Athletics: That's our Gail

by CATHY WOOD, Daily Mail

At 24, pretty blonde Gail Emms is one half of badminton's most glamorous couple. And going round in circles in her trendy new Mini Cooper, searching for a Milton Keynes pub she knows, it's easy to see why.

Gail, Hitchin-born and Bedfordeducated, has spent her entire life in the area and practically all of the last two years training at the National Badminton Centre based here, but she's lost anyway.

After a number of abrupt mid-road stops, accompanied by jaunty waves of apology to bemused drivers, we find the pub quite by chance. And who says blondes don't have more fun?

'You should meet my mum, she's worse than me,' she says with an infectious giggle. It seems hard to imagine.

Drive and determination clearly run in the family. Mother Jan, who as Jan Barton played centre forward for the England football team in the 1970 women's World Cup, has clearly inspired her daughter.

'She's my sporting heroine,' says Emms, recounting a list of her mother's achievements which include running halfmarathons, cycling and playing cricket for a men's team. 'She can do anything she sets her mind to. She never used to play, now she bowls men out.'

It was mum who introduced her to badminton, when she cut down a fullsized racket and started chucking shuttles at her then three-year-old.

'I wanted to do ballet at school but mum said it wasn't sport,' she laughs. 'Anyway, I've got footballer's legs.'

She is a breath of fresh air in a sport usually associated with dingy village halls and - dare one say it - a slightly older player. She and mixed doubles playing partner, Nathan Robertson, also aged 24, could do for badminton what Stephanie Cook did for modern pentathlon-Olympics. at the Sydney

They recently won the Malaysian Open, their most prestigious title to date, and are ranked No.1 in England and No.2 in the world. In women's doubles Emms is also No.1 in England with partner Jo Goode.

When Gail says she wants three Commonwealth gold medals she means it. And with England ranked No.1 in the team event it's a real possibility. Longer term, she also wants an Olympic medal and to take the All England title - badminton's equivalent of Wimbledon. And she's only been professional for two years.

It hasn't always been this good. After reading Sports Science at Kingston University, Emms admits she was more concerned with appearance than achievement. 'I didn't do enough to be considered as one of the top players,' she said.

Missing the Sydney Olympics changed all that. 'It did hit me that if I'd trained a bit harder I could have been there,' she says. 'I wasn't far off qualifying.'

So she took time and effort to get fit, lost a stone in weight, stopped worrying about sweating and sharpened her reflexes in preparation for the 150mph-plus smashes that might come her way in a mixed doubles final which could turn out to be an all-English affair.

If that happens it will be the very best of the old guard against the most exciting of the new. On one side will be the established pairing of Simon Archer and Goode, defending Commonwealth Champions from Kuala Lumpur and Olympic medallists. On the other side, glamour kids Robertson and Emms.

Emms believes Robertson is a terrific player who's also exciting to watch. 'He's a very good-looking guy but he's also very talented.'

She herself has not gone unnoticed by the opposite sex. At a recent England v China match in Newcastle, a young admirer offered her his ticket stub. On the back were the words 'Call Me', and a number. She didn't.

For the time being, at least, Emms is concentrating solely on her game. And when she heads to Manchester she's already made one important decision - the Mini isn't going along for the ride. 'The people of Manchester are safe,' she said.

But badminton opponents won't be spared.

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