By Oli Dickson Jefford, Sportsbeat
Keely Hodgkinson’s first coach vividly remembers the first time she ever laid eyes on her.
Leigh Harriers stalwart Margaret Galvin, alongside her late husband Joe, has decades of experience of working at the famed athletics club, nurturing generations of young talent that have gone on to compete to the very highest level.
But her initial sighting of a nine-year-old Hodgkinson, now 21, just over a decade ago left a distinct impression that made Galvin convinced that she and her husband had a future star on their hands.
“She started in a school’s primary cross country race, that’s where I spotted her,” said Galvin, speaking from an event at the National Lottery-funded club on Friday morning.
“Then she joined Leigh Harriers and the rest is well-documented!
“She was just quicker than everybody else. She was just such a good, all-round athlete - you could see that from the way she ran. She was just so, so good. She was a very chatty, easy-going young lady, a very good trainer but also so competitive, none better really.
“When I first saw her I was compelled, I thought ‘I must do something, I must get this girl to join us - I can see that she’s going to be great.’
“She also had an interest in swimming; she was, and still is, a good swimmer. She would do sessions with her swimming club, and then come here and do some sessions with us.
“We won in the end, she decided to take up the running and fall back a little bit in the swimming.”
Leigh Harriers is just one of many clubs across the country to have benefitted from National Lottery funding, with players transforming athletics and para-athletics in the UK with more than £300million invested – at all levels – since National Lottery funding began.
The past three seasons have seen Hodgkinson’s potential come to the forefront, now one of the most recognisable and popular athletes in British sport after a run of continued medal-winning success.
Aged only 21, she already has Olympic, world and Commonwealth silver medals to her name, while she is a three-time European champion across indoor and outdoor competitions - and a British record holder.
And Hodgkinson’s major medals help make up more than 600 in athletics and para-athletics since National Lottery funding began, with those playing helping fund training facilities and camps, coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists, and psychologists, enabling our athletes to be the best they can be.
Her meteoric rise may be a surprise to some but never to Galvin, who at times was overwhelmed by the potential she saw day after day on the track.
“It’s been brilliant. It’s just something that was always going to happen. I could see that, she was just such a precocious talent,” added Galvin.
“Around the age of 12 or 13 it was obvious that she had this talent that had to be not used up in her youth, not over-trained, not overused, just managed really and not be so excited about her that we would put her off or burn her out.
“In fact, I used to worry if I was up to the job of dealing with Keely. It made me nervous. I guessed that she would be great - but could I do her justice, could I get her there? It was a big responsibility and I always thought that way.
“I didn’t approach things flippantly, it was a real responsibility for me.”
After defending her European Indoor title earlier this season, Hodgkinson paid tribute to Margaret's late husband, who had passed away just days before the meet, by completing her lap of honour with a flag emblazoned with his name.
She still holds an incredibly strong connection with Leigh Harriers, wearing their colours when it comes to domestic meets and events across the country.
This weekend many predict that Hodgkinson will claim the biggest title of her career of her date, a first global gold at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest.
Whether or not she is able to usurp the likes of longtime adversary Athing Mu this weekend or at the Olympics next summer remains to be seen, but Galvin believes perhaps more than anyone that a golden future awaits for her former prodigy.
She added: “She has always had the vision that she wanted to run in the Olympic Games - which she realised in Tokyo - and this has always been her dream, her destiny. I am sure that when it comes to Paris, hopefully she’ll turn that silver into gold.
“She’s got years yet, she’s only 21, and she’s got quite a few Olympics that she can potentially compete in. I don’t think there’s any stopping her really.
“Keely is the best competitor that I’ve ever seen.”
National Lottery players raise more than £30million a week for good causes including vital funding into sport – from grassroots to elite. Find out how your numbers make amazing happen at: www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk #TNLAthletes #MakeAmazingHappen #ThanksToYou