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Turning mettle into gold

IT sounds like the far-fetched plot of a feel-good Hollywood flick:

Kerry MacPhee switched from the triathlon to mountain biking   Photograph: SNS
Kerry MacPhee switched from the triathlon to mountain biking Photograph: SNS

take a group of ordinary Scots - office workers, students, recreational sporting enthusiasts - and turn them into medal winners at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

But that is exactly what sport-scotland institute of sport set out to do five years ago with Gold4Glasgow, a project spearheaded by Tony Stanger, a former Scottish inter-national rugby player turned talent manager. The results have been interesting: there are seven athletes who will represent Team Scotland at the Games this month who have had some involvement in the programme.

Among them is Micky Yule, who is set to compete in the para-sport powerlifting. A former staff sergeant in the Royal Engineers, the 35-year-old was serving in Afghanistan when, on a routine mission to clear improvised explosive devices (IEDs), one detonated beneath his foot. Yule lost both legs. He has since undergone 43 operations while adapting to life as a double amputee.

Previously a competitive amateur powerlifter in the army, Yule attended a talent scouting day in Stirling in 2011 where his tenacity and determination impressed selectors. "At first I thought my injuries were so extreme that I would never be able to get back into competitive sport," he says. "Being selected for the programme gave me something to focus on and get motivated."

The Musselburgh athlete will compete in the heavyweight division at the Games. If he can lift his target of 190kg - almost three times his body weight - it should place him in the medal zone.

Cycling was the focus of the first talent ID search by Gold4Glasgow in May 2009, followed by judo and then triathlon, para-sport powerlifting and netball, with something in the region of 150 athletes tested overall.

Key to the ethos, says Stanger, was challenging the traditional perception of how "talent" is defined. "It is a myth that talent is something that you are born with and I think in this country we are guilty of falling into that trap," he says. According to his view, being goal driven, having perseverance and passion are far more important attributes when it comes to the success of an athlete.

"It's too difficult to get rid of the word talent so we are trying to re-define it," says Stanger. "The three things we think are important are being physically suited for your sport, understanding the development process involved and approaching that with a growth mindset. That is what talent is. Someone who is doing all those things has a got every chance of being a very successful athlete. Luck takes a hand when you get to the very top, we totally accept that, but it's amazing how far people can go."

When Lucy Coldwell walked through the doors of the sportscotland institute of sport in 2009, she had no idea of how her life would change. Back then she was pursuing a career as a veterinary surgeon with a weekend hobby in adventure racing using her father's old road bike. Less than a year later she was rubbing shoulders with some of the world's top cyclists.

Coldwell, 30, from Clydebank, has been selected to represent Team Scotland in the time trial at Glasgow 2014. The reigning Scottish National 10-mile TT champion, she finished sixth at the British Time Trial Championships in Wales last month.

"It's pretty amazing," she says, when asked to reflect on her journey. "Starting out it seemed like a dream but it was a fantastic opportunity and opened my eyes to the fact it was possible to go to the Commonwealth Games. Even so, I don't think I realised then how difficult it would be to go from cycling for fun to competing against world-class athletes.

"I did my first UCI race in 2010 which was a real shock to the system but I did manage to finish. Since then it's been four years of hard work starting at the bottom. I moved to Australia and when I began racing there I spent the first season hanging off the back of the peloton. By the next year I was among the peloton and by the third able to attack off the front. I then came back home and got into the thick of European racing which is another step up again. It's been a steep learning curve."

Louise Haston, a former athlete who signed up for the cycling programme alongside Coldwell in 2009, is another who is Glasgow 2014-bound. A fine track sprinter, she will pilot double Paralympic gold medallist Aileen McGlynn in para-sport tandem events at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome.

Fellow cyclists Katie Archibald and Kerry MacPhee attended a Gold4Glasgow workshop in late 2011 before going on to carve their own very different paths to the Commonwealth Games.

Both are prodigious talents to emerge recently from under the radar. Archibald has enjoyed a sensational 10 months which has seen her become a European and world team- pursuit champion. The 20-year-old rider from Milngavie, who joined the British Cycling Olympic Academy Programme in November, has also ridden her way into the history books with a world record in the team pursuit. Archibald will contest the endurance track cycling and road events at Glasgow 2014.

MacPhee, who is set to compete in the cross-country mountain biking at Cathkin Braes, comes from a triathlon background. She had initially hoped to try her hand at track cycling but when plans to take a budding Scottish contingent to the Netherlands were shelved, the 28-year-old from South Uist in the Outer Hebrides had to forge another way to realise her dream of becoming a top-flight athlete.

"I believe it is because of my mindset that I'm a cyclist now; I didn't let what was a blow at the time stop me from pursuing my sporting goals - even if they were the triathlon up until last year," she says. "Some people could have seen that as a reason to give up trying to be an elite sportsperson, whereas those of us with a growth mindset took the blow but kept squirrelling away."

It was only after a stellar debut in the 2013 SXC Scottish Cross Country Series in Forfar, in which she finished second behind reigning British national champion Lee Craigie, that MacPhee realised she may have stumbled upon her niche. By her own admission, her triathlon ambitions had begun to stall due to the fact she was a "really rubbish" swimmer.

Chris Volley, national performance development coach with Triathlon Scotland, also believed MacPhee's strengths lay in cycling. He put her in touch with Scottish Cycling mountain bike coach Paul Newnham who helped guide her fledgling arrival in the British XC Series.

After competing in her final Scottish National Triathlon Champ-ionships last September, MacPhee switched her full attention to cycling in a bid to gain the qualification standard for Glasgow 2014. She was named in the six-strong Team Scotland mountain biking squad last month.

"I have essentially only been cycling for several months," says MacPhee. "As soon as I stopped triathlon and started cycling more, the results came. I was initially put on the Scottish Cycling development programme working towards 2018, but it soon became clear that 2014 was a realistic goal, so here I am heading to Glasgow. It feels amazing."

Another to excel on two wheels is Jonathan Biggin, a former gymnast and powerlifter, who will line up for Scotland in the track sprint events at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome.

Then there is triathlete Seonaid Thompson, originally from a track and field background, who has made steady progress competing in the British Triathlon Super Series and winning Scottish national titles in Aquathlon. She will compete in the mixed team relay at Glasgow 2014.

It is Stanger's hope that their success stories will motivate armchair sports enthusiasts and amateur participants alike this summer.

"I think the inspiration of athletes performing well in Glasgow is not only important for young people on their way up, but also for older individuals to see how they could potentially transfer into another sport," he says. "As a small population I think we can genuinely have a world-class talent system. We don't want miss anyone who has potential simply because they haven't perhaps tried a sport they may be really suited to."

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