From Parkrun to Paris: British athlete, 30, targets Olympics after stunning run in Bushy Park

Georgia Bell smiles at the camera after winning the 1500m at the UK Indoor Championships in Birmingham in February
Georgia Bell enjoys the moment after winning the 1500m at the UK Indoor Championships in Birmingham in February - Getty Images/Nathan Stirk

It is exactly a year since Georgia Bell, a full-time cyber security expert, decided to test out her fitness by joining the Parkrun at Bushy Park near to her south London home.

Yes, she had the pedigree of an English schools national 800 metres title in the distant past but, ahead of her 30th birthday, was far more serious about riding her bike and duathlon (in which she has won a world age-group title) than competitive athletics.

Yet a time over the 5km Parkrun distance of just over 16 minutes came as a pleasant surprise and so she sent off a speculative message to her former athletics coach, Trevor Painter, to see whether he might be again interested in mentoring her.

Twelve months on and Bell is not just the most unlikely inclusion in Great Britain’s squad for the World Indoor Athletics Championships that begin in Glasgow on Friday, but is targeting both a medal and a place this summer at the Paris Olympics.

“It was good old Parkrun,” she says. “I just did a Parkrun, ran about 16 and a half minutes and thought, ‘That was kind of a decent time for just me going out for runs and cycles on my own’. I had got back into running and cycling through the lockdown period.

“The Parkrun was Bushy Park, on the grass. I took it to Trevor, said, ‘I just ran this on my own without following a plan, what do you think about working together?’ I think he was happy.

“I had thought I would never step on a track again. Then we started incorporating some speed training, which Trevor focusses on a lot, and I’ve just seen a really big impact very quickly. My PB is now down to 4min 3sec [from 4min 16sec last July]. And we have the whole summer to get it down further.”

Gold medallist Georgia Bell of Great Britain crosses the line in the Women's 1500m Final during day two of the 2024 Microplus UK Athletics Indoor Championships in Birmingham on February 18, 2024
Bell crosses the line in the 1500m final at the UK Indoor Championships in Birmingham - Getty Images/Nathan Stirk

Bell will run over 1500m this week but the very fact that she still has no idea exactly where her Olympic dream will focus from 800m all the way up to 5000m underlines just how extraordinary her comeback is.

Painter, who is married to the former European champion Jenny Meadows and also coaches the reigning Olympic 800m silver medallist Keely Hodgkinson, is also uncertain, although we do know that he had always previously seen Bell as “the one who got away”.

“What Trevor always says to me before I start is, ‘Go and have some fun kid’, so that’s what I try to do,” says Bell, whose father is the Channel 5 News political editor Andy Bell.

“They have a really fantastic mix of very high quality and professional training plans that really work… but it is also a really fun culture. Trevor is a bit of a joker. We have Trevor as the main coach but then Jenny [Meadows] has been through it all before. I think the duo of them together gives it a family feel.”

Bell had first left Painter’s training group when she was offered a place to study at the University of California, Berkeley in 2015. She had intended to continue her athletics career but was unsuited to the emphasis on a high volume of miles in Berkeley and became frequently injured.

She was also studying for a Masters degree in political science and, with her athletics moving into the background, began working in the technology hub of San Francisco before joining London-based firms that tackle cyber attacks.

‘It would be a big deal to walk away from my job’

She now combines what is a 9-5 job with early morning and evening training sessions that still include around 100 miles on the bike each week. Recent training camps at high altitude in South Africa with Hodgkinson in the Painter/Meadows group have had to be taken as holiday and a big decision clearly awaits ahead of the Olympics.

“We use machine learning and AI to plug into organisations and see how they are getting hacked basically,” she says. “So it’s very interesting – we work with companies all over the world. A lot of times companies come to us after they have a cyber attack, they get funding and need to get something in to protect themselves. It can be reactive or proactive but we try to be proactive.

“It’s a booming business, so it would be a big deal to walk away from it, but obviously the opportunity is very unique this year with Paris. It’s a lot to manage certainly. Things might change going up into the summer…but, at the moment, it’s just a big juggling act to make it all happen.”

And how has she found training up close with Hodgkinson, the reigning European champion, and one of the favourites this summer for Olympic 800m gold?

“It’s incredibly inspiring to see what she has achieved, and really motivating as well if you can be in the mix in training sessions,” says Bell.

“There will be a bit of experimenting over the next few months. We weren’t expecting to see the amount of improvement that we have had in such a short time. I’m definitely going to be aiming to go to the Olympics.

“If you asked me four months ago I’d never have thought that. Now I feel like the goalposts are really changing.

“I have got good momentum and, because I am coming into it fresh again, I’m so grateful to have a second shot. It is bringing a really good perspective to races.

“I’m just seizing every opportunity. A medal [this weekend] is something I would be aiming for.”

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