Lee McConnell believes Hampden heartbreak five years ago and a growing sense of maturity will allow Laura Muir to cope with being the face of Scottish athletics.
Middle distance specialist Muir won an unprecedented Double Double at the European Indoors in Glasgow earlier this month as she successfully defended her 1500m and 3000m titles in fine style on her home track at the Emirates Arena. Embed from Getty Images
The pressure was intense on the adopted Glaswegian – the 25-year-old has lived in the city for almost eight years – as the home favourite, event Ambassador and poster girl for the host GB and NI team.
Muir now insists she regards raised expectations as support rather than pressure and has her own high hopes for the IAAF World Champs in Doha this autumn and then the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
And McConnell, who qualified for the Olympics three times in her own track and field career, feels Laura can take the strain.
‘I am really impressed with the way Laura is handling the spotlight,’ said McConnell.
‘She is delivering big performances on the track, and medals, and off the track she is coping well with all the hype.
‘Laura looks confident now and that comes over in the media interviews. Laura has a good head on her shoulders. She is sensible, she is committed and she knows what she wants and needs to do to merit the attention.
‘It is clear to me that she can cope with the nerves and the pressure that come with being a favourite.’
McConnell should know. For 10 years or so, Lee was in many ways the face of athletics in Scotland, shortly before the social media explosion created even more profile.
‘You learn from it over time,’ said the 40-year-old, who is now a mother of two young boys after six years away from the sport.
‘If your face is up on posters, in newspapers and on websites, then you have to get used to that. There are knocks along the way – there is a focus that comes on you even when you don’t do well, and you would maybe rather it didn’t.
‘Laura has had some knocks and she has grown from that. Arguably, these knocks are helping her deliver the performances now.
‘She has not made the same mistakes again. The Commonwealth Games in 2014 were painful for her. So then Glasgow 2019 became huge for her for obvious reasons – the Emirates Arena is where she comes every week to put in the training sessions – and all the talk about defending two titles.
‘But she put that one to bed at the Emirates. Emphatically.’
With Chris O’Hare’s silver medal in the Men’s 3000m final plus silvers for Zoey Clark and Eilidh Doyle in the Women’s 4 x 400m, four Scots came home with five medals. The tally of nine selected was a best-ever representation on a British team at the European Indoors.
‘It is brilliant to have nine athletes competing for GB and NI at a European Indoors – it’s quite a number if you think about it within the overall team size,’ added Lee.
‘When I was competing it was nothing like that! So it is very good to see and encouraging for the sport in Scotland.
‘The big thing is: they are not just on the team – they are really good. They are winning medals or making finals or getting in contention.’
McConnell’s habit for picking up medals hasn’t deserted her. Even in retirement.
With the sport keen to try and right wrongs accountable to drug cheats of the past, an ‘upgrade’ came her way from the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona. GB and NI were elevated from bronze to silver with Russia, the original winners, now erased from the record books.
‘You want to get the medals you deserve at the time,’ said Lee, who was joined in that team by Nicola Sanders, Marilyn Okora and Perri Shakes-Drayton.
‘It’s the medals in these performances that make you grow as an athlete; that make you motivated for the following winter; and it gives you confidence for the next year.
‘Your confidence is knocked when you aren’t getting the results you hoped for and expected. Yet, in fact, you are delivering but someone else is cheating to finish ahead of you.
‘But, having said that, to get a presentation in Glasgow at a venue where I trained for the latter part of my career – it was a really nice moment, with my family there watching. The acknowledgement is appreciated.’
And so the recalibration of McConnell’s career continues – as Muir’s profile rockets.
*Lee McConnell’s interview appears in the latest edition of PB magazine, issued this week to 13,000 members of scottishathletics. McConnell was one of 15 athletes admitted to the scottishathletics Hall of Fame last November to join names like Allan Wells, Tom McKean and Eric Liddell.
Lee McConnell on receiving her Barcelona 2010 silver medal