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Tanya Blake – God Given Talent

Tanya BlakeTanya Blake – ‘God Gave Me a Talent And I Didn’t Want to Waste It’

Paul Grech profiles Malta’s top female runner Tanya Blake

It has been a good year for Tanya Blake. Not only has the 32 year old been winning medals for her adopted country of Malta, she’s also finally managed to dip below the two minute waterline that in the 800 meters traditionally separates the good from the average athletes. An achievement that not only guarantees her place in next year’s Olympics but also means that she has finally overcome possibly the biggest barrier of her career.

There was never any doubt that she could run fast. A natural athlete, Tanya claims that it was always something she always enjoyed doing. “Oh, I always liked to run, from being something around six or seven. I joined a club at thirteen and haven’t stopped.”

Her talent immediately showed through. A junior champion over the 400 metres, she eventually progressed to the 800 twice ending the year as the second fastest British woman over that distance. In 2001, a 2:01.87 finish was only bettered by Kelly Holmes’ 1:57.88. It was a repeat of what had happened three years earlier when Diane Modahl was under two seconds faster than Blake’s career best of 2:00.10.

“You wouldn’t think that it would take five years to knock one hundredth of a second off your time,” Tanya half-jokingly admits. Although she laughs it off, the relief at finally ending the wait is evident in her every movement. Something that she owns up to just a couple of seconds later. “It was just a relief, a big relief. I was still running at two-o-one and two-o-two which was great, but it wasn’t good enough. It (this result) makes a big difference. A big, big difference.”

That Tanya is still excited by mere mention of the result can be seen by the way in which she breathlessly describes those two minutes – or 1:59.56 to be precise – in the Prefontaine Classic Grand Prix in Oregon last May. “Even in the first lap, I just thought ‘I’m going to break two minutes today’ and then I took the race on to make sure that I would be fast. Coming in the home straight, I was looking at the clock and then looking at Maria Mutola and was thinking ‘oh, I’ve done it, I’ve done it’.”

Then came that handful of seconds that, for an athlete waiting impatiently to learn their result, seem to last an eternity. “At the end, I was looking at the scoreboard thinking ‘show the time, show the time’. But I was very happy. And very relieved.”

Tanya Blake – Malta’s finestAlthough the result meant a new career best, the whole season has been a memorable one for Tanya with a marked improvement in her performances. And she has no difficulty in pinpointing a reason for this improvement. “It’s very simply. In the last few years I either didn’t have a coach or I had the wrong coach. This year I had a very good coach who knows my event well. The 800 meters is very difficult to train for. I had a structured programme, I had a training schedule and I had a good coach. So it was a lot easier.”

“For me, running has never been hard. My problem has either been finding a coach or getting help. So, once I had everything in place, I knew that I could run well. When I was coaching myself it was too much pressure. Really, you can’t look at yourself objectively. You have to look at the right things, analyse the right results, you don’t know when to take a rest. A coach takes a lot of the pressure off you and you put your faith in a coach who knows what he’s doing. All you have to do is train and race.”

Finding the right coach, fundamental as it has been for Tanya’s career, isn’t the only significant decision she’s had to take in the past couple of years. Born and bred in England, of a Maltese mother and an American father, Blake had always competed in Great Britain’s colours. Then in 2001, she was given the opportunity to run for Malta in that year’s edition of the Games for the Small States of Europe held in San Marino. She obviously enjoyed the experience – winning the gold and setting a new games’ record of 2:06.26 in the process – as a couple of months later she choose Malta permanently.

“I had actually been in contact with Tony Chircop (the president of the Malta Amateur Athletics Association) since 1995 but there had never been any serious talk of me competing for Malta. Then in 2001 the opportunity of participating in San Marino came up and I accepted. I’ve always like challenges and it seemed like a good opportunity.”

It was the year in which she finished second behind Kelly Holmes and was very much a member of the Great Britain team that would eventually go on to win the European Cup. But instead, she chose to run for Malta. The natural question, therefore, is why? “I knew you were going to ask that! I just liked the atmosphere. I really enjoyed myself in San Marino – there was a good feeling – so I decided that it would be good to compete for Malta.”

It was a decision that came at a price. For a year Tanya had to sit out any major championship, which ruled her out not only of the European Cup – that she had already qualified to compete in – but also the Commonwealth Games. “I knew what it meant. Those are the rules set by the IAAF and the IOC so you have to stick with them. But I was happy to pay that price.”

A sacrifice that would eventually offer her great satisfaction particularly in the Games for the Small States of Europe, a smaller scale version of the Olympics in which European countries with a population of less than one million can take part. This year’s edition was held in Malta and expectations were high, especially for Tanya Blake.

But few expected to see her start the week in the way that she did: holding the Maltese flag and leading out the local athletes in the opening ceremony. “I was genuinely surprised because I only learnt about it from the papers! I didn’t know anything about it! But I was very honoured to be chosen.”

The opening ceremony would mark the start of a week in which Tanya carried home three medals: two golds in the 800 and 1,500 metres along with a silver in the 400 metres. “I wouldn’t say that I was expecting to win three medals, but I was hopeful.” Her voice betrays a slight tinge of disappointment when talk turns to the 400 metres. “It was the event which I was worried most about and after the first turn the gap was already too big.”

Success, however, doesn’t please everyone and there have been those quick to criticise Malta’s decision to adopt a foreign athlete. Despite finding the criticism from some bewildering, Blake prefers to focus on all the Maltese people who have really got behind her. “It would take up too much energy if I were to think about what they’re saying. I don’t want to waste my time worrying about what they’re thinking. However, I don’t understand their arguments. I have a Maltese passport and I did everything I had to do in order to represent Malta. The IAAF and the IOC make the rules and as long as I abide by them that is all that counts. I followed the rules set by the IAAF and the IOC: I didn’t set those rules. For me, it’s just not an issue. It never has been.”

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do was run. God gave me a gift and I didn’t want to waste it.”

Tanya Blake with medalDoes she regret turning out for Malta? “I love Malta, I love what I do and I’m not going to let anyone ruin it for me.”

The positive memories certainly outnumber the negative ones. “The Games for the Small States of Europe were fantastic. The organisation, the atmosphere, the whole event was just perfect.” She stresses the importance of the support that the athletes found during that week. “I’d competed in front of packed stadiums before. But running in front of a stadium full of Maltese people is something else. The noise and encouragement they can make is simply unique.”

Life after the Small Nations Games has been hectic and she admits that “the past month has flown by.” Nevertheless, she still has to focus her attention on the coming events. For the next couple of months Tanya will be basing her training in Malta, which she has found to be an ideal location. “In America, where I base myself most of the year, it takes me an hour to even get to the track. Here, everything is at close proximity. It only takes you a couple of minutes to get from one place to another. And there’s all the facilities you need.”

If next year’s Olympics – which Tanya has already qualified for – are the long term target, the World Championships is her most immediate one and she hopes to make it to the final despite some recent setbacks through injury. “Hopefully, I’ll be back to my best condition by then. I certainly feel that I’ve been running well enough to make it to the final.”

She seems completely unaware of the fact that no Maltese athlete has ever been close to getting that far. It has been a good year for Tanya Blake. Hopefully it’s about to get even better.

Photos courtesy of Wally Galea

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