WHEN Jessica Judd steps out on to the track at Hampden Park for the first time next week she will do so knowing she has a former Commonwealth Games champion in her corner.
Rob Denmark famously won a gold medal in the 5,000m at the 1994 Games in Victoria, Canada, Now, 20 years on, he is playing an important role in the rise to stardom of Judd, who he has been coaching for the past two years.
Coach and pupil have struck up a close partnership over that time, a friendship that has been forged through plenty of shared similarities, not least the pair’s home town of Canvey.
When Denmark appeared at his first Commonwealth Games in 1994, he paved a way for a tradition of Canvey track athletes to shine at the Games that was followed up by first Dean Macey and now Judd herself.
Both Denmark and Judd were educated and grew up on the island – Denmark at Furtherwick Park School and Judd at Castle View – and while Denmark has now moved to Rayleigh, he knows exactly what faces his protege when she sets off on a long Sunday run on the island, because he himself has experienced those unforgiving, buffeting winds coming off the seawall or along Canvey Way.
But the similarities between the pair are more than just a shared heritage according to Denmark.
At 19, Judd has burst on to the international scene a few years earlier than her coach did during his running days, but he can see certain similarities in the way the pair approach competition.
“I think we are fairly similar in some respects,” said Denmark. “Certainly in the way we deal with stuff. In other things we are totally different. But I’d like to think the way we focus as we move towards championships, the way we deal with things in training is very similar.”
Denmark says winning the gold medal in 1994 was the highlight of a distinguished running career which also included a European Championships silver medal and two Olympic Games.
So returning to the Commonwealth Games next week will be something special for him, as well as for Judd who will be making her second major championship appearance in the senior ranks after making the World Championships last year.
“If you have won something in the past you always have an affinity towards it and the Commonwealth Games do give me that special feeling,” he said. “It’s a bit scary to think it was 20 years ago though!
Rob Denmark winning gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada
“I remember it very well and I’m very proud of what I achieved. To win a distance medal at the Commonwealth Games is a big thing. It’s really hard. You can’t under-estimate how hard it is. You have a whole load of Africans who are trying to beat you, and on top of that, something which is unique to the Commonwealth Games, you have a home nations battle too.”
And that’s where the similarities with coach and athlete marry up once again.
It’s not being disrespectful to say that some events at the Commonwealth Games are stronger that others. Removing the powerhouse of the USA as well as the top European nations from the competition does dilute the quality of some of the fields.
But in some events, medals are as hard to come by as any major championship.
The 5,000m which Denmark won in 1994 against the best Africans in the world was one of them and the 800m, which Judd will run next week, also falls into that same category.
“Jess is going to face exactly what I did,” said Denmark. “She will have the best athlete in the world (Eunice Sum from Kenya) running against her and the top girls from the Home Nations who are all very strong.” Despite being just 19, Judd has been to some big championships before - including the World Championships in Moscow last year.
But Denmark says she will have never experienced anything like the Commonwealth Games before.
“It’s different,” he said. “I could not put my finger on why, but there’s so much more going on.
“You could be sat eating your breakfast and a real superstar from another sport walks by. As an athlete, you get used to seeing stars from your sport, but it’s completely different when you see a world cycling star or swimming star for example. It gives it a different dimension to a World Championships for example, it’s special. You have all these distractions going on. It is a big, big event.”
Denmark said he would be chatting to Judd about some of the things she will experience in Glasgow this week but was keen not to impose his own experiences on to hers.
“I would not really want to impose on her the way she interprets things,” he said.
“Her way of dealing with things and dealing with experiences are very different. I would not try to impose that on to her. That would be too easy. She’s a unique individual.
“What I experienced 20 years ago is vastly different to what Jess will be facing next week. It’s a different world. Athletes have to deal with so many more things now.
“When I was in Canada I could barely speak to my family. There was no internet back then and no mobile phones. We were not really aware of what was going on back at home, how people were receiving us. We didn’t know anything.
“I remember there was the Diane Modahl case (800m runner Modahl, the defending champion, was sent home from Victoria because of a failed drug test which was later overturned on appeal) which we were all being asked about which was annoying, but there was none of the distractions the athletes have today.
“They have to deal with so much more with social media, with Facebook and Twitter and things.
“We will use the fact that I have had experience of the Commonwealths to our advantage but it’s not something we will mould it (the preparations) around.
“My ego is not part of it. The most important thing is to go out and run the best she can.”
With Denmark keen not to impress too much of his own past on to Judd, he certainly won’t be showing her a video of his triumph in Canada as inspiration.
“I doubt she has watched any of my races back,” he laughed. “I really don’t know, but I bet she hasn’t!”
We’re asking all of our Commonwealth Games athletes, eight quick-fire questions.
1) WHO INSPIRED YOU TO TAKE UP THE SPORT?
My dad. He would do marathons and half-marathons and I would do the fun runs and it was at one of them that I got noticed.
2) WHAT WILL BE THE LAST SONG YOU LISTEN TO BEFORE YOU COMPETE?
I don’t listen to music when I’m warming up because I like to get into the zone. But I listen to music up to an hour before a race and the one I like to listen to most is Lose Yourself by Eminem.
3) WHAT OTHER SPORT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE GOOD AT?
Tennis. My dad has always been a big tennis fan and I’ve always liked it too. It’s got a nice feel to it.
4) WHAT SUPERSTITIONS DO YOU HAVE? Lots! I always have the same person put my race number on now. It always used to be my dad but as he can’t always be there, I get other people to do it, like Rob (Denmark, coach) or Chris (Youell, boyfriend). I also have a lucky thumbs up which someone has to give me beforehand. And then there’s the laces on my spikes which I tie about 12 knots in. It started when I was younger at a cross-country race when my dad tied my spikes up like that to make sure the spikes didn’t come off and I’ve done it ever since.
5) WHO IS YOUR HERO?
6) WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PRE-COMPETITION MEAL?
7) WHAT ‘BAD FOODS’ CAN’T YOU RESIST?
I’m a chocaholic. I’ve managed to ween myself off the fizzy drinks but I do like a McDonald’s. After my race in Glasgow the other week, I walked all the way to McDonald’s and sat on my own with a quarter pounder. It was great.
8) WHAT OTHER SPORT WOULD YOU LIKE TO WATCH AT THE COMMONWEALTH GAMES? I would love to watch the swimming. I always watch that at the Olympics and the races always seem so close.
WHEN CAN YOU SEE JESS RACE?
JESSICA Judd has a long wait to get her Commonwealth Games started.
She races a week today (Wednesday, July 30) in her 800m heat which is the seventh day of Commonwealth Games action.
The 800m heats are scheduled to start at 11.55am next Wednesday and if Jess progresses, the semi-final takes place the following evening (Thursday, July 31) at 6.50pm.
The final takes place on Friday, August 1 at 8.45pm.
All the action will be live on the BBC.