Wednesday, 8 July 2009

England international distance runner, NICOLA BAMFORD grilled Sheffield’s very own ‘awesome foursome’ about life, athletics and dealing with pressure on the eve of the World Championships. (written for Re:Play magazine, 06/07).

It is somewhat extraordinary that Sheffield will boast not one, but four representatives at the recent World Athletics Championships, in Osaka, Japan. The unique situation will occur when 1500m runners, Abby Westley and Becky Lyne, steeplechaser, Hatti Dean and heptathlete; Jessica Ennis all say a cheery ‘sayonara’ to the Steel City, as they embark on their Japanese sporting adventure. As the quartet flew out to Asia a fortnight early to acclimatise, the girls were quizzed before their global challenge. Poised to take on the World’s elite at the average age of just 23, the ‘awesome foursome’ kindly took time out from their preparation to provide Re: Play readers with an insight into their daily lives, future aims and what they think of each other.
There are three endearing attributes which link these talented young women; dedication, passion and modesty. Each athlete has gradually developed into an established international whilst keeping their feet firmly on the ground; here we outline their rise to fame and athletic success.....

For baby of the bunch, Abby Westley; aged 20, the World Championships will represent her senior Great Britain Championship debut. The Loughborough Students AC metric mile wiz (and former Hallamshire Harrier) turned down the chance to compete in the World Student Games in favour of the August 25th-Sept 2nd event, and has experienced a breakthrough summer season. The George Gandy-coached athlete has catapulted herself onto the athletics radar in 2007, with emphatic victories at the British Universities Championships, Loughborough International, European Cup First League and on the European circuit in Switzerland. But the icing on the cake for the former High Storrs school pupil, was storming to the European under23 1500m title in Debrecen, Hungary on her 20th birthday.
The 2005 World junior cross-country and European under20 800m-representative is understandably excited about the 1500m in Osaka, an event in which her training partner, Lisa Dobriskey will be joining her; “I’m not nervous, as I got used to running with a camera in my face back at the European Cup. I’m just so excited – I’ve worked so hard so it’s nice to get a reward; it’s a big boost,” reveals the Loughborough University psychology student. “I don’t want to be an also-ran and I’ll respect the other competitors. I’d like to reach the semi-final stage and run that as my final to see where it gets me. I’m confident I can run a personal best time out there and give it my best shot. I want to learn as much as I can so I can come back again in a few years to challenge for medals.”

Currently ranked 2nd and 50thon the British and World lists respectively, with a sensational 4:08.76, Westley has come a long way since her first competitive outing; winning a 300m cross-country race as an 8-year-old in Endcliffe Park. Initially a swimmer for the Dronfield Dolphins, the 2006 European junior cross-country 10th-placer joined Hallamshire Harriers at aged12 and quickly went on to achieve substantial success. The support from her family, friends and boyfriend, Tom; a national-standard 1500m runner, has undoubtedly ensured Westley’s achievements continue. Her disciplined approach to training and recovering has additionally aided her vast improvement.

The likeable Yorkshire lass was keen to praise those who contributed to her scintillating form and rise to World-level; “George’s been great – he’s coming out to the training camp and the Worlds to support me. I’d also like to thank Keith Whitelam and Ian Wainwright for the work, friendship and support they provided for me while I was at Hallamshire Harriers – I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them.”

Now as part of such a formidable athletic team, Westley explains, “I used to train with Becky; she’s always been a role model and inspiration – it’s nice to see where dedication can get you. Hatti’s incredible, she used to give me a run for my money in training and it’s really nice to see her improving. Jessica’s been on the same teams as me since school - her winning performances have made it seem achievable. They’re all such nice girls; it’s so nice to be around such a great team.”

Evidently level-headed, Westley plans to resume her studies in the autumn on a part-time basis, in order to capitalise on her outstanding progression. Only a second off the Olympic qualifying standard, one could forgive the talented teen for being brash but no; “There’s no reason I should change just because I’ve gotten faster!” she exclaims.

No stranger to pressure and attention, City of Sheffield AC multi-events star, Jessica Ennis heads into the Worlds as a genuine medal contender. The Diminutive 21 year-old’s exploits this season (as detailed on her website;, have took the athletics world by storm, with many touting her as a potential star of 2012. But, like the other three girls, the Commonwealth Heptathlon bronze-medallist, refuses to focus on the daunting attention or succumb to the immense pressure; “It’s nice to have people talk about me but I try not to think about it, and focus on bettering myself,” the Toni Minichello-coached athlete explained. “In Osaka, I hope to get a personal best, and if that gets me a medal, it’ll be great.”

