James Rhodes looks ahead to the women’s 800m – an event that will see an incredible group of British athletes competing.

I genuinely believe the crop of British athletes getting ready to race over 800m and 1500m in Tokyo are the most exciting in a long time. All bases are covered; tactically astute runners, brave runners, gutsy runners. There are both new names and established faces, those with nothing to lose and, perhaps, those with everything to lose.

For 13 of the 15 middle distance athletes, Tokyo will be their first Olympics, including for the trio of women racing over 800m – Keely Hodgkinson, Jemma Reekie and Alex Bell. All three are in the form of their lives and I spoke exclusively to Keely before she headed to Japan, and also to Jemma from the Team GB training camp in Yokohama, about their seasons so far, expectations for Japan and what it means to be able to call yourself an Olympian.

Rising talent

Keely Hodgkinson is one athlete to have benefitted from the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. This year has been the one where the 19-year-old has become a household name in global athletics circles, and she heads to Tokyo with, for some people, a shot at a medal.

However, her breakthrough performances do not come as a surprise to those who have been following her career. Indeed, Keely’s talent and ability to deliver at Championship-level is nothing new. Whilst it was in winning the European Indoor Championships this March that she came to the attention of the mainstream athletics audience, her performances at age-group competitions are just as noteworthy.

She took gold at the European U18 Championships in Gyor (Hungary) in 2018, setting a new PB and Championship Record of 2:04.84 in the process, winning by a margin of over a second. A year later she took bronze at the European Athletics U20 Championships in Sweden with 2:03.40, another lifetime best. I asked Keely whether, just two years ago, she ever imagined that she would be preparing for her first Olympic Games, and even being touted as a potential medallist:

“No, definitely not! If you’d said to me two years ago ‘in two years’ time you’re going to go to the Olympics’, I’d have said ‘no way, absolutely not!’. I was a 2:03 800m runner back then, I was no way near the standard! But luckily with the support I have around me and my coach, they have really brought me on as an athlete, so I am very happy”.

Credit: James Rhodes

Fast Running (Literally)

Such is the quality of her performances in 2021, it is hard to know where to start in mentioning some of the highlights. Her first race of the year, an 800m at the Vienna Indoor Classic, was perhaps a sign of what was to come. She set a new World U20 Record of 1:59.03 (a mark that was ratified by World Athletics just this week), a time that only three British athletes have ever bettered indoors.

Her outdoor season debut over two laps was equally as impressive, running 1:58.89 to win at the famed Ostrava Golden Spike, a near three second improvement on her previous outdoor best. This was followed up with a debut in the Diamond League and a British Championships title (and guaranteed Olympic spot), before improving further to 1:57.51 at the Stockholm Diamond League, a race she told me she hoped would be fast.

That put her third on the British all-time list behind Kelly Holmes and Kirsty Wade, although Laura Muir and Jemma Reekie moved ahead following 1:56 performances at the Monaco Diamond League. These times, as hugely impressive as they are, have not come as a surprise to the athlete herself:

“I think my coach and I knew I was capable of those times. Looking back at last year, I feel I didn’t quite get to show time-wise in my races what I could do. Obviously there was lockdown and it was a really tough year for everyone, but I think that is why there has been such a big jump in my times from 2:01 to 1:58. I really worked hard last winter, I wanted to try my absolute best to get here regardless of whether I did it or not.

I think I thought it [making the Olympics] was a realistic aim after running the 1:59 this year, and this season is going ok so I’ve just carried on!” Describing 2021 as ‘going ok’ is one of the bigger understatements I have heard in the athletics world!

Under Pressure

As an athlete, running fast times is often followed by an expectation from the outside to constantly perform, least of all at the biggest competition there is. However, the level of maturity Keely shows in approaching the races that she faces in the coming days, is remarkable for someone of her age; let’s not forget, she is too young to have been eligible to compete at this year’s European U23 Championships.

“I think there might be some pressure, but I have quite high expectations of myself. I do want to be in that Olympic final, but in terms of pressure I sometimes think you can just put that upon yourself. Other people may say things, but it doesn’t matter what they think – it’s all about what you want to do and how you want to approach it. I’m just looking forward to giving it my all and hopefully coming back with something good”.

Training Partnership

I have no doubt that this maturity is, at least in part, thanks to the formidable partnership she has with her coach, Trevor Painter, and his wife, Jenny Meadows. A 1:57.90 800m runner, Jenny’s incredible career included racing at the 2008 Olympics and taking bronze at the 2009 World Championships. I asked Keely just how valuable it is to have such extensive experience, expertise and wisdom readily available:

“Jenny is great. We discuss it together but she kind of just lets me do what I want, really! She trusts my instincts and my racing brain; I’ll say to her, ‘if I think this will happen [in the race], I’ll do this and this’ and she’ll say ‘I agree, you do that!’. Of course, she has lots to input, and I’m really grateful to have her in my corner and in my team. It couldn’t be any better of a set up, I don’t think”.

