Louise Damen Feature
With the Olympics now only a year away, the challenge to qualify and compete on the big stage in London has begun.

  Life ambitions will be realised by athletes all over the world hoping to take their opportunity to win medals for themselves and their country. These Olympics, however are slightly different for British athletes – they have the chance to do it on home soil. For runner Louise Damen this is her ultimate dream.

  Damen, 28, is a long distance runner who has been regularly participating in top athletics races for just over ten years. A member of Winchester and District Athletic club, she took part in her first marathon this year in London, coming in with a British Olympic time of 2:30:00. Impressive, as this was her debut run.

  Her time has certainly done her no harm in her bid to be selected by UK Athletics. “To compete at the 2012 Olympics has been a long term goal of mine and now that I have achieved the qualifying time I feel that I am half way to achieving my dream.”

  Winchester based Damen started running when she was 14 at her secondary school in the New Forest. “I really enjoyed cross country at school and found I had a bit of a talent for it. My PE teacher then suggested that I should join the local athletics club.” Within a year she had won the English Schools 1500m title.

  Gradually progressing through her school and athletics club, Louise reached the required level to start competing in competitive races. “One of my first competitive races was the ‘minithon’ at the Poole Festival of Running, which I loved. I was always fearless when I raced as a youngster, I would run as hard as I could and just hang on!”

  After establishing herself on the running circuit, she began to take part in races abroad achieving notable success. At the age of 19 she competed in France for the Great Britain U23 team winning against the French and Spain and in 2003 she finished third in Poland in the European Under 23 Championships.

  One of Damen’s biggest assets is her ability to run various distances. In her early years she started with 800m, 1500m and 1 mile races. However she soon progressed onto races ranging from 5000m to 10k. Now and for the last five years she has consistently completed half marathons, and finally this April saw her compete in her first full one.

  These experiences have provided Damen with some tough challenges, however this year has outdone them all. “The London Marathon this year was tough as I ran the majority of the race on my own so it was a mental battle as well as a physical one. I have never experienced fatigue like it in the later stages of a race!”

  In terms of memorable races for Louise two in particular come to mind immediately. “Finishing 22nd in the World Cross Country (winning a team bronze) and then finishing 2nd in the World Student Cross Country Championships (winning a team gold) all in the space of a week!”

    Damen works incredibly hard to maintain her fitness and high standards to compete in varied tournaments and she does so without the aid of a coach. Her decision to coach herself has so far paid off as she continues to impress in her running and qualification times.

  “I do enjoy coaching myself. I like to be independent and be accountable for what I do. It also means that I can adapt my training to suit my needs. I keep in touch with several coaches and consult them when I need advice. I have now been running for half my life so I have a pretty good idea of what training I need to do to get myself into good shape.”

    Having a specific training routine in place for different events ensures she gives herself the best possible chance to finish high in the standings. “When training for cross country, my training is reasonably generic - I include long runs, hills, interval work, and tempo runs. My preparation for a marathon is slightly different. I do 12 weeks of specific training, including longer runs and runs at my goal marathon pace. During this time I can run up to 125 miles a week!”

  Contributing to her decision to coach herself was a tendon injury she suffered in 2009. After splitting the tendon in her ankle, Damen spent six months on the sidelines. She made her comeback in Liverpool for the European Cross Country Championship trials, winning comfortably with a time of 26:18 - 14 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor.  She went onto finish 14th in the Championships held in Portugal.

  This impressive performance earned her second place in the European Athlete of the Month award for November. The award was launched in January 2007, rewarding athletes in Europe for their high levels of performance each month. A male and a female are chosen through a three-tier voting system involving the general public, the media and a panel of European Athletics experts.

  Portugal’s Jessica Augusto won two of three, making her the overall winner. Damen received the highest public votes, a factor she is very proud of. “I was very honoured to be nominated for such an award in the first place and the support I received from my family, friends, colleagues and students was overwhelming.”

