Tomorrow afternoon, a bit of history will be made. If your name starts with a J and you are in the Great Britain athletics squad in Tokyo, there is a high probability you’ll find yourself on the start line of the Olympic 1500m final.
In a field including World Champion Timothy Cheruiyot, new Olympic Record holder Abel Kipsang, Stewart McSweyn and Norwegian star Jakob Ingebrigtsen, it will not be an easy race. But with three Brits in the form of their life joining them in Jake Wightman, Josh Kerr and Jake Heyward, anything is possible.
It’s the first time it’s happened in my lifetime and I am incredibly excited to see how the three and three-quarter laps will unfold.
For all three, Tokyo is their first Olympic experience and I got to speak to Jake, Josh and Jake before the Games began, and they shared their Olympic goals, expectations and thoughts on the season so far.
For Jake Heyward, Tokyo is not just his first Olympic Games, it is his first major championships.
For those who have followed his career it is the most welcome of achievements after a running journey that has cruelly been hampered by Achilles problems with the 21-year-old running only three races in 2020.
However, 2021 has been a step-change season for the Welshman, and this return is something to which he credits his coach Mark Rowland of the Oregon Track Club:
“I was really struggling with injuries for the past year and a half. I actually missed all of my winter preparation, I was in a boot, but the fact that Mark was able to get me in shape in the amount of time we had is really remarkable to be honest. I owe a lot to Mark”.
His season started with an improvement to his three-year-old 1500m PB in May (3:36.24). However, it was two weeks later that he ran the race of his life to shatter his lifetime best with 3:33.99 at the Portland Track Festival.
That time also bettered Neil Horsfield’s 1990 Welsh Record and saw him go over a second under the Olympic qualifying standard. Naturally, it was a relief and also confidence boost:
“Getting the time was going to be the biggest challenge, and also finding a race where I was going to get a pacemaker or other athletes looking for the time. I remember standing on the start line in Portland; I just looked across the line and thought I can’t rely on anyone else to take it on and do the work, so I fully accepted that I had to get after it and luckily it paid off. It felt good!
The best part about my racing is at Championships. I’ve always felt confident in Championships, so for me it was a feeling of if I can get the time, then I think I will be fine”.
Waiting to hear about tickets for the plane
A third-place finish at the British Championships meant a nervous wait to find if he would be going to Tokyo, but his determination to get through the lowest points and to return from injury was all made worthwhile through one phone call.
“I think in this sport you get a lot of lows. Those days when you don’t want to get up in the morning, you’ve got to go aqua jogging in a pool and stare at a wall for 45 minutes, it’s not great. But when you get to something like the Olympics, it makes it all worthwhile”.
His last race before Tokyo, a fine second at the Emsley Carr Mile in Gateshead to set another lifetime best and Welsh Record (3:52.40) confirmed Jake to be in fine form. He has shown his racing maturity and ability in Japan, winning his heat (3:36.14) and finishing sixth in his semi-final (3:32.82) to take a non-automatic qualifying spot in the final.
That time is a new PB and Welsh Record. Whilst the general narrative has seen Jake considered the underdog of the British trio, he is certainly not someone I’d discount if I was one of the 14 others standing on that Olympic final start line.
How to Better One Jake? With Two!
Jake Wightman is no stranger to a Great Britain vest. His CV includes two World Championships, two European Championships (taking bronze in 2018) and two Commonwealth Games (with another bronze in 2018).
However, Tokyo is his first Olympics, following in the footsteps of his mum Susan Tooby (who finished 12th in the marathon in Seoul in 1988). His spot was guaranteed thanks to a second-place finish at the British Championships, which was followed by an overwhelming feeling of relief before the excitement kicked in:
“The main feeling was one of relief. If I didn’t end up coming here it would have been a huge disappointment for me. So rather being ecstatic about it, I rather expected in myself that this is how the season should go. I did everything I could to make sure I would be in Tokyo.
Everybody as a kid wants to go to an Olympics, but you don’t actually think it’s going to happen because the percentage chances just end up not being in your favour. It you told yourself as a kid you’d go to an Olympic Games, you’d be absolutely buzzing, and I think the better you get and the closer you get to it, it goes from being a dream to be something where you think ‘now I need to make the most of the opportunity I have in this sport’.
You just have to go for it, because you only get it every four years, don’t you? So the pressure is really on when it comes around. It’s going to be exciting, there’s no reason why I can’t be challenging for a medal”.
A great build-up for Wightman
It’s been a good 12 months for the Scot, with the crowing moment his 3:29.47 1500m at last summer’s Monaco Diamond League. A track famed for its ability to conjure up magical middle distance performances, that time was a Scottish Record and second on the British all-time list behind Mo Farah.
A quieter 2021 than some others, his season has included wins over 800m at the European Team Championships and 1500m at the FBK Games in Hengelo, his first win at the distance in a number of years (when you exclude championship heats).
The Olympic experience is something Jake has been looking forward to:
“I’m just excited. I’m looking forward to being able to say I’ve been to an Olympic Games and I just want to make the most of the opportunity. I don’t know if I’ll get to go to another one, I hope I will, but you’ve got to take the opportunity when it’s here. The way I’m running, I feel this is a chance to make it a good one”.
A good one it certainly is! His two races so far have not disappointed, with a 3:41.18 in the heats before winning his semi-final in 3:33.48, his fastest of the year and ahead of World Champion Timothy Cheriyout.
