So often elite performers talk of childhood dreams and lifelong plans, explaining how the quest for success has been a long-term, all-consuming project. But with Laura Muir, it’s different. While there is no doubting the 1500 metres athlete’s standing after a year in which she has delivered records, titles, an Olympic final and now been voted Scottish Athlete of the Year by her peers, hopes of those accomplishments did not dominate her childhood.
Growing up she had her heart set on becoming a vet, not an Olympian. “I grew up with animals and love working with them and couldn’t really see myself doing anything else,” she said. “I love the sciences and I was smart enough and I thought well, if I’m smart enough and I love animals, then veterinary seemed the logical thing to do.”
It is all very logical but now that she is well on the way to earning her degree and the realisation of that ambition, those career goals are now accompanied by athletics targets, too. Fulfilling those, though, is still viewed, endearingly and ratherly humbly given the effort and sacrifice that has gone into elevating her to the higher echelons of her sport, as a bonus.
“I always ran when I was little, just because I enjoyed it. I was never all that good – I had a habit of scraping into finals and coming last. I just did it because I enjoyed it.”
Muir does not look like the hard-nosed competitor. There isn’t an obvious steel in her eyes, she is softly spoken and she is petite. But, boy, is she driven. She will take part in the Scottish short course cross country event in Renfrew on Saturday before heading to South Africa for winter training.
Combining her veterinary studies with training and racing, she has had a pretty meteoric rise. Some come through the junior ranks honed and in need of only some fine tuning but Muir arrived at the top virtually unheralded. Spotted by her current coach Andy Young when she started university, he recognised the raw talent. Since 2011 she has justified that faith. In 2014, at a Diamond League event in Paris, she bettered Yvonne Murray’s Scottish 1500m record with a 4min 00.07sec run. It was a landmark that had stood for 27 years. In 2015 she had commentators and pundits gushing as she finished fifth in the World Championships. People were noticing her and they were tipping her for great things.
This year, she geared up for her first Olympics with another Diamond League triumph, at the Anniversary Games Park in London in July. That night she ran 3:57.49 cheered on by a buoyant home crowd to break Dame Kelly Holmes’ British record. In Rio, the 23-year-old tried to translate that form and that promise into a medal but had to settle for seventh in the final, having given her all.
At the time she had no regrets. And while her coach Young – who has been rewarded for his efforts and named Scotland’s Performance Coach of the Year – says that hindsight might entice him into some minor tweaks, Muir is still content that they gave their all.
“[Ethiopia’s Genzebe] Dibaba made a big kick with 700m to go, and I managed to keep with it for about 400 or 500m. But over the last 200m I just filled up, and my legs went from me.
“I watched it back a couple of times – I was trying to be analytical to find any faults or points where I’d gone wrong. But Andy and I watched it and he said, ‘no, you did everything that you could have done.’ It was just the way it happened on the day. I came out of it feeling pretty happy with how I had dealt with it. Mentally I was so, so focused and didn’t get overwhelmed by it at all and I was exactly where I wanted to be in terms of that.
“I didn’t let the experience affect me and my preparation was very good and my recovery was really good, all those sorts of things, so we know that for the next major championships we can do everything the same, because everything was perfect and I was flying and we showed that in Paris [when she ran 3.55.22, a time only one other female athlete has bettered since 2000] the week or so later. We knew I was in great shape, so we just have to do the same thing the next time and maybe look at the race a little bit more.”
There was not the worldwide audience in Paris, but, in terms of the part it played in helping her win the overall Diamond League title – just the third British woman to do so – it set her apart from the long list of peers who voted her Scotland’s athlete of the year for the second time in a row.
But all that is a byproduct of doing something she adores. “I was never winning races before so that’s just a bonus now. It’s not because I get to travel the world or meet all these people or get to go to awards nights. I do it because I love what I do.”
For now that will be at 1500m, where she says she still has a lot to aim for but the natural progression, as far as both athlete and coach are concerned, would be to step up to longer distances. Muir is 23 and for someone who has time and talent on her side, her distance running affords her the realistic opportunity of competing at another three Olympics. She has the ability and the opportunity to tweak training and tackle some longer hauls. It’s not something she is in a rush to do, which may seem surprising given the speed at which she has evolved so far. But she has unfinished business, feeling she is only really getting going over 1500m.
“I think running 3.55 is not too bad, so, hopefully, he will keep me at the 1500m for the next few years,” laughs Muir, referring to her coach and mentor. “From the sessions we do, some are more endurance based and I have been doing very well in the 5k sessions, so I could be very good doing the 5k.”
But that is tough and, with a long career ahead of her, she is keen to pace herself.
It is funny, she says, to look back at her performances and her training prior to joining forces with Young. “I don’t ever remember being tired, so I had to kind of teach my body how to push myself. It wasn’t until Andy pushed me that bit more that I realised how far I could push my body.”
She has been pushing and pushing ever since. But there is more to come. Bettering times already posted will be tough but now she is harbouring dreams of major medals.