  The start of 2011 has proved to be very successful for Damen, showing promising signs in her bid to reach the Olympics. In January she finished second in the McCain UK Cross Challenge and followed it up by winning the English National Championships at Alton Towers with a time of 23:49.

  It is the encouraging London Marathon performance though that has really confirmed Damen’s potential Olympic qualification. “I feel that my future lies in this event. I am hoping to run my next marathon in the Autumn.”

  It is hardly a surprise that one of her inspirations for taking part in this event is someone who is no stranger to running a gruelling marathon or two. “Paula Radcliffe has always been a role model as she is meticulous in her training and is competitive with the Africans on the global stage. Her world record for the marathon (2.15) still blows my mind!”

  Radcliffe is currently preparing to return to the sport after an 18 month absence. She will compete in the Bupa London 10,000 road race, with an aim to qualify for London 2012. Damen will be hoping they can both meet the Olympic standards that UK Athletics request to allow them to compete.

  On 23rd April the Marathon sub-committee completed the nominations for the event and now athletes must wait to see who will be selected by the British Olympic Association early next year.

  For marathon runners the process of selection differs from other athletic disciplines. Trial events do not take place for long distance competitors; instead they must achieve one UKA ‘A’ standard, one UKA ‘B’ standard or finish in the top 20 of the 2011 Daegu World Championships within the qualification period.

  UKA ‘A’ standard is a time of 2:31:00, with an UKA ‘B’ standard slightly lower at 2:35:00. For Damen this is good news, with her London marathon time fitting into the ‘A’ standard category. And if her progress continues, she could well find herself representing the United Kingdom next year.

  “I am really excited about the Olympics and now that it’s just over a year away, it’s starting to seem ‘real’. I get goosebumps when I think about it! To compete on the roads of London in front of a home crowd would be truly amazing and I really hope the Games can inspire children in this country to become the champions of tomorrow.”

  In August Damen will travel to Korea to compete in the IAFF World Championships  giving her a further opportunity to stake her claim for an Olympic place, but will be wary of fellow athletes such as Jo Pavey who also recorded an ‘A’ standard time last month. “It definitely motivates me to go out and train when I think of my rivals who are also competing for places on the Olympic team.”

  Being a spectator next year also excites Damen. “I am interested in watching the athletics, swimming, diving, gymnastics and trampolining.”

  As well as training and travelling to compete in races and tournaments, Damen is a P.E teacher at a Sixth Form college in Hampshire. Working at Peter Symonds College keeps her in a sporting environment, but enables her to work with others and encourage her students to make the most of their abilities.

  However most of her fellow competitors are fully professional, allowing them to have more free time during breaks between events. “It is tough at times, particularly as virtually all the women I compete against are full time athletes. When I’m teaching I find that I don’t get the time to recover after hard training sessions.”

  Having another outlet for her talents though allows Damen to have a change of focus occasionally, something she appreciates. “However, I think it’s healthy to have another interest and I enjoy helping young people. As an athlete you have to be selfish at times whereas as a teacher you have to be selfless.”

  At 28 Damen still has plenty of years left within the sport and if she manages to avoid injury, many opportunities for further success will surely arise for the level headed athlete. Achieving an Olympic time in her first full marathon is an incredible achievement and should not go unnoticed. And who knows what will happen if she makes the London 2012 team?

  One thing’s for sure: she is clearly very ambitious. “Beyond 2012 I would like to compete in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 and also go to the Olympics in Rio in 2016. I would like to try and be the best athlete that I can be so that I don’t have any regrets when I retire.”

  As the Olympics draw closer and closer, there is no doubt excitement and expectation grows by the minute. With the race for tickets coming to a close last month, spectators must now sit and wait in anticipation for the opening ceremony on the 27th July. But for the athletes, including Damen, the race has already started and over the course of the next 12 months, they know a lot of hard work lies ahead.

  The 5th August is the key date for Louise Damen. The date she hopes to be on the starting line at The Mall in London ready to run the race of her life. And with all her achievements and hard work so far, who would deny her that chance.

  Written by Katie Ball, University of Bedfordshire, Sports Journalism Student