Former Olympian June on the joy of winning a medal

THE sudden Olympic spirit which gripped Britain this summer came as a surprise to most people. Overnight it seems, we were transformed from a country of mid-table performances and indifferent flag-waving to gladiatorial sporting achievements and fanatical

THE sudden Olympic spirit which gripped Britain this summer came as a surprise to most people. Overnight it seems, we were transformed from a country of mid-table performances and indifferent flag-waving to gladiatorial sporting achievements and fanatical screaming at the judo over our cornflakes.

However, one Hampstead woman felt it more than most. June Carroll, who under her maiden name of June Paul has her own collection of medals including some from the Olympics, isn't normally a good bystander.

"I don't normally watch, either in the stands or on the TV. I get itchy feet and I feel penned in - I want to be out there doing it," the 74-year-old laughs.

But this year, even she was pulled in by the magnetic allure of Beijing and Team GB's achievements.

"I put the telly on one morning and the sculling was on," she says with a slight Cockney twang. "I would normally switch it off but I stood in front of it. I was urging them on and I couldn't breathe with the tension.

"It was so close. My head was in my arms by the end and I had tears streaming down my face. It was an incredible reaction and I thought, boy - you never bloody lose it."

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Ms Carroll has certainly competed often enough to catch the bug. At 16 she was British champion and record holder for the 200 yards. In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics she won a bronze medal in the relay and a silver in Melbourne four years later.

In the 1958 Commonwealth Games her relay team won gold and broke the world record - just before she damaged her Achilles tendon and was forced to retire.

The success made her a superstar of almost modern day proportions.

"I was a big celebrity," she nods. "When I was 16 I used to have reporters coming to my door in Shepherds Bush and waiting."

"I wasn't butch or powerful but young, pretty and quite girly. We are talking 1950, so we were still in rationing and just coming out of the wartime black and grey. It made for good copy."

Her appearance now proves the heritage. British athletics' post-war poster girl has kept her beauty - with short dark hair and beguiling green eyes.

Tall and elegant, some decades on she still holds the posture of a track star. However, there's no pretence or ego - a sign of someone who had to make a life after fame.

She dresses with youthful kookiness and has a chaotic manner as she rushes around her South Hill Park home.

Poking fun at her current running ability, she smiles: "If pushed, I run for a bus, but oh my goodness me, I will pant and puff afterwards. I ain't young, so the fact that I'm moving at all surprises me."

However, underneath the modest, friendly exterior is a tangible steely resolve and self-assuredness, which has propelled her forward in life.

"Thousands of reasons made me an athlete and it has affected me all of my life," she admits. "Because of it, wherever I have been, I have always wanted to rise to the top."

Given how much the sport shaped her life, it is astounding how suddenly it all came about.

Picked up at 15 to make up the numbers for a female club, just a year later she was a British record holder.

"My school didn't do athletics, but I used to run around with the boys on my street and I was fast," she recalls.

"One day this woman came around on a bicycle asking for new recruits for Spartan Ladies. The boys told her to try my door. I went for a trial and they told me to run. Then they said, 'Whoops, I think we've got something here.'

"My grandmother wanted me to be a young lady and marry well. I did everything I was told, then it was like taking a cork out of the bottle and suddenly I was free - freedom to me was running. I swear there were times when my feet didn't touch the ground. It was a great feeling."

Carroll's Olympics of Helsinki and Melbourne were of course a million miles from the £20 billion Beijing games. And the Olympian feels the expansion has reduced some of the magic.

"It's another thing now and not what I experienced," she says.

"We didn't have 2000-odd fringe sports - we just had track and field and swimming.

"Now, my mind boggles. The girlie wins the 400m - what a fantastic performance - and then someone's picking up a gold medal for some fringey little thing like synchronised swimming or whatever it is. It's just so stupid and then they're doing a gold medal count, as though all the golds are of equal weight - but it doesn't work like that."

One thing that remains positive, according to Carroll, is the ability of the games to allow individuals to triumph against the odds.

Growing up from humble beginnings, she cared for her grandfather after her grandmother died. She had always believed them to be her parents but her mother was actually the woman she was told was her sister, who had died some years before.

She never paid attention at school, so running was the only outlet to fulfil her potential.

"Sport gives you a start, regardless of what your background is," she enthuses. "You don't have to be privileged to reach the top in the Olympics and this is the important thing which sets it apart from working, or from other measures we have for success."

For Carroll, now a grandmother of 13, sport stopped in 1958 but that "will to win", as she calls it, stayed in her life.

After divorcing her first husband, an Olympic fencer, she married 1960s pop star Ronnie Carroll, from whom she retains her name. When that marriage ended, she opened a burger bar in Camden Lock and it developed into the well-known Huffs restaurant chain.

At 60, she briefly became the owner of the Everyman cinema before returning to catering, which she still does now.

A fiercely independent spirit, she is hoping that her attitude is shared by the young people taking part in London 2012, and is optimistic about the potential for medals.

"The team is very strong and we have had fantastic results," she says. "It's great that so many young people are being encouraged into sport and are finding themselves and their confidence through it. That's the wonderful thing and I think 2012 will be very special for that reason.