SOPHIE Riches thought she had ended her indoor season on the perfect high with a gold medal at the England Championships only to find out days later that she will have one extra race this winter… in the colours of England.
The Rayleigh teenager will race for England for the first time on the track when she competes in the 1,500m in a match against Wales in Cardiff on Sunday.
The England selectors had been keeping an eye on the 18-year-old’s form over the winter and made up their minds after Riches stormed to the gold medal in the under-20 1,500m at the England Championships in Sheffield last weekend.
It may mean one extra race for Riches, but you won’t find the Southend High School for Boys sixth-former complaining.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “I knew I was in with a chance after winning the race at the weekend, but to receive the phone call asking for me to compete was great. I’m very, very happy.
“I’ve run for England in cross-country before but not the track, so this will be a first and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Riches’ call-up to run for her country comes off the back of a fine winter that has seen her switch her focus from cross-country running to indoor competitions.
“I decided to concentrate on the indoors this season,” said Riches, who runs for Chelmsford AC. “I had never really done that before and thought it would be good to give it a go.
“And I have really, really enjoyed it, so I don’t think I will be going back to cross-country!”
Riches’ decision to devote her attention to indoor racing was backed by her still relatively new coach Ayo Falola.
Falola is one of the leading middle-distance coaches in the country and most of his leading athletes can be found on the indoor boards during the winter season rather than outside in the cold and mud of cross-country.
“It was my idea to focus on indoors,” said Riches. “I said to Ayo that I would like to do that and he agreed. He knows what he is doing and it was good we both thought the same thing.
“I’m really loving training with the group. It’s hard work, but I’m enjoying it.
“There are a lot of fast girls in the group who pull me round in training and then I help them out when it’s more endurance-based sessions.”
Riches went into the weekend’s England Championships as the second-ranked under-20 1,500m runner in the country.
And she used that speed she has developed in training to out-kick the only girl ranked ahead of her, Cambridge’s Hollie Parker, in the final.
“It was quite slow until the last 600m,” said Riches, recalling Sunday’s final. “Hollie took it on with 600m to go which I was quite glad of because it was getting a bit congested and then it came down to the last 100m.
“I knew she was very strong and my only chance on the indoor track to pass her would be the back straight on the final lap and I managed to do that and held on.”
Riches finished in a time of 4m 37.98s, almost two seconds ahead of Parker, to win the gold.
Attentions now turn to Cardiff for Riches before she can put the indoor campaign behind her and start looking ahead to a productive summer on the track.
But first she has to get the small matter of her A-Level exams out of the way.
“I found it hard training and revising when I had my GCSEs,” said Riches.
“But I’m hoping this time round I can get the balance right. Fingers crossed, it’s all going well at the moment!”
KHAI RILEY-LABORDE ALSO RACING FOR ENGLAND IN CARDIFF
JOINING Sophie Riches in the England team to take on Wales this weekend is Palmer’s College student Khai Riley-Laborde.
Riley-Laborde, 18, ran the fourth fastest time ever by a British junior man over 60m hurdles (7.66s) in the final of the England Championships, but still only got a bronze medal.
Another Palmer’s College student Robbie Clarricoats made the final but was disqualified for a false start after posting a PB of 8.13s in the semi-final.
Poppy Lake, though, has unfortunately had to pull out of the England versus Wales match because of illness.
The Southend High School for Girls pupil won a silver medal in Sheffield but illness meant she could not reach the heights she set in her last visit to the Steel City.
The 18-year-old cleared 1.81m at the senior British Championships last month, but had to settle for a best clearance of 1.76m.
Elsewhere in Sheffield, Nicole McKechnie (Chelmsford AC) finished fourth (56.64s) in the under-20 women’s 400m while Southend High School for Girls’ Michelle Hughes was sixth in the under-17 women’s 60m hurdles (8.82s).
Basildon AC’s Shannon Connolly tied for 11th in the under-20 women’s pole vault (2.90m) while team-mate Matthew Hamilton – who competes in the T47 disabled category – ran a personal best 400m of 56.12s and finished the 200m in 25.58s.