Perri Shakes-Drayton is cool. There’s no two ways about it. And who better to represent GB at London 2012 than a cool born and bred East Londoner? The 400m hurdler has got the Games on her doorstep and this Beast from the East is ready, as she puts it, to “have it”.
Having been raised in Bow and schooled in Stepney, Perri also trains at her local Mile End Park Stadium, passing the Olympic Stadium every day. Her determination and spirit is that of a fighter, but “beast” is a self-imposed tag and when speaking to the talented athlete we find her nothing of the sort – but perhaps that’s because we’ve not faced her on the track.
However, if beastly by nature is the way to become an Olympian, then so be it. A European Championships bronze medallist, Perri also has a host of other achievements to her name, including a 400m double UK Trials triumph. So it’s surprising to find that 2012 is actually the 23-year-old’s first year of being a professional athlete – but what a year to do it in.
The past few seasons have held a number of defining moments for the young athlete. Although she went to Barcelona with only the intention of gaining experience and getting to a major final, Perri exceeded all expectations to claim bronze in both the 400m hurdles and the 4 x 400m relay.
An invite to race at the Rome leg of the Diamond League was followed by a further four League meets, but it was her performance at last year’s UK Trials that really got heads turning. Perri stormed to victory in both the 400m and the 400m hurdles; the first Briton to do so in more than a century of national championship running. Rare enough for a hurdler to defeat specialist sprinters, even more so when you consider one of those was Olympic champion (and fellow East Londoner) Christine Ohuruogu.
“Winning the 400m and 400m hurdles at the Trials justified how much of a beast I am,” she laughs. “The hard work and dedication definitely paid off.
“I mean, those distances are not easy. It’s nice to say that I’ve made history, it was a big achievement and a proud moment for me.”
However, it’s not all been plain sailing. Fuelled by recent successes, she headed to the World Championships in Daegu with the hope of reaching the final at the least. An unlucky draw saw her face the world number two and number three in her semi-final and an agonising one hundredth of a second was all that was between her and a place in the final.
“Last year was a good year for me,” Perri recognises. “Despite the fact that I never made it to the finals in Daegu I know I started my season a lot faster than I usually would that time of year.
“From that experience I learnt that the world stage is not easy and that a narrow margin can make such a difference.
“But I’ve come back to the track more determined. I made a few adjustments because I want to go in knowing that I’ve put a 100 per cent into it and at the end hopefully will be the result that I want.”
Only time will tell, but Perri is certainly more than ready for her Olympic debut. She admits that growing up so close to the Olympic Park makes her feel even more proud to be from East London – where better to start the next chapter in her life as a professional athlete than the place where it all began?
“Mentally I just have to believe in myself. The fact that it is a home Games… I’m not going to let the pressure get to me one bit. I’m just going to go out there and do what I usually do.”
So her pride for home is clear, even to the extent that the only time she’s properly left East London was to go to university. Perri is a firm believer in having a “back-up”, hence the reason she’s only just been able to call herself a professional.
“I became a professional athlete only this year,” she says. “I could have done it before university although I wanted to continue education as a back-up. You can’t predict the duration of your sports career so I had to juggle being a full time student and still fit in my training.”
And it would seem she’s succeeded at the juggling act. Graduating from Brunel University with a 2:1 in Sports Science last year now means she can concentrate purely on her sport to make her Olympic bow. Perri admits that it’s come at the right time, and although she was not overly “fazed” about narrowly missing out on Beijing at the time she’s determined to make up for it this time round.
“When it was 2008 and I missed out on the Olympics it didn’t actually faze me. But comparing 2008 to now, I’ve come a long way.
“In 2008 and before that I had no clue about athletics,” she admits. “I had no interest in watching the Olympic Games but as I’ve got older I’ve realised that’s the ultimate place that an athlete wants to be.
“Looking back, if I was selected in 2008 it would have been a good experience, but I was fortunate enough to be put on the BOA Ambitions Programme to get an insight into how the Games feel.
“Mentally I’ve grown; I’m now in the mix of all the world-class athletes and that’s given me the added boost of confidence. I want to go all the way now.”
And whilst she feels that being alongside those world-class athletes is beneficial, she’s also more than aware that they could equally lead to her downfall.
“The biggest challenge is the other girls,” she says. “I just need to have the confidence to believe that I can beat them.
“I don’t fear my competitors though,” she adds. “I see them on the circuit often. There’s no way I’m scared.
“Maybe when I was younger I was more fazed by them, but I’m in the mix now. I’m on their level of performance, so let’s have it.”
Although it would be all too easy to end on a cliché, we won’t. Perri has expressed her dislike for phrases such as ‘going to bring home gold’ and ‘expecting gold’ – she’ll just be going to do her thing.
“I don’t like [those] comments,” she says. “It’s not that easy. It’s the Olympic Games; we’re all as hungry as each other, and all I want to do is go and do my best. Hopefully my best will be good enough.”
And if not? “If 2012 is not my time to shine then there are loads of competitions afterwards,” she says, “and then there’s Rio 2016.
“At the start line I’ll just be telling myself, ‘This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don’t hold no prisoners’”.
And it’s here we bid all the best to the Beast from the East.
Jessica Whittington, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
Appearing in the latest Nike campaign, Perri Shakes-Drayton has made her pledge for this year. Make yours and join the movement #makeitcount.