Lancashire's Helen Clitheroe on track for London Olympics 2012

Preston athlete Helen Clitheroe aims to defy the age barrier and stay on track for London 2012, as Paul Mackenzie reports

Remember the name Lucy Ibison. Frank Green thinks she has what it takes to be one of our best athletes - and he knows a thing or two about spotting young talent.

He marked out Helen Clitheroe for great things when she was at primary school in Goosnargh and he was one of the first people she thanked when she won gold at the European Indoor Championships in March.

Now headteacher at Cockerham School, Frank said: ‘Helen was good, but Lucy could be brilliant. She has won the regional cross-country championships two years running and not many people do that; I don’t think Helen did.’

Frank is due retire at the end of this term after 38 years teaching and he added: ‘An awful lot of athletes have passed through my hands in that time and a lot of them were technically better runners than Helen but she always had the determination, the stamina and the will power to succeed.

‘It was through sheer perseverance that she won that medal in Paris. I thought her career was virtually over and that she would end it without having won a top medal but to win gold at the age of 37 is quite an achievement and really shows the depth of her determination.’

As a young teacher at Oliversons Primary School in Goosnargh, Frank led Helen on her first cross-country runs and entered her in the Preston School Cross Country championships.

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And after competing at four Commonwealth Games and two Olympics, Helen hasn’t forgotten the role he played in her development and will be at his retirement party in July. ‘I’ve been in contact with him a couple of times over the years to thank him for giving me the bug,’ she said. ‘He has followed my career and I am grateful that he got me into running.’

He left Goosnargh when Helen was 10 but by then she was hooked. She joined the Preston Harriers as an 11-year-old and her career has been chronicled in a series of scrapbooks kept my mum Liz Pattinson at her home in Grimsargh.

The neatly clipped cuttings record Helen’s progress through the ranks and her races for the county and her country.

She won her first championship medal at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, a bronze in the 1500metres, but an injury the following year interrupted her preparations for Athens Olympics and she didn’t kick on in the way many people expected her to and had a nine year wait for a second chance to climb onto the podium.

Speaking at her home in Hutton where she lives with husband Neil, a PE teacher at Lostock Hall, Helen said: ‘It was just a bit of bad luck. I do wonder what would have happened if I had been able to go on from that first medal.

‘There was a big thing made of the fact that I hadn’t won a championship before the indoors this year but I think I have been one of the most consistent members of the team over the years.’

Much has also been made of how long she can continue at this level. Helen will be 38 when the London Olympics open in July next year and despite having spent more than a decade near the front of the field, she no longer receives Lottery funding after UK Athletics decided she was no longer competitive at the global level.

‘Every year since I turned 30 people have been asking when I’ll stop rather than what’s next. I’ve just had to try to justify what I’m doing.

‘The funding was good while I had it. It wasn’t very much money but it was something you could guarantee and the medical and physio back-up was invaluable. I try to earn bits and bobs through racing but we have just had to tighten our belts. Neil has covered the mortgage and I’ve not been going out spending much, you just don’t go over the top with things.

‘It has been hard work but it has been worth it. I’ve never really been motivated by money. The reason I do this is because I love it and I want to do well and to achieve my potential, not to earn a fortune or to make a nest egg for the future.’

She had thought the win in Paris might attract sponsors but she said: ‘The phone hasn’t exactly been ringing off the hook so far. These are tough times though, everyone’s skint.’

But in spite of the difficulties, Helen is determined to be on the track in 2012, competing in her new events the 5,000 and 10,000metres where she feels she has the best chance of achieving the qualifying time.

‘There are girls 20 years younger than me who will be trying to make the team but I’ve got experience and I am strong from years of training,’ she said.

‘I’m under no illusions that qualifying for the London Olympics will be tough but I think it is realistic to aim for. It is never easy to make a championship team and for a home Olympics everybody who has ever run will be trying to make the team.

‘To make the team as a 38-year-old would be amazing. I’ve never qualified for an Olympic final in two Olympics, so it would be a massive goal for me if I made the team.

‘I look on everything I get now as a bonus but I’m in really good shape, I’m coming off the best indoor season I’ve ever had and the Olympics are the target. I would love to make the team.’

Helen will be taking part in this month’s Manchester 10k run and, having had two spells of altitude training in Kenya over the winter, she will head for a training camp in the Pyrennes in April.

But most of training for this year’s World Championships and next summer’s Olympics will take place on the streets of Hutton and Preston and through Avenham Park, where it all started for her with the Preston School Cross Country championships.

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