Monday, 18 January 2010

Juggling the pressure


Juggling the pressure

While most international athletes have the pleasure of being full-time sportsmen and women and spending spring on warm-weather training camps, Steph Twell will be contending with the pressures of training and competing at World level and the final term of a university degree, writes Nicola Bamford.

The 20 year-old Aldershot, Farnham and District 1500m runner hopes to live up to her tag as one of Team GB’s ‘faces of 2012’ and is doing a first-class job, considering her tender years and hectic lifestyle.

Colchester-born Twell is no stranger to the limelight, following years of gathering a plethora of age-group national titles as a teenager and establishing herself as a fine international performer over the past four years as both a junior and a senior.

The Mick Woods-coached athlete has not only taken three consecutive European junior cross-country titles, but also a European 1500m silver medal and was crowned 2008 World junior 1500m Champion before being named the continents’ Rising Star of that same year.

World senior scene

The St Mary’s university-based metric-mile specialist truly leapt onto the World senior scene that summer with an appearance in the Beijing Olympics; narrowly missing out on a place in the 1500m final and attained a place on the 2009 World Championship team for Berlin, where Twell – who struggled with the Portuguese heat in the preparation camp - disappointed with a twelfth-place finish in her heat.

Making the Olympic squad four years ahead of schedule and three months after injury, Twell revealed: “Beijing was incredible. I went in as one athlete and came out as another. I matured as an athlete in terms of preparation and carrying myself in races. The Olympics gave me exposure to the best athletes in the World and has given me great confidence for the future. It was an eye-opener to see what it takes to make it as a finalist.”

Despite the Championship blip in the German capital, 2009 was a successful year for the Ricky Simms-managed starlet. Twell used the summer to register eye-catching personal bests over 800m (2:03.80), 1500m (4:03.48), 5,000m (15:18.47) and 10km road (32:35) to rank highly in the UK All-time lists and in her words, mature as an athlete.

“In terms of development, it was a successful year for me,” Twell explained. “I’m improving on all the tools in my kitbag. Success is not only defined by medals; it’s about enjoyment. Hopefully I will be able to move on from the ghosts of Berlin.”

Occasional lows

With highs there must inevitably and occasionally be lows; and a rare below-par display from Twell was witnessed in the European cross-country Championships in Dublin last month. The modest, outgoing Twell finished eleventh in the under23 event; a painful performance attributed to an untimely injury:

“I was injured for three weeks in November but then because of the Christmas break from university, I got back into training well. I did a lot of different sessions over Christmas so it was a refreshing period for me,” Twell explained. “I’ve always said it’s about the response (after a bad performance); about how you move on from it. I’ve got so many exciting opportunities ahead of me so I like to focus on what I do best.” Even the very best have off days – a belief Woods likes to emphasise.

As expected of an athlete of such fine calibre and positivity, Twell bounced back to a superb fifth place in the BUPA Great Edinburgh international earlier this month and two high-quality runs on the European circuit in Italy and Spain against World-class field recently.

Immense pressure

Such accomplishments are all the more impressive considering the immense pressure from all corners of Twell’s life. Splitting her time between her training group in Aldershot and lectures, strength and conditioning sessions and massage at St Mary’s, Twell has found a calm balance with impressive discipline most likely inherited from her army- engaged father.

Coached by Woods since the age of nine, the duo have established a formidable partnership and survived the recent deduction of a UK Endurance Centre at their base, unscathed and stronger:
“Mick’s more than just a coach to me; he’s helped me grow to the person and athlete I am. He inspires confidence in me and his heart goes into everything. He has such great attention to detail and consideration for his athletes,” Twell reveals.

Support network

“I have a great support network (at St Mary’s) that Mick and I have built so I feel stronger with a team that want to see me progress and who really do care. My course helps me to coach myself and is very practical, as it will hopefully lead to a career. The key is to be organised; I like to keep my training as rigid as possible – it never stops,” explained the Strength and Conditioning Science student.

“Everything’s easier to combine due to the superb facilities and having Mick there. It’s such a great training environment. I hope to train regularly with some Kenyans based in London (such as Linet Masai; the World 5,000m Champ) who Ricky manages, when I’ve graduated.”

Bright hopes

Receiving additional support from Lottery funding, the Ron Pickering Memorial Fund and the Barry Wells Sports Foundation, Twell – who wears a lucky London2012 pin every day - has bright hopes to live up to the media’s expectations.

“I try to take it all in my stride,” Twell explains. “It’s an honour for my performances to be recognised. Sometimes the media can be a distraction nearer to Championships but I like to share my joy of running and it’s a bonus to inspire people.

Twell is most certainly set for more inspiring performances this year and pinpoints the European Championships (Barcelona, July) and possibly the Commonwealth Games (New Delhi, October) as her major aims for the year. In the short-term however, Twell will head back to the international circuit in Italy later this month, before contesting for the English national and British university cross-country titles. A berth on the World cross-country team (Bydgoszcz, March) is the main aim for the winter as well as mastering her juggling act:

“I want to continue to enjoy my racing and balance everything well so I have no stress,” Twell explains. My future aims are to get physically and mentally stronger as an athlete and improve on my presence in Championship fields in the next two years, in the countdown to London 2012,” Twell revealed. “I really want to make the Great Britain 1500m team in 2012; my aspiration is a top-six placing, that would be wonderful.”

With such a vast amount of talent, discipline and determination, Twell may just well achieve that dream.

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