When the Commonwealth Games arrived in Glasgow four years ago, Rosie Clarke was, by her own admission, little more than a promising 1500m runner with a dream. She attended the competition as a spectator, her eyes fixated on Kate Avery – friend, former housemate and 10,000m athlete – who narrowly missed out on the podium in Scotland.
As final preparations are made ahead of the Gold Coast event, Clarke – now a 3,000m steeplechaser – arrives in Australia as a much-changed competitor and racing in an entirely different discipline. The Games come a year after the 2016 British champion suffered World Championship heartache at London’s Olympic Stadium. It is a day that Clarke looks back on both as both among her best and worst in competitive sport.
“I’m going into the Commonwealths feeling confident and I know that I can do well,” she says.
“I suffered quite a lot of disappointment at the Worlds last year, which was tough, and I found that quite hard to deal with. I’m just treating this as a clean slate and a fresh chance and I’d really like to come off the track and just be happy with what I’ve done.
“I know I’m going in very fit and I love racing – it’s my favourite thing. I’m confident, and as long as I finish feeling like I’ve given it everything, I will be pleased. We’ll see what happens on the day, but I think we’re ready to do something quite big.”
Just from Clarke’s tone – a charming mixture of bubbly joviality and reflective candour – it is clear that she is ready for international redemption in Australia, having taken her sporting nightmare in her stride.
“London was an absolute disaster,” she recalls with a wry chuckle. “But I still would have been top ten if it had been a Commonwealth race. That’s a nice thing to know.”
The details of her World Championship disappointment are hardly spectacular, but rather the norm in a race defined by its water jumps. Before her heat, she had never come a cropper at the hands of the hurdles. For whatever reason, she fell twice in London.
Yet, having reached international standard two years after watching the Commonwealth Games from the plastic seats of Hamden Park, her World Championship blues came with the most silver of linings.
“Outside of deciding to take a swim in the water jump and choosing to leave the track at one point, it was incredible,” she says with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. “The crowd was amazing; the stadium was unbelievable. I couldn’t have asked for a better all-round Championship experience – except for my actual race.
“It was something very special. To be honest, even though I didn’t perform as well as I’d have liked to individually, I still have quite a positive response to the Championships, looking back on it. I think I learnt an awful lot, and competing at a home World Champs was something very special.”
The overall experience of racing in one of sport’s great arenas has given Clarke a level of confidence as she prepares for her Commonwealth debut. She speaks without fear, with the aura of an athlete fully aware of her own fitness and capability.
The landscape of the women’s steeplechase has altered markedly since Purity Cherotich Kirui, Milcah Chemos Cheywa and Joan Kipkemoi waltzed their way to an all-Kenyan podium in Glasgow.
“The women’s steeplechase has changed an awful lot,” Clarke acknowledges. “In London, there was an American one-two, which was fantastic. These African ladies are incredibly strong across all endurance events, and to see that being disrupted a bit is really cool.
“For instance, going into the Commonwealth Games, you’ve got a very strong contingent coming from Kenya – that goes by-the-by. Then I’d like to think there’s myself, Aisha Praught from Jamaica is running incredibly well and setting personal bests over 1500m and a few others, so there is strength in depth across the western athletes.
“It might be that things are a bit more interesting now. I think Kenya might have had a bit of a shock last year, so it will be interesting to see how they actually race.”
That Clarke is amongst the list of realistic medal hopefuls is testament to the extreme work ethic of the Bath University graduate, who only agreed to switch her focus from the 1500m to the steeplechase on something of a whim.
“My coach David Harmer asked me if I’d ever thought about the steeplechase,” she explains. “I had thought about it but had never really done anything about it. He was quite shocked when I basically just said: ‘Fine, coach me for that.’ It was brutal! I don’t think I’d really realised what I was letting myself in for.”
Three years on, she confesses that the transition involved far more physical and mental complexity than she could have ever imagined.
“The biggest shock for me was that for a three-kilometre steeplechase, you have to have the aerobic strength of a 5,000m runner. As somebody that didn’t have many training years behind them as a 1500m runner, I had to do a hell of a lot of endurance.
“I actually really enjoy the water jump side of the event. In a way, I see it as a distraction rather than another thing to deal with.”
After her disappointment on the biggest of stages last year, Clarke’s positivity makes her a dangerous customer this time around. Having experienced the brutality of elite sport, she is determined to leave the Gold Coast smiling.
“After all,” she confesses. “Four years ago, when I was watching Kate in Glasgow, I had absolutely no idea that I’d be going to these Games.”
Featured photograph: Rosie Clarke