Jo Fenn in action during the 800m at the 2001 Norwich Union International in Glasgow (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature London, Great Britain

Songwriter Fenn wants to go the distance

Athletics is full of high achievers, not only in their chosen sport, but in all sorts of careers, from politics to the judiciary, from the Armed Forces to show business - from Urho Kekkonen, long-time president of Finland, but also national high jump champion, to Philip Noel-Baker, Nobel peace prize winner and Olympic silver medallist, to Jackson Scholz, pulp fiction writer and Olympic champion, to Michelene Ostermeyer of France, the recently deceased double Olympic gold medallist in 1948, who was also a prize winning concert pianist.

Kekkonen, Noel-Baker and Scholz achieved their alternative distinctions following their athletics careers, but Ostermeyer managed them concurrently.

And that’s what British middle distance runner Jo Fenn is attempting to do - as athlete and singer/songwriter.

Indeed, if the 27-year-old Fenn makes the same leap forward in 2002 that she did last year, it is not inconceivable that we could see a European or Commonwealth 800 metres medallist with a hit song in the international charts.

Fenn was a successful junior hurdler at school in Britain a dozen years ago, but a series of injuries and operations stalled her senior breakthrough until a year ago.

At the British indoor championships in Birmingham in late January, she provided one of the highlights of both heats and final of the 800 metres when she led Olympic bronze medallist Kelly Holmes until the final stages of both races, and ended up knocking a healthy couple of seconds off her personal best, and securing selection for the World Indoors in Lisbon.

She didn’t get through the heats there, but was sufficiently enthused to change coaches, and increase her training load with a view to improving yet again in 2002 and go “sub-two”.

Simultaneously, after a career on the hinterlands of pop music as a singer in a ‘tribute’ band in North London - singing cover versions of hit songs - she finally signed a contract with a company in the country-singing capital of the world, Nashville, and is now a published songwriter.

She is just one member of a talented family. Her older sister Carla was the more successful singer originally, with a minor hit a half dozen years ago, and a career with a Dutch jazz group, but she’s now taking time out with her young daughter.

Fenn’s brother Louis - their father Alan, a boxing fan, named the pair after Joe Louis - was a good school runner, but now boxes in the same club as Olympic heavyweight champion Audley Harrison.

Fenn, nee Mersch should have made an impact in athletics years ago, but she puts her leg and knee problems - eight operations altogether - down to over-training as a 14 year old. Unable to run, she switched to javelin throwing, and became junior champion for Essex, the same county that produced Fatima Whitbread.

She came to 800 metres by way of the heptathlon, and pressure from her husband Chris, a club middle distance runner.

The song writing grew out of her lengthy period of injury, when Chris bought her a guitar. But she had been singing publicly for some time prior to that. It started at an annual dinner for her athletics club in 1995.

“I’d had a couple of glasses of wine, and I don’t usually drink at all. They had this country band on, and in the break I got on the microphone with two other athletes, and started singing ‘Fever’ (Peggy Lee song). There was a guy in the audience who used to manage this rock covers band, ‘The Business’, and they were looking for a couple of backing singers, so me and my sister joined. I’ve been gigging with them ever since”.

Fenn admits that the publicity that followed her runs against Holmes last winter was more a result of interest in her music career. But she is adamant that athletics is the more important of her pursuits.

“Two oh two (2min 02sec) is nothing special. It was having another string to my bow which provoked interest. But I want to run sub-two, I want to run 1.56 next summer and go to a championships not just to make up the numbers.

”What I want to do is go to the Olympics. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for years, and anything else that comes up, I’ll do it, but it’s got to fit in with athletics. If someone did offer me a record deal, then that record would have to fit in around my training. I don’t want anything to go in the way of athletics”.

The song writing contract came out of a succession of letters Fenn has written in the last year or so to agents and record company executives.

“One wrote back and said, ‘your songs have got a country (music) feel,’ so I thought, well, the US is the place, massive on ‘country’. So I sent them to Nashville, to a few of the smaller record labels and publishing companies.

"Within days I got an email from a company called Waynebow Publishing, and this guy Wayne Carter said we love the songs, particularly three, and we’d like to use them and offer you a publishing contract. There’s no money involved yet, it depends on who wants to use them, but I’m a published song writer, and it’s quite exciting”.

Fenn sees her two pursuits as complementary.

“I always wanted to be an athlete, since I was 12, but singing was already part of my life. It’s difficult to divorce the two. I believe I could do both, I just love athletics, and if I train hard and work hard the success is more guaranteed.

"You can be a fantastic singer, and not get anywhere. I’ve seen loads of singers at songwriters’ clubs, who are really, really fantastic, but they don’t have a record deal and often they’ve got no interest. But they can really sing.  I can do both. I’d love to be going to the Olympics, and win a medal, with a number one hit single in the charts”.

Pat Butcher for the IAAF