As excitement starts to build for this year's Olympics Enda Mullen talks to former World, European and Commonwealth 400 metre champion Daniel Caines.
If ever there was an argument for reaping due rewards after sticking resolutely at something until you succeed then Daniel Caines is probably the living embodiment of it.
After years of being the smallest competitor – and often one of the slowest – things suddenly came good for the Solihull athlete, the start of a process that culminated in becoming a world champion.
Daniel says he is not being overly modest when he confesses he wasn’t tipped for stardom at a young age and just how far behind the pack he was.
“It wasn’t expected,” he said. “People looking back might think it was but would be very much mistaken. Between 11 and 15 I didn’t win a single race. I wasn’t the biggest of guys. I was tiny – I remember being 13 and wasn’t very big or strong.
“The bigger boys would run past me and I remember at one time I had the slowest time in the Midlands championship. I tell that to kids growing up.
“At 15 I remember finishing fourth – and that was an achievement. At 16 I think I took a fair few people by surprise.”
Asked what changed, the former athlete said “I got bigger” but he certainly feels indebted to the clubs that encouraged his talent at a young age – both Birchfield Harriers and before that Royal Sutton Coldfield.
“Royal Sutton Coldfield allowed me to come up through their ranks to mature gently – I wouldn’t have got into Birchfield at a young age,” he added. “It was nice to find my own feet and come through the ranks.”
Based on his early struggles was it ever suggested he throw in the towel?
“I don’t think it was ever said overtly,” he said. “No one ever came out and said it but they were surprised I suddenly ran really quickly. But it surprised me as well. The only person it didn’t surprise was my dad.”
Daniel’s father Joe, himself a former 400m champion, was his coach for much of his career and he too played a big part in helping to get the best out of him, with a philosophy that stressed steady development rather than instant results.
“He said we always knew that coaching was not about bringing you on but slowing you down. We didn’t want you to be number one as a junior, as there are no prizes. As soon as you became a senior, that is when it matters. And for me it worked.”
But being the son of champion athletes (Daniel’s mother Blondel Thompson is a former UK 100 metres hurdles record holder) had its drawbacks.
“Maybe it was pre-destined for me to be an athlete but if anything it made it worse my parents being international athletes. I felt a little bit of pressure.
“At 13 I said ‘dad, I’ve had enough’. He said I appreciate you saying that but wait till you grow and if you want to give up then.
“By the time I had grown I didn’t want to give up. There’s a message there, you have to keep on. I’m really glad he didn’t allow me to have my own way.”
With the clock ticking down to this year’s Olympics, Daniel is looking forward to the event and even jokes about the possibility of a comeback, though when pushed he admits he “couldn’t think of anything worse”.
He also expects it to be a good games for Britain’s home-grown talent.
“I expect them to do really well – they’re a cracking bunch of guys.
The Commonwealth Games in Manchester produced a lot of home-grown stars. That was fabulous but I’m hoping London will be twice as good.
“I think quite a few British stars will be born because it is a home games so home advantage allows the home nations to do really well and I don’t see why this year should be any different.
“If you’re a young athlete between 22 and 26 and your home nation were hosting the Olympics it is something that can really springboard your career and cement your future. Can you imagine what it would have been like if Kelly Holmes had won on home soil. Every athlete worth their salt wants to be a part of it and to produce their personal best performance. It is making me want to go and put my spikes on.”
Perhaps the only blackspot regarding this year’s event is the furore that has surrounded access to tickets.
“I wasn’t impressed with the whole tickets fiasco but other than that I don’t think there will be anything people can complain about,” Daniel added.
“It will definitely go down as a pivotal moment in most people’s lives. It is a great thing to have come to your nation – a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Born in Solihull Hospital, Daniel spent some of his formative years in Stechford before moving to Solihull. He is still immensely proud of both Birmingham and Solihull and his role as an athlete mentor for Sky Sports Living for Sport which uses sports stars and sport skills to improve the lives of youngsters in secondary schools. It sees him regularly interact with young people across in the region and across the UK. This week he visited Handsworth Wood Girls School and in May he will be paying a visit to Hamstead Hall Community Learning College.
“It is one of the things I do and I went into it expecting to give a lot but have gained a lot too,” he said. “Hearing the stories of some of the kids has really inspired me.”
Reflecting on the highs and lows of his career Daniel says he wouldn’t do anything differently.
“The world championships at 21 was awesome, the Commonwealth Games, the world championships in Birmingham – there were lots of highlights, things that can never be taken away from me.
“I don’t regret anything I have done in terms of track and field. It is very difficult to do some days. You don’t want to get out of your bed, your body is aching and the last thing you want to do is get up but you do it.
“What you gain far outweighs what you actually might lose. If your friends are true friends they will still be there. You might not be able to go drinking or lose a couple of summer holidays but it’s not forever. The speed with which I went to maturity was great.
“For me it happened fairly quickly after I left university. Within six months I was number one in the UK. When you see the fruits of your labour really quickly it’s funny how you forget the hard slog because it has all been worthwhile.”