Interview: Liz McColgan, athletics coach and former athlete

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THE relentless deluge is drowning the pavements in the centre of Dundee. Yet, almost 20 years on from the greatest moment of her career, you still expect Liz McColgan to come running through the torrent, hair tied tightly back, arms swinging, ready to grind come rain or shine.

She is 47 now, a mother of five. Dressed glamorously, she is no longer a slave to her famously competitive urges. "I could go out and run ten miles if I wanted," she laughs. "But it's just not that fun, is it?" She has a property and leisure business. But it is from coaching that 1991's world 10,000 metres champion now gets her kicks.

There was no grand design that led McColgan into mentoring. Merely pester power. Her eldest daughter Eilish, then in her early teens, was interested in following her parents (Dad Peter was also an international athlete) into the business but needed guidance.

Liz, by her own admission, was an awkward customer in her day when others attempted to steer her in their chosen direction. For much of her career, including her run to an Olympic silver medal in Seoul in 1988, she retained absolute control over her own destiny. "Because I was self-coached there was a lot of trial and error."

Such independence of thought has been integral in building the increasingly influential group of athletes based in and around Carnoustie. Sarah Kelly, Jenny Tan and Morag McLarty have been singled out as bright hopes. Alyson Dixon, the veteran of the posse, will run the marathon at next month's world championships. And then there is the Eilish, 20 years young and a burgeoning performer in the 3,000 metres steeplechase.

Initially, her mother was reluctant to take an active role. "Eilish ran 2:12 for 800 metres when she was 12," Liz recounts. "Any other coach would have thought: 'let's push her'. You'd send her off to the AAAs. I made a conscious decision that, no matter how she did at the age groups, if she's not still running when she's 20, it's not worth my time. So I actually backed off."

The inevitable growing pains occurred, occasions where a teen needs her mother rather than a stopwatch holder. McColgan junior was forced to avoid running for a year in an act of self-preservation. "Eilish cross-trained in the gym and to her credit, she didn't give up. She wanted it."

So a programme was developed and, vindicated by results ever since, McColgan's self-contained centre of excellence has escalated its ambitions. Eilish, who last weekend finished sixth in the European Under-23 Championships and who will go to Birmingham for next weekend's world trials with a genuine crack at a first UK title, gets no special favours."I always divorce myself between being mum and coach," McColgan declares. "When Eilish runs, I look at her as a runner, not daughter, and she's just one of my group. And she has a lot of respect for me as a coach." At home, it is a different story. "She's a typical daughter. She's got an opinion. She talks back. But at the track, it's very professional. And we're both motivated for her to be the best athlete she can be."

McColgan senior's formula is hard work and careful preparation with a splash of science when required. However, she feels she's outside the system rather than within. McColgan, a former chair of Scottish Athletics, believes the approach to nurturing prospects has been too restrictive, laden with grand talk but with too little action. "That's a situation that has to be sorted because I see the depth of talent we have at grass roots levels at races all over Scotland," she states. "It frustrates me more than anything that our set-up doesn't enable them to fulfil their potential. It's sad that they have to go to America or England to progress. We should be funding our athletes in the right way so that they can stay in Scotland and reach the levels they're capable of."

Too much insight has been lost, she underlines. Few of Britain's golden generation have gone into the coaching ranks, a number voicing their despair. The sport has been allowed to move on without them while many of the current evangelists have been in post since her prime. Who will take their place, she asks. And will they be prepared to go to outposts such as Carnoustie to offer assistance rather than demanding to hold court at their well-funded hubs?

Recently, McColgan turned up in Bedford and watched six athletes, all under 23, scrap over 5,000 metres. She was excited at the race, enthused about their future. But afterwards, a fear lingered. "You only look at the year ahead, don't you? Four years ago, everyone was buzzing about London 2012. Well, it's next year. Is there any difference? I don't see it. Will we win any more medals? I don't see it. There's been no changes that will make a difference. It's a pity that we miss the boat all the time."

An Ark has been constructed on the Angus coast that might help keep athletics afloat. Still kicking onwards, McColgan will not be drowned out.