2013 WAS quite simply a memorable year for athletics in south Essex. From Jessica Judd propelling herself to one of the most talked about athletes in the country, to Hayley McLean becoming European Junior champion and to two of our schools taking on the best in the world.
It really has been a tremendous 12 months so here’s a quick recap of some of the stand-out athletes and moments.
Jessica Judd’s rise from Canvey schoolgirl to a world-class athlete was probably the biggest story of the year.
The 18-year-old middle-distance star represented GB for the first time at a senior World Championships in Moscow, won the 800m for her country at the European Team Championships and dipped inside two minutes for the first time to win her first Diamond League meet at Birmingham.
I’m not so sure anyone could have predicted all that to happen in the space of a few months. I remember Jess running the B-standard for the World Championships in her first 800m of the season at Watford in May. The time was also the fastest in the world at that point and we ran a story on our back page the following day to that affect.
I think it was at that point as I read the headline ‘Jess runs fastest 800m time in the world’ in black and white and then had to field questions from all sorts of people who would normally have no interest in sport, let alone athletics, that I realised Jess was someone who was not going to be confined to just our athletics pages any more!
Ultimately the year ended in disappointment for Jess who was injured before the World Championships and went out in the first round. But, fingers crossed her star continues to rise for 2014 as there are plenty of realistic targets just around the corner. She will still be old enough to compete at the World Junior Championships in Oregon but may be in an enviable position to forego those should she win selection for the European Championships and Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Sadly, Jess was the only south Essex representative at the World Championships in Moscow.
Sprint hurdler Gianni Frankis came agonisingly close yet again to quaifying for another global championships.
Gianni was in the form of his life this summer, running faster than he has ever done and winning a silver at the British Championships. But his PB of 13.54s was fractions off the qualifying time and he was frustratingly ignored by selectors, just like he had been for the European Indoor Championships earlier in the season.
The disappointment of that seemed to hit Gianni hard in the immediate aftermath of the British Championships but it should not be forgotten that he is making progress and with the Commonwealths and Europeans on the horizon, there are two championships next summer he has every chance of being involved in.
Likewise for our middle-distance talent James Shane who was making tentative steps back from injury after 2012 was pretty much a write off for him.
James looked like his old front-running self when he won the British Universities Championship title again in May and ran his second fastest 1,500m time (3m 38s) of his life in June but illness and injuries conspired against him again.
Another athlete to have a realistic chance of being at those championships is Hayley McLean who has had the season of her life in 2013.
The Stanford-le-Hope 19-year-old was crowned European Junior 400m hurdles champion after a thrilling final in Rieti, Italy.
It came a year after she was denied a place at the World Junior Championships after being disqualified when running the qualifying time at the trials.
It was a heartbreaking time for Hayley but she showed bucket loads of character to get her head down in training last winter and come out for the summer in great shape.
She didn’t lose a race against girls in her age group all summer and in winning the final recorded the third fastest UK under-20 women 400m hurdles time ever.
Indeed, of all the fantastic moments of the year, watching Hayley on the top step of the podium, fighting back tears of joy as the Union flag was hoisted up and the national anthem playing, was certainly my favourite.
Joining Hayley in the Great Britain squad in Rieti was Purfleet’s Khai Riley-Laborde who can lay a claim to being the breakthrough athlete of the year.
Khai stepped up to 110m hurdles as he moved into the under-20 age group for the first time and made an instant impression.
His times throughout the summer were getting closer and closer to the European qualifying mark until he smashed it twice in the trials at Bedford, once in the semi-final and once in the final where his third placed finish was ultimately enough for him to win a place on the plane to Italy.
Khai made the semi-finals in Rieti and was quite literally a vest’s breadth away from reaching the final. He said afterwards that he was slightly disappointed with how he fared on his GB debut but the experience will have done him the world of good as he looks to win a place at the World Junior Championships this time around.
Khai and Hayley were also both gold medal winners on what was another hugely successful English Schools Championships for our athletes.
