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Team GB will feel pressure at Worlds, says Kwakye

February 20, 2017 in Interviews

This summer, five years after it hosted its third Olympic Games, London will stage the 16th World Athletics Championships – the first time the capital has staged the competition.

Former British 100m champion and Beijing 2008 Olympic finalist Jeanette Kwakye says the competition is a fantastic opportunity for British athletes, but will bring with it a unique set of challenges.

“It’s a rare opportunity to have the World Championships in your home country, for the British athletes it will mean everything, especially for those who missed out on London 2012,” said Kwakye, whose own chances of competing on home soil at the 2012 Games were ruined by injury.

“I don’t believe there will be as much excitement around the World Championship as there was for the Olympics, but for Team GB there will be pressure because it’s a home games.

“There’s more exposure and it’s easier for friends and family to watch, so it will feel the like stakes are a bit higher.”

‘Worlds are as tough as the Olympics’

The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games should have been the start of great things for Kwakye.

She was the only European to reach the 100m final, and the first British woman to do so since Heather Oakes in 1984.

“I believe the Worlds should be on the same level as the [football] World Cup”

Her sixth place finish was done in a personal best of 11.4sec, and she came home ahead of 2000 Olympic relay gold medallist Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie, and 2003 world champion Torri Edwards.

The future looked bright but, sadly, injuries kicked in with a vengeance after Beijing, and Achilles tendon problems forced her to miss the entire 2010 season.

The following year, the outlook was better, as she won the British 100m title, adding the British 60m indoor title in 2012, but as the London Olympics grew closer, injuries intervened once again, ruling her out of the Games, and in January 2014 she retired from competing altogether.

Athletics has always played a huge role at the Olympics, but at the World Championships it has the stage all to itself.  But in the eyes of many spectators, an Olympic athletics gold medal still seems to a higher prize than a world title.

Kwakye says this is partly down to the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) not making the best job of promoting the world championship as a truly global event.

Burnout

“Spectators hold the Olympics in higher regards because of its history,” she said. “I believe it should be on the same level as the World Cup.

“If you had a successful Olympic campaign, it can really push you on psychologically to continue the good form”

“World championships are tough – as tough as the Olympics, it’s just that the Olympics have more prestige, so any UK athletes being crowned world champion will be a big deal, especially if it’s a woman – we’ve never had a female sprint world champion.”

Athletes’ preparations for major tournaments happen in cycles, and with London 2017 taking place less than 12 months after Rio 2016, there is a risk athletes who competed in Brazil last summer may suffer physical or mental burnout trying to raise their game for another major tournament so soon.

“A lot of this is down to coaching and experience,” Kwakye said. “A younger robust athlete can carry over the training effect from the year before and will probably benefit.

“But those who are less robust will have to adapt their training in the winter months because it can be very stressful on the body and mind,” she said.

Experience

“Nerves and excitement always kicked in for me at the preparation camp. It takes place two weeks before a championships and is usually in close proximity, but with them being at home this time, it’s likely that British athletes will go somewhere warm abroad”.

“There needs to be more profiling of athletes in the media… once young people show an interest then corporate sponsors will take notice”

“Older athletes use their experience and you may find many of them will not go back in to training until November to December following an Olympics”.

“If you had a successful Olympic campaign, it can really push you on psychologically to continue the good form. On the flip side a terrible campaign can also drive the athlete to do better. A lot of it is down to individual personality.”

Despite her retirement in 2014, Kwakye remains the national 60m record holder and retains a close interest in Britain’s athletic stars of the future through her involvement in schemes such as the Youth Sport Trust.

With London 2017 just six months away, Kwakye says she would like to see the competition being given a higher media profile.

“There needs to be more profiling of athletes in the media,” she explained. “We need more engagement with education organisations and schools – once young people show an interest then people and corporates will take notice.”

Team GB: Ones to watch 

Whilst Team GB may not have many clear favourites to win at London 2017, Kwakye says there are certainly plenty of medal hopefuls to look out for.

“For British female sprinters, this year I think Desiree Henry in the 100m and 200m will be the standout athlete.

“Adam Gemili who runs the 100m and 200m has had a coaching move, so I will be keen to see what manifests,” she added.

“There is also Lorraine Ugen and Jaz Sawyers in the long jump, Laura Muir over the middle distance; I think they are the ones to look out for.

“I would like to see how Sophie Hitchon capitalises on her Olympic bronze medal in the women’s hammer throw, too.”

