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Driven on by a puppy named Donald

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Ollie Williams | 08:46 UK time, Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Mhairi Spence is drunk with elation, giddily staggering through admiring embraces, letting out cries of disbelief.

In a field outside Rome, after years of frustration, perspiration and pure hope on the fringes of the Olympic movement, she has taken a giant step towards her ultimate dream: a puppy named Donald.

Spence, 26, should top your list of athletes you'd pick to cross a finish line first. It's how she reacts. Her emotions sit squarely on the surface even at the quietest of times but here in Italy, moments ago, she has won a world title and nobody needs to ask, "How do you feel?"

Hauled off the floor by wide-eyed coaching staff, she is dragged, gurgling with "Oh-my-God" ecstasy, past a crowd of well-wishers until she finds some open space and words break through.

"I'm going to the Olympic Games! I can't believe it, I can't... Oh my God... My dream has come true." She gulps back sobs. "It's so cheesy, but it's true." With that, she collapses into the arms of the British performance director.

Spence is a modern pentathlete: she fences, swims, rides horses, runs and shoots laser pistols for a living. Hers is a world dominated by the Olympics' most obscure sport and her quest to reach the Games. She has promised herself a puppy - "I dream of Donald... I'm sure he dreams of me" - if she wins a medal there.

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Mhairi Spence's wild world title celebration

Women's modern pentathlon became an Olympic sport at Sydney 2000, where Steph Cook won gold for Britain. Since then Team GB has picked up medals at both Athens and Beijing. Getting into such a high-quality Olympic team is incredibly difficult because, with just two GB places available, a medal at these World Championships was the only sure way to do it.

Realistically, nobody thought that likely. The current crop of Brits is a good one, but other nations are strong. Heading into the day's grand finale, a combination of running and shooting to decide the winner, France's Amelie Caze held a whopping 37-second head start over third-placed Spence.

Somehow, Caze threw it away. Somehow, Spence held off everyone to cross the line first. Somehow, team-mate Samantha Murray - capping an explosive surge up pentathlon's ranks in the last 12 months - won the bronze medal, booking her own ticket to London 2012.

These successes stunned the British team and vindicated both athletes. Spence and Murray have been eaten up by their sport in the past, spat out, told they couldn't cut it. Spence missed the Beijing Olympics and, as recently as 2010, wasn't even in the World Championships team. Murray was kicked off the development programme - "she couldn't cope," her coaches say - but refused to let that be the last word. Now, they're high-fiving on a world championship podium.

Jan Bartu, Britain's performance director, has seen their stories evolve. He holds up his mobile phone to video the medal ceremony, as though the recording will make this more believable. In his wildest dreams? He shakes his head.

"Since Mhairi joined us in Bath, it's always been: is she going to make it? Will she become a top-class athlete?" Bartu recalls.

"This is what we live for, this transformation of her as a person and athlete. It's a fantastic story. What she's done in the past 18 months - her individual effort, her nutrition programme, sports psychology - this is the dream outcome of that effort."

The Scot, whose mother makes kilts, was well on the way to that transformation a year ago at the Olympic test event in Greenwich Park. When we spoke there, she could feel things clicking into place.

"I thought I'd reached my limit, but I seem to have found a new gear," she said then. "I've grown up. I've matured. I'm more professional than I was. I have to take this a little bit more seriously.

"I'm a fun-loving, jokey person a lot of the time, but I realised my days were becoming numbered in the squad and in my athletic career. I had to change something."

Spence changed many things - chiefly her diet and training regime - but one thing remained intact: her sense of humour. She will easily be the happiest and chirpiest member of Team GB for London 2012.

"I'm a more mature person than I used to be... most of the time," she said in Greenwich. "There are still moments. It's trying to find that balance of training professionally and still being able to let your hair down. Hopefully people still think I'm amusing. If not, I'd better sort it out."

Saturday's phenomenal outcome closed as many doors as it opened - Spence and Murray may be in, but team-mates Freyja Prentice and Beijing 2008 silver medallist Heather Fell are out, their hopes for a home Olympics sliced apart in the space of 10 minutes as they finished a dozen places further back.

Bartu sympathises but points out: "That's sport. There are winners and losers."

And one of the winners is Murray, 22 years old, who a decade earlier put a poster of Sydney champion Cook on her wall and vowed to be like her hero. Bartu believes Murray's 12-month rise to world bronze "defies all theories and statistics".

Murray, still emotional long after the race is over, tells us: "This is a dream I've made a reality, and that I've worked hard for. It's complete satisfaction, I'm just so proud.

"When I was 12, I saw that poster of Steph Cook and I knew I wanted an Olympic medal. I believed in myself every step of the way, I had to, throughout everything. I had to keep believing."

As tears began to form again in the fading evening light, she paid tribute to a team-mate who knows all about maintaining belief, and who will be confirmed alongside her in the London Olympic team next month.

"If there's one person," said Murray, "who you can look at every day of the week, look up to and think, 'If I want to get anywhere in life that's how I've got to work,' it's Mhairi Spence."


  • Comment number 1.

    No athlete that can be rated as highly as a modern pentathlete - except, perhaps a decathlete or heptathlete. To my mind he or she is the ultimate, the perfection of the Olympian ideal - but dreadfully undervalued. I suppose most people just can't take in how difficult it is to excel at 5 totally different physical disciplines so merely restrict their adulation to the perhaps brilliant, but undoubtedly limited, 100 metre flyers, premier league footballers and their like .


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