Jenny Meadows, 2014 Sainsbury’s British Championships. Photo: Simon Balson / Alamy Stock Photo

Superb Scot

I mentioned that three Brits had bettered Keely’s 1:59.03 indoors; the athlete at the top of that list is Jemma Reekie, thanks to her simply incredible 1:57.91, a time that no one else has come within half a second of, and a performance she did not better outdoors until this month (more on that later). She may be four years older than Keely but Tokyo will also be Jemma’s first Olympic experience, and the opportunity is something she is relishing:

“It took a while for me to believe that I was actually going to the Olympics! I’m just so excited to be here. From a very young age I’ve wanted to run at the Olympics and it feels like it has been ten years in the making”.

A torchbearer in 2012 (“it was a huge thing for me, I remember the day so well and after doing it really made me want to go to an Olympics”), it’s been quite a journey for the 23 year old through the sport, a large proportion of which has been spent with training partner Laura Muir and coach Andy Young, a partnership that has reaped plenty of rewards:

“Andy’s an amazing coach and he does very well to put us in positions that we can perform to our best no matter what. He’s very good at planning and trying new things and preparing us to be the best we can in any conditions or situation”.

Strong Performances

Indeed, racing to deal with any situation is something Jemma has shown an ability for in 2021. This year she has raced nine times over 800m and has not finished outside the top two in any of those races. In all bar one, her outdoor season opener in Oregon in April, she has run 2:01 or quicker, something she had only done twice prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her run up to the Olympics culminated with an incredible 1:56.93 clocking at the Monaco Diamond League three weeks ago, coming second a shade behind her training partner Laura Muir (“a huge confidence boost, I’ve never been through the bell so fast, or when I have I’ve died off”).

It is a time that only four athletes have bettered in 2021 and puts her third on the British all-time list behind Laura and Kelly Holmes. Naturally, it has helped to cement her belief that breaking the British Record is firmly within her ability:

“It’s definitely been on my mind for the past two years. It’s something that I would really love to do, but you’ve got to respect how well Kelly has run; she ran it in an Olympic final and she won gold – she was an amazing athlete”.

Student of the Sport

Her love of the sport, both as an athlete and fan, have put Jemma in a good position when it comes to preparing for races, whilst also making sure to take in a relaxed approach to each race as it comes, particularly for her first Olympics:

“I watch a lot of different races. I’ve watched every distance race from London 2012 from 800m to 10000m, male and female. That’s the first Olympics I remember. I’m always watching athletics and I’m always trying to learn. To me, it’s not really studying or work, I just stick athletics on and watch it with my family, who love watching it as well. I just enjoy the athletics and am learning at the same time. I’ve just been athletics crazy since a young age! I’m always trying to guess what people’s strengths are and if they’ve gone too early or left it too late. I’m trying to learn as much as I can, especially ahead of this year”.

However, she is keen to stress that, whilst she has high expectations for the trio of British girls racing over 800m in Tokyo, this does not mean she is able to fully predict what will happen come race day in Japan:

“All the British girls should be aiming to reach the podium, we’re all up there and we could all do it. Everyone on the start line deserves to be up there, it’s just who can do it on the day. You never know until you’re in the race and see what happens, because every race is different.

I think I’m very well known for just running and not thinking about much. I don’t think about splits, I don’t look at the clock, I just run. I’m trying to learn to be more patient and stay relaxed, and I really feel that over the past year or so I’ve really been relaxing into my races and feel comfortable”.

Credit: James Rhodes

Olympic Experiences

An Olympics offers plenty to experience beyond an individual’s race, especially for two athletes making their debut. Getting to support her teammates is one thing that Keely is much looking forward to in her Japanese adventure, alongside the new name that comes with such an experience:

“I think just being able to say you’re an Olympian is kind of cool! I am looking forward to wearing the kit and just seeing what the others in the team will do. We’ve got such a strong team going out, especially over the middle distances.

I can’t wait to watch Dina do her thing in the sprints and relays, and even the other events like swimming and gymnastics. I’m looking forward to getting to know other people as well and seeing everyone else’s sports”. Jemma echoed similar sentiments:

“I’m just really excited as it’s a whole new experience for me. I’ve never been at a competition with so many different sports, the only competition I’ve been to with other sports is the UK School Games which was a long, long time ago! I’m just excited to learn about other sports whilst I’m here as well”.

Both may be looking forward to other races and sports, but I am very much looking forward to seeing how her races over two laps unfold. The 800m heats take place from 02:25 on Friday morning. Keely goes in Heat 4 (02:49), Alex in Heat 5 (02:57) and Jemma in Heat 6 (03:05). Semi-finals are at 12:50 on Saturday, and the final 13:25 on Tuesday 3rd August.