‘I can do greatness’ – Russell has eyes on the prize at London 2017

February 1, 2017 in Interviews

“I have to prove to myself that I cannot be defeated.”

It’s a bold statement, but Janieve Russell is simply sharing her ambition to one day dominate the 400m hurdles.

Jamaica’s 2012 world junior champion took another step on that path last summer, finishing seventh in the Olympic final in Rio.

At 23, she is aiming to improve on that placing at this year’s World Athletics Championships in London.

“I’m trying my best to stay injury-free because I know if I can stay healthy, I can be great,” she told me.

“I want to create history for my country. I want Jamaican fans at home and abroad to expect good things from me. I want to be on the podium like my track idols.

“London will be very different to Rio but I’m very excited. I think it’ll be awesome.”

Upgrade

The first glimpse of Russell’s potential came to light on her international debut at the 2008 Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) Games, where she won silver in the under-17 long jump.

“I found my switch to hurdles challenging but I love challenges”

A year later at the 2009 Games, she upgraded that to gold, as well as winning bronze in the high jump and golds in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays.

Her burgeoning talent was confirmed three years later at the 2012 World Junior Championships, where she won gold in what has become her main event, the 400m hurdles.

This saw her become only the second Jamaican woman to achieve this honour, the other being future Commonwealth gold medallist Kaliese Spencer.

Focus

However, the impact of competing in multiple events began to take its toll on Russell with a succession of injuries, and it was this that made her decide to focus on the hurdles.

“I noticed I was getting numerous injuries, more than what I am experiencing now,” explained the former pentathlete and heptathlete.

“There aren’t many programmes in Jamaica designed for multi-event athletes, they tend to focus on specifics things like sprints, hurdles and the quarter-mile.

“I found my switch to hurdles challenging but I love challenges. I feel it suits me. I can do greatness. I’m comfortable.”

Progress

Since committing to the hurdles, Russell has made steady progress, culminating in reaching the final in Rio.

She might not finished among the medals in Brazil, but she says the whole experience of being part of the Olympics was a huge learning process.

“In high school I was always watching the Games as an athlete but not thinking I would be there like them”

“As we know, before the rainbow there is always rain!” she laughed.

“I was very excited to be on the Jamaica team. Being the youngest in the finals in terms of experience, I took away the attitude of never giving up, no matter the situation or outcome – just keep pushing.

“The Olympics taught me you will have some people who will stay by your side, and some who will leave. But no matter the outcome, turn it into a positive.

“I have to prove to myself that I cannot be defeated.”

‘Dream come true’

Even now, though, she admits to still finding it slightly overwhelming to line up against some of her more high-profile rivals.

“In high school I was always watching the Games as an athlete but not thinking I would be there like them – I was always supporting those competing,” she said.

“When I started the 400m hurdles, I wanted to be as great as [2008 Olympic and 2009 world champion] Melanie Walker and even better. I wanted to achieve as much as [1996 Olympic champion] Deon Hemmings.

“All of this is a dream come true.”

Inspiration

Jamaica’s former Olympic gold medallist Walker and Omar McLeod, the current men’s Olympic 11om hurdles and 6om hurdles world indoor champion, have both shown Team Jamaica are capable of producing world-beaters in disciplines other than their usual strongholds in the shorter sprints.

“To come out on top in London in front of all those fans would truly be a blessing”

Russell said: “Melanie Walker has inspired me greatly because I know she is also multi-talented, she can do sprint hurdles and the 400m hurdles.

“To see someone with so much heart go out there year after year, to perform so well, pushes me to say ‘I can be great too’.

“I just have to believe in myself. As long as you are willing to work hard for something you want – which I am – as well as listening to my coach, I believe I can emulate what my compatriots have achieved in their events.”

London calling

Having already lived one dream in Rio, Russell’s sights are now set on the 2017 Worlds at the London Stadium, which of course hosted the 2012 Olympics track and field programme.

To step onto the podium, perhaps as champion, particularly in a city that’s home to so many Caribbean supporters, would be a huge achievement for her.

“To see all the preparations, dedication and faith I’ve put in over the last two years of being injured pay off, and to come out on top in London in front of all those fans would truly be a blessing.

“The preparations are going well. I am working towards small goals, building up to my season. Every race I run, I want to improve and to maintain my consistency.”

Russell surprised herself by reaching the final and finishing fifth at the 2015 Worlds in Beijing. Don’t bet against her being in the medals in London this summer.

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