ALMOST a year ago to the day, Lawrence Clarke was competing in the Olympic final of the 110m hurdles.
After surpassing all expectations — including his own — to finish fourth, the athlete from Christmas Common became a household name overnight.
This week, instead of racing in the world athletics championships in Moscow, the 23-year-old has been forced to take a break from his sport after a season in which he has been plagued by injury.
Yet he’s surprisingly philosophical about the past 12 months, which have seen him break his wrist and tear a hamstring three times.
“It keeps me fighting hard and it stops you from being complacent,” he says. “There is always a chance that something can go wrong and it is important to realise that anyone can beat you.”
A month after the London 2012 closing ceremony, Clarke returned to training with Malcolm Arnold, who coached former world record holder Colin Jackson.
He recalls: “When I came back it was winter and it was a different experience altogether. There was no crowd cheering, just blistering wind and rain.”
Clarke was determined to perfect his technique and continued to train hard until he fell head over heels and broke his wrist during a training session in December.
“I fell on a hurdle which was in the wrong place,” he says. “It was during a long session doing all these different exercises and through a lack of awareness I put it in the wrong place.”
With his wrist strapped in a cast, his training regime was severely disrupted as he was unable to lift weights or hurdle. Instead, he was forced to go on long runs to maintain his fitness until the cast was removed in March.
Then an old injury sustained in a car crash four years ago reappeared when he returned to indoor competition at the British Grand Prix in February, where he finished sixth in his heat of the 60m hurdles.
Later that month he tore his hamstring and then in April did the same thing — twice.
He still went on to compete in the 110m hurdles at the Sainsbury’s British Championships in July. He finished half a second slower than he had raced previously but his performance showed he was technically perfect and he qualified for the final, where he finished fourth.
He says: “I was terrified about my injury and didn’t want my hamstring to go again. It was frustrating to the extent that I felt I was standing in the starting blocks getting left behind. It gave me a kick because there were people beating me who haven’t done so for maybe four years. That keeps you grounded.”
Clarke decided that the Copenhagen games earlier this month would be his last race of the season after a scan showed his hamstring had still not fully recovered.
Although it was a difficult decision, particularly as it was just before the world championships, Clarke believes it was the right one. His body needed time to recuperate.
Clarke, who is heir to the Baronetcy of Clarke of Dunham Lodge in Norfolk, only began hurdling in his last year at Eton College after being injured while playing the school’s famous Field Game, a cross between football and rugby.
He began taking hurdling seriously when he went to the University of Bristol to study theology and religious studies and travelled to Bath every day to train.
Since then, he has shaved more than two seconds off his personal best and was British number one last year.
Now he has decided to combine his return to training in October with studying for a postgraduate degree in management and finance at the University of Bath.
“I feel that at the end of the day you are only one injury away from the end of your career,” he says. “I am interested in the economy and when I leave my sporting career behind I would like to be successful in business. I don’t want to be retired at 27 and unsure of what to do next.”
However, medalling at the Rio Olympics in 2016 is still his goal and competing at the Sainsbury’s Anniversary games last month only increased his desire to return to peak fitness.
“It took me straight back to last year and I did think to myself, ‘if only this could happen every year’,” he says. “I hadn’t stepped on to that track since the Olympics so to return and compete against some of the best hurdlers in the world really inspired me to get back to that level.”
He says he still feels emotional when he thinks back to his performance at the Olympic final in London.
Clarke, whose ancestor Julian Roosevelt won a sailing gold medal at the 1952 Olympics, ran a personal best of 13.31 seconds in his semi-final to qualify as the fastest loser.
Commentator Steve Cram described his performance as a “real coming of age” while Jackson said it was a “tremendous job”.
“I didn’t know what to feel,” says Clarke. “I saw the results come up and I collapsed on the floor and sat there thinking it was like a dream that had come true. It is a moment I will never forget.
“You don’t perceive it to be an event of that importance when you are doing it, it is only afterwards that you think, ‘I was in an Olympic final’ and that opportunity to compete in a home Olympics will never happen again in my lifetime.
“The experience of competing at a home games and being in that final will be worth more than winning at Rio. I felt like I was riding a wave.”
Clarke says he was inspired to do his best after being swept up in the spirit of “super Saturday” when Team GB won three gold medals within the space of an hour. He watched Mo Farah win the men’s 10,000m and Jessica Ennis-Hill win the women’s heptathlon from inside the Olympic stadium but it was the gold medal awarded to his childhood friend Greg Rutherford in the long jump which left a lasting impression.
He says: “I didn’t want to go to the stadium before I raced because I didn’t want to become used to the atmosphere but the experience of that evening left me so hooked that I didn’t want to leave.
“Greg winning Olympic gold really inspired me. It was a big moment to see someone of my age who I have known for a long time do the best he possibly could. I told myself that I would come back in four days’ time and make sure people I ran a personal best.”
His other highlights from the Olympics include the victory parade through London.
“There were well over a million people in the streets and it was 40 or 50 people deep at some points,” recalls Clarke. “Standing there on the stage, looking towards The Mall and seeing the crowds cheer, was very much like a dream.
“It is moments like that which make you feel proud of the hard work you put in and the way the Olympics can change your life forever. I made the decision to become an athlete when I was 18 and I can’t imagine a life without athletics. It has opened doors and it has made me a better person, in a way.”
Now Clarke is merely looking forward to returning to the track.
“I just want to get back to training,” he says. “There have been so many months where I haven’t been able to train and I don’t really like sitting around.” Roll on Rio.