He will be joined by his Edinburgh AC clubmate Josh Kerr. The two raced each other since they were children, and in their senior career have been incredibly closely matched in their head-to-heads. In fact, they have finished within 1.5 seconds of each other in nine of their ten track races against each other.
Does this add an extra element to the Olympic experience?
“It’s mad. For there to be two of us at an Olympic Games, it’s pretty cool. It is definitely exciting. There’s a lot of other people to think about in a race, but when you know that there is somebody from your own country and club running that well, it kind of makes you think, if Josh is running that well then I can also be competitive with him, and why can’t I be at the front of the race in an Olympic final if that’s where he’s going to be.
I don’t know that it’s quite like Coe and Ovett yet because we’ve not done anywhere near the same stuff, but if we can keep coming out and racing as well as we are and push each other to run quick, then hopefully we can be challenging British Records and challenging getting medals. That’s what I am sure both of us want and is something we are capable of as well”.
Whilst the vast majority are experiencing the Olympics from the comfort of their sofas, Jake is in a lucky position to have his dad Geoff, himself an accomplished athlete, in Tokyo as one of the in-stadium commentators. I asked Jake whether this helps him when it comes to the biggest races of his life:
“It’s the norm now because he seems to be at everything! It’s nice knowing that he’ll be out there because a lot of people won’t have the chance to have their coach in the stadium. It’s cool, if I run well it’s nice because he is part of that moment which special. Hopefully I can run well because it would be a pretty nice moment for him to be part of. Medalling in the Gold Coast, that was pretty special for him to be calling that race.
I still find it mad that it’s an all-Japanese crowd but they’ve still got him as the announcer, so I don’t know how good his Japanese is going to be!” [When we spoke, the restriction on all fans hadn’t been announced].
Eyes on the Prize
Josh Kerr completes the trio of British athletes that will be on the starting line on Saturday, and he has clear goals of what he wants to achieve from the experience.
Josh’s approach and his season has not been, shall we say, conventional, but it certainly works.
Prior to the British Championships, he had run only two 1500m, one being his 3:31.55 PB in Portland in June. Prior to that, he ran a 1:45.74 800m lifetime best followed by a 13:23.78 5000m just five days later as a way of testing both his speed and endurance.
He clearly has both, shown by his versality when it comes to racing over 1500m. Since taking the British Championship title at the end of June, Prior to heading to Japan, Josh spent some time at altitude in Albuquerque and at sea level in Los Angeles with his Brooks Beast clubmates to try and be in the best position possible for the most important race of his life:
Preparing in your own way
“The best way to describe what I am doing is learning from my past Championships and past experiences with build ups and camps. For me, I really like being with my girlfriend and at my own house, in my own environment where I can control things. Being in Albuquerque really helps that and I respond really well with altitude.
UKA have been really good with it, they’ve let me have a more flexible schedule to allow me to come to the Olympics as ready as I can be”.
Josh is not shy in setting out his goals, ambitions and motivations for his first Olympics. So much so, there is little need for me to add much more beyond his own words:
“The goal was always to make it to Tokyo and hopefully come into form going into Tokyo. The goal at the start of the year, when we didn’t know if the Olympics was going to happen, was to run sub-3:30 and try to get the British Record. I was like, why don’t we still have that goal? So, for me, the goal is to try and run sub-3:30 in the Olympic final because that is what is going to get me on the podium.
I look no further than August 7th. My year will probably end on that date because every day I am throwing my whole life at this date. This has been a build up since I was nine years old, for this specific situation and race. I want to throw every single thing that I’ve got at it.
I’m here to win medals
My main focus as an athlete is to get medals. I’m not here to run fast times, I’m not here to race a million times a year and all that stuff. I’m here to get medals, and for me to do that I need to run sub-3:30 in the Olympic final I believe. If it’s a tactical race it’s different, but I need to be in that shape to be able to medal.
The major championships is where I live, this is where peak, what I live for. I’m coming into some phenomenal shape, I’m putting myself in the best position I can to go and add to the medal tally for Team GB and hopefully I do that in style.
I never dreamed about going to an Olympic Games or being an Olympic finalist, I dreamed about being an Olympic gold medallist and that is who I am and that’s how I work; if I am not the best of the best then what is the point in doing it?
I’m just excited to go out and showcase what I have. Someone is going to have to win that race, so why not me? I believe I am one of the best in the world and I’m doing to put my nose in it, for sure”.
Toeing the line with your club mate
Of course, if I was going to ask Jake to share his thoughts on racing Josh, it was only fair to do the same to Josh. He was, as you might expect, full of admiration for an athlete he has raced for over half his life.
“Jake is an unbelievable athlete and I have the upmost respect for him. I love racing him because he is difficult to race against. I’m sure he’d say the exact same thing about me. I do enjoy our battles and it’s always exciting racing against him, and that goes back to the early years of our careers. It is really nice that is has come around full circle and we are making teams together.
In this sport, where there’s a lot of question marks around people when they are running really well, it’s nice to have someone that you know from a young age and is just an honest, hard working and really inspiring athlete right next to you.
I am also very excited for Jake Heyward to be on the team. Even if he doesn’t do as well as he wants to do, the experience he’s going to take from this [as his first major championships] is going to be second to none and I am very excited to have him on the team”.
It has scope to be one of the most exciting races of the Olympics, and takes place at 12:40 UK time. Don’t miss it.