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Just when it seemed that Kelly Holmes’s Olympic double in Athens was the final, late flourish of an era of British middle-distance domination that began with Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe a quarter of a century ago, the shoots of a renaissance are beginning to show.
Rebecca Lyne has emerged this season with a series of aggressive 800m runs, culminating in a 1min 58.20sec time in Gateshead last month, which lifted her to third on the UK all-time lists.
In tandem with Lyne’s impressive showing, the almost dormant men’s scene sprang to life in the unlikely location of Watford, when the three fastest characters to zoom through town since Elton John’s “Rocket Man” – Richard Hill, Michael Rimmer and Sam Ellis – all broke 1min 46sec in the same 800m race.
Lyne came a cropper as one of the favourites to win the European Cup race in Málaga two weeks ago, when her lack of experience contributed to a fall, and a last-but-one finish. But the British trials in Manchester this weekend for the European Championships in Gothenburg next month give her the opportunity to put that setback in perspective.
Lyne explains her seemingly abrupt and late emergence, at 24, as follows: “It looks more dramatic than it has been. Last year I felt capable of breaking two minutes [for 800m] but got injured before the [Commonwealth] trials. But I have improved again this year. Ironically I got injured again, and did a lot of cross-training [swimming, cycling, gym work]. Even up ‘til March, I hadn’t managed to string together a week’s good training, but then I went abroad, to Tyrennia in Italy, for warm-weather training and things started to click.
“Shortly after, I changed coaches. Dave [Turnbull] is a very positive person, very encouraging, he’s putting people to work with me, talking to me before races.”
In fact, Lyne won the European under-23 800m title three years ago, already demonstrating the aggression that has won her many fans this year, and the attention of a manager, Nic Bideau, whose experience stretches from coaching his wife, Olympic silver medallist Sonia O’Sullivan, and the Australian star Craig Mottram, among others.
Bideau says: “She’s an incredibly good competitor. Every situation we’ve put her in, she’s come through. I saw that first when she won the under-23 title. She has the confidence to try and achieve above herself, which is a bit of a rare thing among British athletes nowadays.”
But, as the Málaga race demonstrated, the 800m is too short to allow any substantial errors and any frailty on Lyne’s part this weekend could mean that she misses out on selection for Gothenburg since the women’s 800m is one of the few disciplines where British athletics, otherwise in steep decline, has a full complement of top-class runners.
Although not yet training for the longer distance, Lyne has also decimated her 1500m best in recent weeks, most recently a 4min 06.8sec in Switzerland 10 days ago. If Lyne ultimately proves adept at the classic middle-distance double, then it won’t just be Holmes that she will be compared with, but an even more illustrious predecessor.
For Lyne was born and raised in Sheffield, went to Tapton School, is a member of Hallamshire Harriers, and took her degree at Loughborough University, all of which collectively served as almer mater to Sebastian Coe.
In contrast, Hill, Rimmer and Ellis have yet to reproduce their Watford form in a major race. The shame is, that after so many years of domination by the likes of Coe, Ovett, Dave Moorcroft, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott, British male middle-distance runners are not sought on the circuit any more.
Selection for Gothenburg for them is even more pressing than for Lyne and although the Super Grand Prix at Crystal Palace in two weeks’ time should furnish another opportunity, they all need to make a strong case in Manchester this weekend.