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Kelly Morgan, echoes of Sanderson and Whitbread

Kelly Morgan, echoes of Sanderson and Whitbread
Matthew Brown for the IAAF
23 July 2002 - It’s been a long time since British women javelin throwers have made a significant impact at world level. But with a UK record and at the moment of release the second longest throw in the world this year (currently ranked fourth), Kelly Morgan’s performance at the AAA Championships in Birmingham on the 14 July, not only launched her into pole position for the Commonwealth and European titles, but may even have opened a new era in the event. She certainly hopes so.

Not since Tessa Sanderson won the World Cup in 1992 have British women been serious contenders for senior international javelin honours. Although Sanderson, the 1984 Olympic champion, didn’t retire until after the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, that World Cup victory effectively ended a golden age for Britain in which she and 1987 world champion Fatima Whitbread spearheaded the British challenge in women’s throwing events.

Yet when Morgan sent her fourth round effort out to 64.87m in Birmingham, setting her second British record of the competition, and her third of the summer, it immediately evoked memories of those former greats. Although Morgan was only born in 1980, two years after Sanderson won the first of her three Commonwealth titles, Whitbread and Sanderson’s legacy is something the Salisbury based spear thrower is keenly aware of, and eager to emulate.

“Everybody says I must be too young to remember, but I know Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread are icons of the sport,” she says. “People who are born tomorrow will still hear about them somewhere along the line. They made such an impact worldwide that they will remain that way for years.

“But I hope now that this is a new era. I think myself and Goldie [Sayers, the 2001 European junior silver medallist] can be the next pairing.”

Whether Morgan becomes an athletics icon to match Sanderson and Whitbread remains to be seen (because of the new specification javelin their performances are difficult to compare), but there’s little doubt she’s already made a significant impact on the 2002 season. Having opened her summer with a personal best 58.58m, the 22 year-old army administration clerk arrived at the England Commonwealth Games trials in June nursing a year-long shoulder injury, her sights set merely on making the England team.

“Put out a good throw early on and take it from there,” her coach John Trower told her. Her opening “good throw” soared out to 63.03m, adding more than three and half metres to the British record and winning her a brand new Rover car – the prize given to any UK athlete who sets a new national mark this year. Not content, she bagged another record a month later with her second round effort in Birmingham, 63.87m. That was followed by a long no throw, then the 64.87m winning mark, and a 64.48m effort, before she passed her final attempt.

Morgan ended the weekend as the firm favourite for two championship titles and ranked second in the world to Cuba’s world record holder Osleidys Menendez. Not bad for someone who almost quit athletics at the end of last year.

Born in Dover, Kent, the young Kelly Morgan had little choice but to be keen on sport. The only child of a netball-playing mum, Sarah, and an army physical training instructor, Russ, Kelly was, almost literally, thrown into sporting pursuits. “My Mum and Dad are very, very, very sporty,” she says. “I was kind of brought up in the gym. They threw me in the pool, they put me on the judo mats, they put me on the trampoline – everything they possibly could. Eventually I found my niche.”

A niche event it may be, but Morgan’s javelin talent was apparent from an early age. She won the English schools junior girls title in 1994 with a throw of 41.50m and the following year, aged only 15, secured the AAA under 20 title with 46.94m, earning her first call-up to the British junior squad. She badly damaged ankle ligaments in 1996 and missed two seasons before regaining the AAA under 20 title in 1998, improving to 53.04m.

Despite the introduction of the new-style javelin in 1999, Morgan improved again, to 54.61m, a UK junior record, and was ninth at the European junior championships. In 2000 she won her first AAA senior title with 58.45m but narrowly failed to qualify for the Olympic Games. It was the first of a series of turning points.

The Olympic disappointment persuaded Morgan to give up her career as a physical training instructor in the Royal Air Force and concentrate on javelin. It was the wrong decision. “I had a horrendous year,” she says. “I didn’t have a team around me and I had a bad injury with my shoulder – that’s when it all flared up.”

By the end of 2001 she was, she says, “Pretty much at rock bottom”. She missed the camaraderie of the RAF and decided to re-join the services, this time opting for the Army. Her one bright spot last year was winning international recognition in her second sport – netball. “I played for the England development team against Australia, the world champions. We got whipped but it was an absolutely brilliant experience and a huge thrill to become a dual international.”

In athletics Morgan had been “virtually coachless” for a couple of years, and the lure of a team sport almost snared her. “Athletics is so lonely, sometimes, compared to a team sport,” she says. “And I love team sports. I have always tried to balance the two.”

Javelin, however, remains her first love, so when John Trower – coach to Olympic silver medallist Steve Backley – got in touch, the passion began to return. In January, Trower built a medical support team around her, and whisked her off to South Africa for warm weather training. The Army – which had posted her to an “athletics regiment” – gave its full support.

“John rescued me,” says Morgan. “As far as I’m concerned he’s the best in the country. And now I’ve also got a physio, a masseur, a sports psychologist, Michelle Miller, who’s worked wonders with me, and a nutritionist. The Army has been outstanding too. Really, I owe them this season.”

Trower altered Morgan’s throwing style, correcting what she describes as her “Bambi-like” leg action to get a firmer foundation for the throw. He could see she was worth the effort. “I keep saying she is Backleyesque because she has so many similarities with Steve,” Trower says. “He too has been able to tailor advice specifically to suit himself. She, too, is rangy. She is tall. She is strong and fast when she throws … And she has had the kind of injuries that he had to overcome.”

She still has. Morgan’s “more than niggling” shoulder injury will almost certainly need surgery at the end of the season. “They’re not sure if it’s a nerve problem or a space problem, but removing a rib is one option,” she says. It casts a shadow of doubt over her chances of leaving a golden mark on both the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships. At the European Cup the injury restricted her to 56.55m, sixth place.

“Fortunately, the Commonwealths is a straight final,” she says. “But my shoulder’s been coping with throwing only once a week so twice in two days at the Europeans is going to be a big test for me. But the Commonwealths are my main focus, and anything after that is a bonus.”

As for Grand Prix meetings, they can wait until after the European championships, and then only if the shoulder holds up. After all, the glamour of the circuit will still be there next year, and Morgan insists 2002 is just the start. “This is all new to me,” she says. “I still have a lot of learning to do.”

Meanwhile, she’s enjoying her new high ranking status, and the pressure that comes with it. “The pressure is new, but it’s a good thing,” she says. “I like being on top of the game.”