SCOTTISH Athletics claimed a major coup yesterday, six days before the World Cross Country Championships are staged in Edinburgh, when one of the UK's most promising young athletes "declared for Scotland."
Laura Kenney was born in Blackpool to an English father and Scottish mother, grew up "all over the place," including Holland, and now lives in Loughborough. But the European under-23 5,000 metres champion has been tempted, after 18 months of gentle courting by Scottish Athletics, to commit her future to Scotland, which means little as far as World Championships and Olympics are concerned, but everything in terms of the Commonwealth Games.
Indeed, it could conceivably be that the first time Kenney pulls on a Scotland vest is in New Delhi in 2010 – possibly as a genuine medal contender. And Scotland doesn't have many of those.
The 22-year old says the timing of her decision owes to her call-up for Sunday's World Championship, in what will be her senior Great Britain debut. She earned selection with victory in last weekend's Inter-Counties cross-country – which doubled as the World Trials – in Nottingham. That – and her announcement that she will henceforth be Scottish – doubles the home interest in Sunday's event, with Kenney joining the only other Scot, Andrew Lemoncello, in the British team.
"I've been thinking about it for 18 months," said Kenney yesterday. "It's been at the back of my mind, but with the world cross country being in Edinburgh, it seemed a good time to make the decision. It was a good time to declare."
Kenney's family history adds credence to her Scottish eligibility. Though her father, Paul, is from Leicester, he studied at Dundee University and ran for Scotland, having qualified under the residency rules.
After leaving Dundee University he and Kenney's Glasgow-born mother, Pam, lived in Inverness. Paul was a marathon runner and cross- country specialist.
There are certainly no questions, in Kenney's mind, about her Scottish roots. And if there had been, they would have been dispelled over the past few days, spent at her grandmother's in Yorkshire. "She's from Glasgow and still has a very Scottish accent," laughs Kenney. "My grandma's delighted. And my mum's really pleased too."
Given her background, it seems surprising Kenney hadn't considered committing herself to Scotland previously. But she says it didn't occur to her until 18 months ago, in Japan, where she was competing for Great Britain in the Ekiden Relays. Scottish Athletics' endurance manager Mike Johnston was there; so was someone Kenney would do well to emulate – Liz McColgan, pictured below.
On the flight home, Johnston spoke to Kenney. "He knew about my dad," says Kenney, "and he mentioned that it was something I could think about. I've been thinking about it since then, and talking to people, but there's been no pressure at all. It's my decision."
Johnston is reluctant to claim too much credit, preferring to highlight Kenney's Scottish credentials.
In fact, he hadn't realised her mum was Scottish until that plane journey. "I knew about her father and she told me on the way back from Japan about her mother," says Johnston. "I floated the idea and we've discussed it a few times since then."
Johnston is less guarded and more effusive when the discussion turns to his new recruit's talent, and potential. "Her strength really lies in track and field. She's a fully supported athlete by UK Athletics, so they view her as having podium potential for the (2012] London Olympics. With an athlete of her calibre, her UK programme must come first; we'll try to get her in a Scottish vest as soon as possible, but only if it fits with her other commitments. You would hope, if all goes well, that she'll be at her peak in 2014, when the Commonwealth Games come to Glasgow."
Though Sunday will be her first senior outing in a GB vest, Kenney has quite a pedigree. She describes her European under-23 title as "my breakthrough," but she also finished fourth in the under-20s World Cross Country Championships in Finland as far back as 2003.
This summer's Olympics "might be a bit out of reach," she says, "but it's not an impossibility." She needs around a 30-second improvement over 5,000m. "I would like to get close, but I don't know if that's realistic. At the moment it's just about improving."
Longer term, a step up to 10,000m, and eventually the marathon, are possibilities. "My dad was a marathon runner, so I might have that in my genes," she says.
It's possible, though, that she could be running 10,000m in 2014 – 28 years after McColgan provided one of the highlights of the Edinburgh Games with victory over that distance.
By then Kenney may also have her sister for company on the track, with 19-year old Olivia showing promise. The question of whether to run for England or Scotland has not yet arisen for Olivia. So, might she join her big sister in declaring for Scotland? "She might do, yes!" laughs Laura.