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Ohuruogu visits the house of pain

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Tom Fordyce | 10:15 UK time, Thursday, 21 April 2011

"The 400 metres is one of the beautiful events," says Christine Ohuruogu. "It's not necessarily the strongest person or the fastest person who wins, but the athlete who can work through the pressure."

Ohuruogu should know. In becoming Commonwealth, world and Olympic champion, she prevailed when rivals with supposedly superior credentials - Tonique Williams-Darling, Novlene Williams-Mills, Sanya Richards-Ross - buckled under the strain.

Her reward, with unavoidable irony, was more of the same. Being Britain's most successful current athlete going into London 2012 is one thing, but having her last two seasons wrecked by injury is quite another. At the age of 26, having lost the World title to Richards-Ross and Commonwealth crown to Amantle Montsho and with her personal best dating back to 2007, she faces an even bigger challenge: can she get the magic back?

"You jump on the conveyor belt and you know you're going to fall off at some point," Ohuruogu admits. "You just hope it's not too soon.

"I watched [last summer's] European Championships on TV from my house. It was very, very difficult, because I really wanted to go and give myself a good chance of medalling. I watched the final thinking, how would I have managed if I were there?"

Christine Ohuruogu

Ohuruogu is delighted to be back fit again

The Briton has gone looking for answers in some unusual places. This winter, she left the comforts of Lee Valley's high-tech Performance Centre for Jamaica, where she embarked on a back-to-basics regime under the gimlet eye of Glen Mills, Usain Bolt's lauded coach. Returning to her native Newham for only a few weeks, she then flew to Los Angeles and a brutal training camp in Irvine. Pain has followed her every step of the way.

"You cannot escape the fact that the training is going to hurt," she says. "And now it's getting faster - and faster means pain.

"Everything is just a blur - just survive the day and get home. Every day is hard. Oh my gosh! You try to fool yourself before a really hard session, find ways round it, but nothing really works. Even if you chat to the other girls, you know you're only hiding from it. You just have to suck it up.

"When we walk to the start line for whatever session it is, no-one talks. You walk as slowly as possible. No-one says a word, no-one laughs. It's like a walk to the gallows."

It is a strange way for us mere dilettantes and dabblers to think about sport - the fun and enjoyment replaced by a lactic burn and sick feeling in the stomach. With all those gold medals at home, what makes Ohuruogu do this to herself?

"As much as it hurts - and at times it's been so painful - I think to myself, I'd rather have made the choice to be here than not have had that choice," she says.

"I know it sounds dumb, but I'd rather be doing the work than sitting around wishing I could join in and not being able to. That's what keeps me going. However bad it feels, it could be worse. I could be injured.

"And that pain is good because it means that when you race it doesn't feel so bad. Every time I feel pain I think, right, that's a bit more resistance I've added on to my muscles."

At home in London, Ohuruogu has traditionally trained by herself, guided by long-term coach Lloyd Cowan. In Jamaica, she was one of many, just another athlete in the Racers' Track Club group that includes Bolt, Daniel Bailey, Yohan Blake and half of the Jamaican women's 400m relay squad.

Across the road, under the banner of the MVP Club, other sprint luminaries like Asafa Powell, Shelly-Ann Fraser, Brigitte Foster-Hylton and Sherika Williams were hard at work.

"When I went to Jamaica, it was the first serious bit of training I'd done for a long time, because of the injuries. I'd only been running for three or four weeks. So I was way behind.

"These guys had been training since October, so they were way ahead of me. Mentally it was very hard, because it's not what I'm used to. I'm not used to having people so far ahead of me. But it has to be done."

There was no talk of Olympic gold medals, no deference to past glories.

"I think the Beijing thing has gone. Let's move on. You can't keep carrying that sack around with you. I want to keep my head down and keep working.

"Jamaica has the strongest athletes - so many guys doing 9.9 seconds for the 100m, 19.9 secs for the 200m - but they just turn up and run. They're not making a big deal out of it, no-one else is making a big deal out of it.

"Usain works really hard. He's not someone who just turns up and does something. I've seen him flat out on the floor. You have to just leave him there. He'll be on his back - leave him alone, don't touch him.

"It was just so humbling to be part of it. I was just one of the many trying to improve."

