It’s not very often that one athlete earn the chance to represent their nation at two Olympic sports. Craig Pickering came very close to doing so.
Now 29 and living in Australia, the former Team GB sprint star nearly made it to the 2014 Winter Games as part of Britain’s bobsleigh squad.
Injury prevented him from making the trip to Sochi, however, and such setbacks are a recurring theme in a sporting career that could have – but didn’t quite – hit the heights.
Crawley-born Pickering burst onto the athletics scene at the age of 18 with victory in a race in which he beat Sydney Olympics 4x100m relay gold medallist Darren Campbell.
Looking back, he’s not too sure whether that win really deserved the hype it generated around him.
“When I beat Darren, he was coming to the end of his career,” Pickering told me. “Three other people beat him in that race, so it wasn’t only me. I think it was made into more of a big deal than the performance warranted.”
His sprinting memories start 13 years prior to the ‘breakthrough’ race in 2005 that his sprint memories start.
“Sprinting was probably the first sport I did, but more as a play-based activity. I have strong memories aged five of winning my first sports day by a long way, and also beating kids a few years older than me. But I never pursued athletics outside of sports day, really. One of the problems was that I genuinely didn’t know how to.”
“I was by no means a serious athlete aged 14 or 15, even though I was winning national championships”
Dreaming of becoming a professional footballer, Pickering’s then-PE teacher Adam Izzard pointed him towards rugby. However, success in athletics seemed more likely for the 16-year-old, and as the chances of succeeding became more realistic, other sports were sacrificed.
However it took Pickering a while to realise his potential. “I was by no means a serious athlete aged 14 or 15, even though I was winning national championships.
“I think the turning point for me came in 2003, I was 16; I came third in the World Under-18 Championships, and I thought that if I took it seriously, I might be able to get somewhere with my sprinting.”
Two years after this realisation, he found himself crossing the line ahead of Campbell. By now, Pickering had goals in his mind. Everything was geared up for the 18-year-old to burst onto the global scene, but a great 2005 was followed by an anti-climactic 2006.
“It was my first year at university with a new coach, and a big transition period,” he explained. “It’s important in athletics to take it each year at a time.”
So 2006 rolled into 2007, and Pickering won the 60m at the European Indoor Trials and UK Championships in February.
“My goal for 2007 was to get myself back to a decent level. I did not expect to run so fast over 60m, that was a shock, but once I had it wasn’t that surprising that I had a bit more success over the 100m that year.”
By the time the Beijing Olympics came around in 2008, Pickering and the rest of the GB men’s sprint relay squad were seen as certainties for a medal.
But history repeated itself as, yet again, a bad year followed a good one for Pickering. In the 4x100m final, his illegal baton exchange Marlon Devonish led to Great Britain being disqualified.
“It was an important opportunity missed. I should have an Olympic medal, but I don’t and that’s my fault”
It was a blunder that Craig takes full responsibility for. “It wasn’t ideal, but mistakes happen and the important thing is to learn from them. From then my relay performances were much better.
“After Beijing my focus was on 2009, then 2010, then 2011 – 2012 was a long way away at that point. It’s only now that I think that the relay was an important opportunity missed. I should have an Olympic medal, but I don’t and that’s my fault.”
The years following 2008 were all geared towards London 2012 for Pickering, but early in Olympic year came the devastating news that he was to miss the Games on home soil.
“I had to have back surgery,” he explained. “I knew for about seven months before the Olympics that I’d have to, so it wasn’t a last minute disappointment or anything, but I would have liked more than anything to have competed in London.”
“I’d rather my big injuries had not happened in 2012 and 2014, but 2011 and 2013 instead, but that’s the way it goes sadly”
The bad news didn’t stop there. Due to not being able to compete in London, Pickering dropped out of UK Athletics’ lottery funding system, meaning at 21 he he had to find another source of income.
Luckily (for once), a new one wasn’t hard to locate as his talent was seen to be potentially useful in another Olympic event, the bobsleigh.
“Bobsleigh offered me a trial, I was quite good, and they took me on board. From that point, I was focused on qualifying for Sochi in 2014.”
However, as the Winter Games approached, Pickering picked up another injury, ruling him out of yet another major event. He’s now philosophical about these setbacks.
“Genetically, I am at risk of suffering from a lower back injury – I had my first one aged 14. Then the daily training and competing takes it out of you too.
“The timing of it all is unlucky – I’d rather my big injuries had not happened in 2012 and 2014, but 2011 and 2013 instead, but that’s the way it goes sadly.”
Since moving to Australia, Pickering has found himself becoming more detached from the GB athletics scene.
Offering his services as a coach online and being head of sport science at DNAFit, he is hoping his current job will lead him to secure a more hands-on coaching role.
An avid user of Twitter, Pickering is vocal on eradicating drugs within athletics. With world governing body the IAAF currently mired in a corruption scandal involving the alleged covering up of positive tests, it’s a topic that is high on the agenda.
“Rumours will never stop,” he said. “Things that have happened in the past will taint athletics pretty much forever, and there is a belief in the general public that pretty much every athlete is on drugs.”
“If Ujah and Dasaolu can stay injury-free I would expect them to have really solid careers, and potentially challenge for 100m medals in the future”
At least, says Pickering, the sport has Usain Bolt to counter the negative news. With Rio 2016 possibly signalling the end of the Jamaican sprint king’s career, Pickering believes that as much as his retirement would be a sad day, it will also help the sport progress as a whole.
“After he retires, the sport will just move on an unearth new stars and big names. I doubt any will have the same impact as Bolt, however. He is a one-in-a-million athlete that only comes around every 100 years or so.”
Amongst the up-and-coming stars of sprinting, Pickering thinks highly of GB hopefuls Chijindu Ujah and James Dasaolu.
“If they can both stay injury free I would expect them to have really solid careers, and potentially challenge for 100m medals in the future. Adam Gemili too is a big hope.”