Alice Perkins, another who had a real breakout year in 2013, won 3,000m gold, Sophie Riches 1,500m gold while Archie Leeming won shot-putt gold before heading off to Northampton to concentrate on a rugby career with Northampton Saints.
Championship performers Poppy Lake and Kaylee Dodd once again found their form at exactly the right time to win silver medals in the high jump and 800m respectively. There was a silver too for Thomas Head in the hammer while Khai was joined on the podium for the 110m hurdles by Tilbury’s Robbie Clarricoats who was third. Tom, Khai and Robbie are all former William Edwards School pupils while James Pearson, who is currently at the school, won bronze in the junior boys shot-putt. The Grays school must be doing something right.
Pole vaulter Liam Yarwood, meanwhile, finally ripped up the tag of nearly man by winning a bronze medal in his final English Schools competition.
All of those athlete named above have very real prospects of qualifying for the World Junior Championships in Oregon, USA, this coming summer. Some may be more likely to than others but I’m hoping as many of them qualify as possible to try to somehow blag my way out to Oregon!
Those World Juniors may come around a little too soon for the final of our medallists at the English Schools, Isobel Ives, but she would certainly be my one to watch for 2014.
Middle-distance talent Isobel had an incredible track season last summer, culminating in her silver medal in the 800m at the English Schools where she ran 2m 7.43s despite being almost 18 months younger than the winner in the under-17 girls age group.
If she carries on that progression then who knows what she could run this summer?
One athlete who was unable to compete at the English Schools Championships was former Futures College in Southend pupil Moesha Howard.
Sprint hurdler Moesha was selected for the championships but ended up performing on a much bigger stage as she earned a place on the GB team for the World Youth Championships in Ukraine.
In Donetsk, Moesha made the semi-finals and ran the third fastest time ever by a British under-18 athlete for 100m hurdles of 13.66s.
The continued great success of teenagers from Essex reflects not only on the many great clubs we have in our area but also the great schools.
And nowhere was the strength of our schools highlighted than at the World Schools Athletics Championships in Karlovy, the Czech Republic, this summer where England’s two representatives were from south Essex: Southend High School for Girls and FitzWimarc School in Rayleigh.
Both schools won the right to compete after winning the national cup final the year before and both teams did themselves proud.
FitzWimarc’s boys team of Jack Longhurst, Harrison King, Josh Prentice, Daniel Sheffield, Daniel Stratton and Peter Bowen were a brilliant fourth place overall and an agonising four points from bronze medals.
Meanwhile the Southend High School for Girls team of Poppy Lake, Jade Packer, Olivia Sofroniou, Victoria Hiscock, Georgina Duke and Michelle Hughes finished fifth just 12 points off third.
As the year came to an end, two more athletes earned the right to shine for their country with Adam Hickey and Alex Short both winning places on the GB team for the European Cross-Country Championships.
Both were fantastic stories. Alex was a relative unknown to those outside of the county before he came third at the trial race and then went on to finish 26th in the junior men’s race in Belgrade.
It marked a whirlwind few weeks for the former Southend High School for Boys pupil who has gained in confidence from the experience and will now believe he can compete with the best in the country.
For Adam, the championships completed his return to the sharp end of athletics. A prodigious talent as a junior athlete, Adam’s progression to the top of the senior ranks has had one or two road bumps in the way, but at 25 he’s now really beginning to make his mark again.
On the track in the summer he ran 13m 41s for 5,000m and kicked on again this winter to win his place in the GB team for Belgrade where, despite not feeling 100 per cent, he finished 26th and was the team’s crucial fourth scorer as they pipped France to the bronze medal.
Staying on the country, Adam’s training partner Gemma Kersey finished what has been a bit of an up and down year for her on a high by representing England for the first time as a senior athlete at the Lotto Cross in Belgium where she finished 11th in a world-class field, while Thurrock Harriers’ Gemma Holloway has also got an England vest in her drawer this year after she represented them in the Schools International back in March.