The lessons stretched to more than mere physical education. While Ohuruogu's body took the brunt, her character was also stretched.

"The Jamaicans are very chilled, but they work incredibly hard," says Ohuruogu. "We think we have to be very serious to get a job done but they showed me something different. It's something that's in their blood. You either do something or you don't, you don't cry about it.

Christine Ohuruogu wins Olympic gold in 2008

Ohuruogu dips to win Olympic gold in 2008

"It was great for me to watch that. My injuries tend to come in the summer, when you might be trying to do too much and probably very, very tense. That's a problem for me. It's very mentally stressing to race.

"Sometimes you need a break from that, from worrying about times. I accepted that my injuries had happened and I think I got the break that I needed.

"In Jamaica, these guys would turn up, do the painful work - if you're going to die you're going to die anyway - then finish training, have some coconut water, some patties and then go home. Simple."

The quadriceps tear that ruled Ohuruogu out of the 2010 Europeans and Commonwealths also delayed her winter work. Even now, she is still three or four weeks behind in her training compared to the same time a year ago.

So, what might we expect from her this summer? Could she finish on the podium at the Worlds, let alone recapture her world title? Can she once again intimidate Richards-Ross, Debbie Dunn and all the other girls who have moved past her in the pecking order over the past two years.

"Training doesn't change - there's no secret formula," says Ohuruogu. "But I'm beginning to understand that every year is different and the most important thing is getting strong. The stronger you are, the less likely you are to break down. The less time you spend breaking down, the more time you spend racing.

"And 400m is a hard slog on the body. It's being able to run at speed - and that does a lot of damage to your system."

In a low-key season opener last week, Ohuruogu clocked 53 seconds dead. "I was a bit bummed with that. Last season, I ran 52.3. But it was a good run. It looked nice and easy."

She believes there is more in the tank. "You have to bear in mind I'm not where I would be usually. My body is one year older, there's been one more year of battering, but I'm fit and healthy.

"No amount of training you do can ever replicate running a 400m. It can put you through the amount of pain you might feel. But actually running it? No.

"But the fitter you get, the more confident you feel. You can really go out and try to strike.

"And confidence is a big, big thing."


  • Comment number 1.

    Love your articles on how top athletes train and work, Tom - real insight into the mindset of the elite sportspeople. The 'walk to the gallows' bit will ring a bell with anyone who has ever tried to push themselves to produce their best.

    Here's hoping Christine puts together a couple of injury-free seasons.

  • Comment number 2.

    Did she Jump Around?

    Great insight Tom - and let's all hope it's worked...

  • Comment number 3.

    Good blog Tom. Great interview by Christine. Every young up and coming athlete should read this for inspiration and motivation to work consistently hard in training to make the most of their burgeoning talent. In this country we are so quick to defeat ourselves by saying that nature is at the heart of Jamaican success when its 99% about hard work, the right attitude and working within a community of like-minded people to reinforce these habits. Good luck Christine with the training.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    And we wonder why we produce so few world beating athletes.

    The attitude of the Jamaicans to running and training has obviously been a lesson to Christina and should be a lesson to all young athletes.

    You traing for a reason - its not FUN!

  • Comment number 6.

    Welcome back Tom - and congratulations on the new arrival, I hope everything is going well is that department!

    Christine is one of my favourite athletes. She always seems to be positive and have a smile on her face regardless of her situation. I agree with hainba, our best athletes are, coincidentally, the ones who seem to put in that extra bit of effort in the training, and are happy for it to hurt and for it to be unpleasant. There are those, and they have been criticized for it, who don't seem to work as hard or as frequently, and so do not do as well. It's not hard to work out...

    Tom, do you know if she's planning to train in Jamaica for the foreseeable future? It would seem that she likes it there.

  • Comment number 7.

    Is it a coincidence that all her main rivals have double barrel surnames? maybe their names slowed them down?

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    To remove that comment was ridiculous.

    Ohuruogu's character will forever been stained by her ban back in 2007. She wasn't the first British athlete to be banned in questionable circumstances and she won't be the last.

    Like Cycling, there is a big issue with PED's in Athletics and yet again her complete disreguard for the process has been overlooked here.

    This happy glossing over of the hard facts by the blogger is unpalatable to say the least.

  • Comment number 10.

