On the right track for the Games

BOSTON’S Princess Royal Sports Arena may be a long way from the grandeur of Stratford’s Olympic stadium, but it is the place where Bulgarian international sprinter Yordan Ilinov believes he can fulfil his lifelong dream.

The 26-year-old 200m specialist has taken the biggest gamble of his career, turning his back on his homeland to train under Boston-based coach Dr George Skafidas, the man he believes can get him into his best form in time for London 2012.

Ilinov is no stranger to the international scene, having competed at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, and the 2006 European Championships in Goteborg, Sweden.

He, like Skafidas, is also a Balkan champion, but after suffering a spate of injuries, Ilinov became disillusioned with Bulgarian athletics’ governing body, feeling he wasn’t receiving the support he needed to further his career.

Instead, he took Skafidas’ number from a friend within the Bulgarian Athletics Federation.

“My dream is London 2012,” said Ilinov, whose personal best time is 20.65 secs, a time which only two British competitors have ran faster than so far this season.

“A friend of mine in the federation told me about George. He said he could help me reach the Olympics. I have come here to work hard and to train.

“The support in Bulgaria isn’t very good and I hope to do better in Boston.”

Skafidas is currently running the rule over Ilinov, evaluating and testing the athlete to see whether he wishes to take on the task of re-establishing his career.

If the Bulgarian gets the nod, he will become the latest recruit to the Lincolnshire Athletics Academy, founded by Skafidas after his move to the area five years ago.

The Greek former middle distance runner – Balkan champion twice over 400m – has coached athletes to the Olympics and World Championships in the past, but now his focus is on a group of 20 young athletes who travel from across the county to learn from him.

He has helped guide Wyberton sprinter Bernice Wilson to this year’s European Indoor Championships in Paris, while a crop of youngsters are currently improving under his methods, somewhat unique to the area.

Skafidas is not scathing of the UK’s coaching attitudes towards athletics, but suggests it has ‘zero science’ involved, especially at grassroots level.

With three PHDs – in biomechanics, psychology and coaching – it is no wonder Skafidas puts his faith in more than just training schedules.

“We have a different approach here. It’s more scientific,” he told The Standard.

“To succeed in athletics you need to find 50 pieces of a jigsaw.

“You need physical and psychological characteristics, the financial support, the ability, the right attitude and right nutrition.

“There are many more pieces of the puzzle.”

The financial aspect is what frustrates the 41-year-old Skafidas.

Throughout his junior years he says he saw more talented runners lose interest in competing. He can accept that, without desire, you will never reach the top, but feels it is unfair that money can give some competitors an advantage.

“In athletics it seems the people with the money, not the talent, do well because their parents can take them to training and to competitions,” said Skafidas, who has taken it upon himself to tip the balance.

He offers his services free of charge to the athletes he believes have the characteristics to achieve, also offering financial support from his own pocket and ferrying his proteges to competitions.

“We’re an academy, not a club. A group of athletes, parents, professionals and friends,” he continues, hinting at why he offers his time so gladly.

“We have a family atmosphere, because that brings out the best in the athletes.”

It was by chance that Skafidas met some of his young athletes, like Wilson, 27, and under 20 Alex Pycock.

Both were training alone at the PRSA, using schedules provided to them by coaches.

“I was training here on my own or with my dad, but I didn’t feel I was really improving,” Wilson said.

“I met George here, we got talking and things moved from there.

“He can be strict and he can be supportive. But having someone here to push you makes you realise you can do that extra bit that you didn’t think was possible when you trained alone.”

Wilson’s sentiments were echoed by Pycock, a fellow sprinter who aims to begin a sports science course at Loughborough University later this year, with his true goal being to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games.

“Training by yourself is not the same. There’s a family atmosphere here that makes you want to come training more than you would if you were by yourself,” he added.