When Eilish McColgan won gold for Scotland at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, there were poignant scenes as she ran to the crowd draped in the Saltire, tearfully flinging her arms around her mum.
Not only had she emulated Liz’s 10,000-metres wins in the 1986 and 1990 Games, she set a Commonwealth Games record of 30 minutes 48.60 seconds for her first major title, breaking her mum’s 32-year mark.
But in an interview with The Courier ahead of new documentary Eilish McColgan: Running in the Family, Eilish has revealed that amid the cacophony of noise, it was the screaming of lifelong Dundee friend and team mate Jenny Selman, who grew up in Fife, that stood out as she crossed the finish line.
“It’s surreal watching it back in the documentary and just seeing all these strangers going crazy for you in the crowd,” said Eilish.
“It wasn’t until after I crossed the finish line that I had that realisation of ‘oh my God yeah my family are here.
“They’ve witnessed this. They’ve seen it happen!’
“That was really really special. Especially for my mum.
“But it was actually my friend Jenny’s voice that I heard out of all those thousands of people in the stands.
“I just heard her absolutely screaming for me.
“We’ve been friends for a long time.
“She was at Dundee Hawkhill Harriers with myself as kids.
“She had also qualified for her first ever Commonwealth Games, and we were sharing a little apartment together.
“It was like being back at (Dundee) uni together too, because we lived together when we were at uni.
“When I turned round she was standing right next to my mum and they were both crying.
“Running over to them is a memory that will last a long, long time.”
‘Tough couple of weeks’ for Eilish McColgan and the family
The documentary charts Eilish as she follows in the footsteps of her legendary Olympic hero mum Liz.
It focuses on Eilish’s ambition to break her mother’s marathon record, despite injuries, media pressure and self-doubt.
Eilish admits, however, that it’s been a “tough couple of weeks” following the sudden death of her stepfather John Nuttall aged just 56.
The Olympic long-distance runner, who married Eilish’ mum in 2014, passed away on November 9 after suffering a heart attack.
John had been coaching in Qatar as the head athletics coach at the Aspire Institute in Doha for the past few years after hanging up his spikes.
Eilish, who attended John’s funeral in Preston on Friday November 24, said it can be “quite a difficult process” when someone dies abroad trying to get their body back to the UK.
However, her mum had some really good friends in Qatar and the Qatari government were “incredible” at trying to make that process go as smoothly as possible.
“It’s obviously quite devastating news for my mum and certainly for his family as well,” said Eilish.
“It’s come as a really big shock to everyone.
“Maybe it’s not quite sunk in yet for my mum.
“It’s going to take a big adjustment.
“But my mum is a strong character.”
‘Emotional’ watching first edit of the documentary together
While much of the documentary charts events before Liz and John got together, Eilish is glad that she managed to watch the first edit of it with John, her mum, and athlete partner Michael Rimmer, just a week or so before John passed.
She said watching it was “actually really emotional” – especially for her mum who got upset.
“I think just seeing some really old footage of herself and even me as a baby and me as a teenager,” said Eilish.
“We’d never seen any of those interviews and stuff before.
“Also seeing my grandparents. My grandad had obviously passed away a long time ago.
“It was emotional for all of us, almost seeing them alive again.
“At the end of it my mum came over and gave me a big hug and John gave me a big hug as well, so that’s the memory that’ll stay with me for a very long time.”
Does Eilish McColgan think she was ‘born to run’?
Less than a year later, in 1991, Liz celebrated her own gold-medal victory, winning the 10,000m at the World Championships in Tokyo.
However, Eilish insists it wasn’t written in the stars that she was born to run.
She has three brothers and a sister and none of them are athletes.
In fact, two of them “absolutely hate” athletics, she laughs.
What are Eilish McColgan’s earliest athletics memories?
One of Eilish’s earliest memories is sports day at Panbride Primary School in Carnoustie.
As well as running, she loved the sack race and the egg and spoon race.
However, the first ‘big race’ she remembers was the Angus schools cross-country primary schools championship around Arbroath High School, about the time she started at Dundee High School.
She “absolutely loved it”.
That was when someone from the Dundee Hawkhill Harriers asked her to go along to the club.