    Good to see Christine so motivated and working hard towards her goals. I wish her a stellar season. The 400m is one of the most exciting and unpredictable events in athletics. Hopefully she can find the speed to go well under 50 seconds again and take the world title.

  • Comment number 11.

    While some might say it is be forgivable to take performance enhancing drugs, it is unforgivable to try and gloss over the fact. Her drugs ban is the first thing that comes to mind for many people when her name is mentioned, making it seem rather remiss that an 'article' could fail to even allude to this subject. I'm with TabletTamTheMacaroonMan on this one and fear too that my comment maybe removed for reasons that are quite beyond my ken.

  • Comment number 12.

    Ohuruogu made a mistake when she was young, she was given a second chance, and she turned herself into one of the best athletes Britain has ever produced. MacaroonMan and Shane Bordoli get over it (I think most people have).

    Absolutely no reason why her drug ban should be mentioned in this article, which is about one person's incredible desire to succeed. This is an inspiring piece for young up-coming athletes. Great blog Tom.

  • Comment number 13.

    I am not sure this will be allowable but can I say the bleeding obvious ?

    This story reminds us all that for GB to excel in athletics ... and maximise that medal count.. the powers that be must turn their focus away from earnest but mediocre indigenous locals with their squeeky clean records and take the broader view. Results are what matter.

  • Comment number 14.

    If you recall it was a lifetime Olympic ban that Christine had at one time for missing 3 drugs tests which was actually upheld by the Court of Arbitration. I am afraid there will be constant suspicion about her performances in light of that.

  • Comment number 15.

    aeh345, PaulyBoy, United Dreamer - really glad you enjoyed it.

    0darroch - thanks bud. Tired but happy. Reckon he's got the legs and grip of an openside... In regards to Chrissie's training, I think she may well return to Jamaica next winter. Sounds like an ideal set-up over there.

    To the naysayers, I saw no point in going over old ground. But if you want to, here's the official statement of the disciplinary committee that looked into the three missed tests back in 2006:

    "In fairness, the committee should make clear its view as to the limited degree of fault attributed to her. This was a minor unintentional infraction of the regime due only to forgetfulness.

    "There is no suggestion, nor any grounds for suspicion, that the offence may have been deliberate in order to prevent testing. The omissions are too haphazard for any such suspicion to arise.

    "The athlete was tested negative on several occasions during this period and has always co-operated with doping control officers. She did notify changes to her schedule on many occasions but failed in these three instances. Those failures are understandable given all the circumstances."

  • Comment number 16.

    Was that 3 times, Tom.

  • Comment number 17.

    Ohuruogu's record and the tests she missed (interspersed with negative tests) is not indicative of a drugs cheat. The missed tests are very serious but I think it is right she is allowed to compete.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    Unreal. I will try again...

    Good to see a reply from you, Tom. Many other bloggers on here don't even bother with a retort so it's appreciated.

    Just because an Athlete is British doesn't mean they aren't cheats. People tend to get too misty eyed and patriotic but in reality, over the course of Athletics history, British Athletes did and probably are taking PED's.

    There is a huge issue with drugs in sport, particularly Athletics, and to suggest otherwise is burying your head in the sand. I would love Athletics to be clean but you and I both know its not, and someones nationality is irrelevant.

    Still, it's not so much "going over old ground" but surely part of this interview had to be about her troubles in the past and how she has changed for the better now? Or i thats how i would like to think.

  • Comment number 20.

    Interesting blog, Tom. You state you don't want to cover the old ground of the CAS decision regarding her doping ban (transcript provided in your response above), but why no comment over the famous statement where Christine O said that she'd happilly race for another nation (I think it was Nigeria) is the UK ban remained. I think that upset a lot more "Team GB" fans and a discussion on that point - if it really is possible to get behind her, seeing that she'd turn her back on this country's vest - would be interesting.

  • Comment number 21.

    Really interesting blog. A good point with regards to wearing another countries vest Jordan D. I consider myself pretty patriotic but if I was banned by my country I think I would also consider racing for another team if I had been banned from entering the Olympics. Very few professional athletes from any sport would not think of changing national vests if it got them there (World Cup football for example)

  • Comment number 22.

    Wonder what the chances are that the 3 times you change your training that the testers turn up

    I'm off to play the lottery while you ponder how much she has slowed up since being more punctual!

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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