is how it was, OK? Last August, she was running at Crystal Palace. She was on schedule for a time that would have qualified her for a place in the world championships 20 years after her mum had become world champion in Tokyo. At the second last water jump she came a cropper, her foot landing awkwardly and going pop. “I was right up there with girls who had run about 15 seconds quicker than me. I couldn’t believe the position I was in, so I knew I was running quick. I saw the clock with a lap to go and worked out I was under the world champs time so I kept running on it. The last water jump I landed on that foot again, and I went totally under the water, I was like crawling out. You see it on the TV. I just disappeared for about ten seconds! We didn’t know I had broken my foot until the end, when I literally couldn’t move. I had completely snapped the bone and because I had kept running I had displaced it, so the bones all around it were all damaged as well. I had to go for surgery so now I have five screws and a little metal plate just on the bone. Forever.”

It’s been a hell of a comeback. But there is another accident to report. In training this time, just a few days before the Norway trip when she was supposed to be wrapping herself in cotton wool. She sensed it coming. The more careful she was the more certain she became that something weird was going to happen. “I ended up clattering into a hurdle. Instantly I thought I had broken my kneecap. I was hysterical, just rolling around on the floor. It just wouldn’t stop bleeding as well. But straight away my mum said, ‘Calm down, we’ll get some ice’.”

Ah, mum. She comes in the room and talks about her girl, how she’s a different shape, different height, different upbringing, different everything, bar one thing. In terms of their love of competition, they are the same. In Liz’s vast medal collection there is a silver from the world indoor championships, a piece of metal that is distinguishable from the others by a dent in the corner, the product of the baby Eilish in her teething phase – “and then she let it drop. If anybody ever tries to pawn it, you’ll know it’s mine.

“Eilish has always had it,” says her mother, talking about her determination and mental strength. “She’s come from a different background than me. She’s had a lot of home comforts that I didn’t get, but there’s always been something in Eilish that she’s always wanted to run. I never started her running, she started herself running. So many parents push their kids and the kids end up not enjoying it. I never used to take the kids to the track, I never took them to the races with me, it was all very separate. She’s always wanted to do it. It’s just in her. Although she’s a very nice girl, when it comes to running she has the killer instinct in and she thrives on it.

“We’re different. I was too serious about it. Eilish, although she’s serious she still has a lighter side. She’s not as intense as I was. I was 100 miles an hour all the time, always pushing. When I started running it was all about getting away from things that were troublesome to me. I never thought I would be an Olympian. Very few girls ran back then. There were no role models. It was never something I thought I was capable of doing. I ran to escape the lifestyle I had and the problems I had, to be on my own where nobody could bother me. When I started getting good I started getting a little bullying because I was doing something all the other girls weren’t doing, so it was really difficult when I was younger. It just took off after I went to the States and then there was the Commonwealth Games and then everybody was your mate. Everybody wanted to run. Eilish is fortunate that she’s not coming to it from that end. She’s in it because she enjoys doing it and she’s very good at what she’s doing.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

There’s a story they both tell about Liz’s Olympic silver. What Eilish wouldn’t give for one of those. To think that her mother’s precious medal sat in a drawer for 13 years before she felt ready to take it out and show it to people, to think that for all that it represented regret rather than glory to the woman who worked so hard to win it.

“She is still to this day disappointed with the silver medal,” says Eilish. “It wasn’t the fact that I didn’t get the gold,” explains her mother. “It was the fact that I let myself be coerced into doing something in my training I didn’t feel was right for me. I should have stood up and said, ‘No, I don’t want to do this’. But I just rolled with it and rolled with it and ended up getting a silver instead of the gold, but that’s for me to live with and cry about.

“When I got the silver I just put it in the drawer and never looked at it again, never showed it to anybody because I felt that I let quite a few people down and, when I saw Paula Radcliffe sitting at the side of the road in Athens, I just thought to myself, just to get a medal is pretty good, it’s hard to get one and not everyone’s dreams are met, so it brought it home to me that I shouldn’t be quite so disappointed with it. I went and hauled it out and put it with the rest of them and I’m not afraid to show it to people now.”

They’re quite a double act. The upside of having your mum as coach? “She’s done everything I would want to achieve, so I know what she’s saying is right.” And the downside? “Just the general fighting between mother and daughter, I suppose. We are both similar in the fact we are both pretty stubborn. There will be times when we are not speaking and I’ll still go to training.”

The silence never lasts long, though. They have too much talking to do, too much planning. Oslo then, Birmingham now and soon, with fingers crossed, London and the measure of both their dreams.