Who are your running heroes? Mo Farah? Usain Bolt? Denise Lewis? Interestingly Mo names Haile Gebrselassie as his, Usain’s inspiration came from his PE teacher and Lewis’s strongest influence is a 78-year-old woman named Norma!
It was while watching one of the greatest 10,000m finals in history at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games that a teenage Farah realised his dream to become an Olympic champion. His hero Gebrselassie clinched victory over rival Paul Tergat by a matter of millimetres after sticking his chest out over the finish-line, and Farah was inspired. He started following in Gebrselassie’s footsteps and was making a real impact globally on the sport by 2010. However, when interviewed, his role model claimed Mo would never challenge for medals on the world stage. Three years later Farah has three Olympic medals to his name.
Another who made a real impact on the young runner was Gebrselassie’s Ethiopian compatriot Kenenisa Bekele. Farah remembers, “I was a junior coming through and I saw Bekele win the World Cross-Country. He broke the world record, you know. He even won the World Cross after stopping to tie his lace. How does somebody do that? I won’t try that. I don’t think I could get away with it.”
A key influence on Usain Bolt’s career was a lesser known name. In his autobiography he explains that his first sporting passion was in fact cricket, and with a natural aptitude for it he was soon opening the batting for his school, ahead of boys several years older than him. Yet it was Lorna Thorpe, his PE teacher at William Knibb High School in Falmouth, Jamaica, who guided him through his running training and helped him focus when he decided to concentrate solely on running rather his two other loves, cricket and football.
He describes her as ‘a second mum’, telling stories of how she kept him out of trouble, happy and excited about running. She continues to teach at the school and Bolt has repaid them with a new canteen and running equipment. He also attends and supports ‘The Boys and Girls Champs’, a spectacular high school athletics tournament on a completely different scale to all others. Held in Kingston National Stadium it often draws up to 30,000 spectators and is where he was first spotted by a talent scout. Interestingly Bolt plans to return to football around 2016 as he begins to lose his speed!
Now 78, it is Norma Blaine who Denise Lewis calls her mentor. She describes how the woman, who at age 12 she “wouldn’t cross”, burst into tears upon her return to Wolverhampton with an Olympic Gold medal.
Blaine was Lewis’s coach at Birchfield Harriers, and described by Lewis as “the first to put her arm round you and offer support” yet let you know with a “roll of the eyes” if you’d crossed the line. In 2011, after nearly 60 years of dedication to Birchfield Harriers where many have gone on to win international acclaim, including Sue Scot in Mexico City in 1968, Norma Blaine was awarded an MBE.
"When I think about Birchfield Harriers and what it has done for me and many athletes and when I think about women's athletics and how it has moved forward, Norma is the name that keeps coming back as somebody who embodies passion and just gives so much of her time and energy to people." was Lewis’s reasoning for Normas’s BBC Sports Unsung Hero award nomination.
After hearing several similar and interesting stories from voters we thought our awards gala would be the ideal event to recognise such a hero. Though not an official, voted award on the night we would love to recognise an ‘Unsung Hero’ in the world of running. It may not be Norma’s MBE for services to athletics, but it would show a true hero just how much they are appreciated.
We would love to hear who your ‘Unsung Heroes’ are, so please email us here with your stories and nominations…