“I remember thinking ‘oh my God’, I felt like I was being scouted, when actually they just asked the top 15, 20 kids to go along to the club,” she laughs.
“But it felt really special. It felt like a big event, a big deal.
“That’s when I asked my mum to take me along to the Dundee Hawkhill Harriers.
“It was me and my wee pal Ian. I stuck at it. Ian quit after a couple of months.
“My mum then coached me from then on in.”
What benefits did Dundee Hawkhill Harriers bring Eilish McColgan?
Eilish loved being part of the Dundee Hawkhill Harriers.
She describes it as “one big family” and maintains really good friends there to this day.
She doesn’t remember there being expectation from her mum to reach elite level.
However, she does remember the reaction of others when she ran a cross-country race aged 13 and finished sixth or seventh.
The parents of a child who finished ahead of her started “huge celebrations”, declaring: “oh you beat McColgan, I can’t believe you beat McColgan!”
“That was the first time I maybe had a realisation that I had a target on my back,” said Eilish, who remembers being “confused” when children flocked around her mum to get autographs when she was still at primary school.
She added: “It probably wasn’t until I got into high school that I started to realise what my mum had achieved, what she’d done.
“Because she never had medals around the house or trophies or anything. My parents never pushed it”.
When did she realise she could pursue an athletics career?
Eilish studied maths and accountancy at Dundee University because she “wanted to do something that wasn’t sports”.
At that time, she wasn’t at the level to make a career out of sport.
Then, around 2011 with a year to go until the London 2012 Olympics, something inside her told her to “give it a go”.
She stopped partying, started looking after herself, and within a year she’d qualified for the Olympic Games.
As her career “snowballed”, she took a break from Dundee University with the intention of going back to do her honours year.
While that never happened, it was a “real honour” to receive an honorary degree from her alma mater last November.
What inspires Eilish McColgan to support young athletes in Dundee?
Eilish remains proud of her home city, her roots and understands the power of sport.
That’s why she and her partner Michael founded Giving Back to Track – a not-for-profit organisation that aims to inspire children from all backgrounds to enjoy athletics.
“Giving Back to Track is something I’m really really passionate about,” she said.
“I’m well aware that my upbringing was entirely different to my mum’s.
“I was given every opportunity to reach the top of sport.
“My mum certainly wasn’t.
“She had her struggles to make it that far.
“She relied on the generosity of others whether it was a volunteer coach giving her second hand spikes or driving her to the local cross country or whatever it was.
“My partner Michael has been through the exact same.
“He relied on his dad.
“His dad brought him up on his own so he’s had to rely on handouts and generosity of other people too.
“And yet he’s gone on to three Olympic Games himself, being national champion and winning European medals.
“I just know one small opportunity can make a real big difference to peoples’ lives within sport.
“It’s not even about finding the next Mo Farah or Jess Ennis.
“It’s really just giving people the chance to stay active, keep fit.”
Bursaries available through Dundee Hawkhill Harriers
Eilish says there’s a “real mix” of people at Hawkhill Harriers.
They’ve not all gone on to compete in the Olympics.
But every single one of them still enjoys running.
“That was of real importance for me,” she added.
“To have a free athletics club in Dundee for school kids, primary school kids, so they could just try it without any financial obligation or stress on the family.
“And if they really enjoy it, I have five bursaries at the Dundee Hawkhill Harriers that covers their track and club fees.
“It’s something that I’m really passionate about and I’d like to continue to build as I retire, whenever I choose to do that.”
What are her hopes for 2024 and beyond?
She’d also like to target a marathon to try and beat her mum’s record there.
However, beyond that, she hasn’t ruled out having a family of her own one day.
“We’ve not decided just yet what our plans are,” she said.
“But it’s good to know you don’t have to put your career on pause to have a family.
“My mum managed it, and other women have managed it.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, it will be our decision.”
When to see Eilish McColgan’s BBC Scotland documentary
Eilish McColgan: Running in the Family broadcasts at 10pm on Thursday November 30 and at 7pm on Monday December 4 on the BBC Scotland channel.
It’ll also be available on BBC iPlayer.