Phil Wilkinson talks to 2008 Olympic Games bronze medal winner Marilyn Okoro who has moved to Lancashire to revive her career
Olympic medallist Marilyn Okoro has relocated from London to Lancashire in a bid to put her international career back on track.
And the 800m ace says she couldn’t be happier since making the move north.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Okoro. “I’ve had quite an unstable lifestyle, I’ve moved a lot in my 34 years. This was the easiest. Leaving the hectic noise of London to come here where it’s more stable and peaceful, it’s been good for me.”
The move came about after a chance meeting with Painter’s wife, Jenny Meadows - one of Okoro’s biggest rivals not long ago - at a big sports day in London in the summer.
At the time, Okoro had returned from five years in America and had taken a break from athletics to overcome long-standing injuries which plagued her over the last few years.
“We bumped into each other but the end of the day Jenny said, ‘I feel like I haven’t even spoken to you’,” recalls Okoro. “And we hadn’t, we’d been so busy!
“She asked me if I was still running, and it was a bit of a sore subject at the time, because I wasn’t, I was really demotivated.
“I told her I didn’t know what I was doing, it had been such an uphill struggle - every time I felt I was getting out of the volcano, it blew up in my face.
“So I told her I was really disillusioned. I knew I wasn’t done, but I didn’t know where to go from here.
“I could hear her brain ticking over, and she said, ‘I’m in London on July 25, are you free to meet up?’. And so we met in a cafe and initially she was very compassionate and find out how I was - as a person, not an athlete.”
So how did she react to the idea of moving north?
“We talked around it for ages. I was like, ‘Yes I’ll come work with you? Do you want me to work with you?’” she smiled.
“I remember Jenny said, ‘Maz, you’re an Olympic medallist. You need to act and think like one’. And then she said two things, ‘I feel I need to protect you. And you owe it to yourself to finish well’.”
And so Okoro moved out of her cousin’s home, packed her belongings into a pick-up truck and made the 200-mile trip north.
Initially she lived with Meadows and her husband - and coach - Trevor Painter in their Abram home as she hunted an apartment of her own.
The unison may have raised eyebrows among some of those who followed Meadows’ career, given how strong her rivalry with Okoro was - they were the country’s two premier 800m runners for several years.
“I don’t use the word enemies but I wanted what she wanted, and vice versa - we respected each other,” said Okoro, who went on to list their similarities.
“She was super competitive, I was the same. We were both sprinters first, we both got medal upgrades - we both suffered because of the doping scandal.
“But the main thing I admired about Jen was that she and Trevor were a unit, a team. “It didn’t matter what British Athletics or UKA said, all the criticism and hurdles, they faced together. I look at Tony (Minichiello) and Jessica Ennis, and Trevor and Jenny, they were a united front. He believed in her, as well as his own ability - he knows so much. “Everything we do, I’m thinking, ‘No wonder Jenny is such a beast!’ My training was never this tough or well planned. I was pushing myself but it wasn’t necessary smart training.
“Trevor is in an incredible coach, and he’s very empathetic and approachable.”
Okoro was part of the women’s 4x400m relay team who were promoted from fifth to bronze at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing after the second and fourth place teams were disqualified for doping violations after a reanalysis of samples.
In July, Okoro got to wear her Olympic medal for the first time after the quartet of Okoro, Christine Ohuruogu, Kelly Sotherton and Nicola Sanders were presented with their bronze gongs.
Alongside five global relay medals, including world bronze in 2007, Okoro has also had individual success in her favoured event of the 800m; winning bronze medals at the European Indoor Championships in 2011 and the IAAF World Athletics Final in 2007 and 2008 - the year she clocked an 800m best of 1:58.45, which puts her sixth on the UK all-time list.
But since then, her career has been plagued with setbacks and injuries. After missing out on the European Championships and Olympic Games in 2012, Okoro moved to America before returning home last year.
“The American dream turned into a bit of a nightmare because I didn’t have the support,” she reflected. “People were saying, ‘You’re so brave’, and I was thinking, ‘Yeah, brave. A bit stupid...’
“When I came back, I knew I didn’t want to leave the sport, because I love it so much, and I didn’t want to go with a bitter taste in my mouth. I knew I hadn’t fulfilled my potential. I knew what I was doing in training wasn’t translating to my races. I was determined to find the right support network.”
And she believes she has found that in Lancashire, where she trains at Robin Park as well as the “beautiful” surrounding areas of the county.