The Adidas-sponsored Northerner, in only her second senior season, is in the pinnacle of her career to date. Ranked third in the World Heptathlon rankings, the 2005 European junior heptathlon Champion has had an unprecedented 2007 campaign. Building on an impressive winter in which she finished 6th in the European indoor pentathlon Championships, the British number one started the season in familiar victorious style. The World-Class Podium Lottery-funded star, set out on a British record-breaking spree, as the 2006 European heptathlon 8th-placer equalled the 25-year-old high-jump mark of 1.95m and 2000 Olympic heptathlon Champion, Denise Lewis’ under23 heptathlon record, with a superb 6388-tally at the IAAF Combined Events Challenge in Italy. Next on the agenda for the 2005 World University Games bronze-medallist was a scintillating 13.04 100m hurdles clocking, when claiming gold in the England Athletics under23 Championships; eclipsing 1992 Olympic 400m hurdles Champion, Sally Gunnell’s Championship record in the process.

The most eye-catching performance by the versatile athlete however, was her gold medal-winning display at the European Cup Combined Events Super League, in Poland. Leading team GB to an historic victory, Ennis’ 6399 score improved her 2006 best by 112points and subsequently shot her to third in the global rankings; establishing herself as a key protagonist for medals in Osaka. Never one to rest on her laurels however, Ennis went onto claim European under23 hurdles bronze, national double glory in the hurdles and high-jump and finished 1st and 4th in the long-jump and 200m at the Celtic Cup.

Introduced to the sport via the Star:track athletics scheme at Don Valley stadium; a venue where, in addition to Sheffield’s EIS, she regularly trains, Ennis appears to have the World at her feet and have found the perfect formula for success. Ennis’s website manager, Phil Parkin revealed; “She’s been with Toni since she was 13. They have a very respectful relationship; purely business. They have the ultimate goal in mind and Dave Collins, UK Athletics Performance Director, has highlighted them as ideal role models.”
A prodigious youngster, seemingly winning numerous national titles for fun, the 2003 World Youths 5th-placer surrounds herself with a close-knit network of friends and family. Her father, Vinroy; a schoolboy sprinter in Jamaica and boyfriend, Andy are just two of a large fan-club who help the Sheffield University psychology-graduate keep a healthy balance in her life. Training twice, even three times a day, with massage, promotion and press duties, Ennis knows all too well the stresses and strains of being a world-class full-time athlete. Nevertheless, her regimented training and commitment is bringing those well-earned rewards.

The 2007 season has also witnessed the re-emergence of 800m runner, Becky Lyne. The European 800m bronze-medallist was forced to endure an injury-riddled winter, which would test the patience and determination of any athlete. After picking up a calf strain whilst training in Australia, Lyne then experienced Achilles troubles, followed by a reoccurrence of the calf injury. A three-month-long spell of rehabilitation proceeded, consisting of swimming and cross-training, which Lyne described as “soul destroying – I didn’t run between mid-February and mid-May; it was so frustrating.”

Fortunately for the Dave Turnbull-coached athlete her agent, sponsor and coach respectively, stayed loyal to her during these testing times. “Dave’s been fantastic; he’s got a family and a job yet he measured trails for me to run on and cycled alongside me in training – he nursed me back well,” Lyne praised. “I’ve been with Nike (her sponsor) since 2003 and luckily they’ve kept faith in me by renewing my contract and Nic (Bideau, her agent)’s been great, too.” Doing presentations and motivational speaking in schools, as well as practising her Spanish helped keep Lyne sane during those challenging months. The support of her team has undoubtedly ensured Lyne remains in the sport and maintaining her place on the World-Class Performance Lottery Programme has enabled the Loughborough and Indianapolis University sports science and Spanish graduate to access free medical back-up and train full-time without financial worries; a contribution which was pivotal to her athletic return. “My physio; Alison Rose, was fantastic, absolutely phenomenal,” Lyne recalls.

The 25 year-old Hallamshire Harrier made her eagerly-anticipated comeback at the Norwich Union British Grand Prix at Don Valley Stadium. In a baptism of fire for the former Tapton school pupil, Lyne had a less than ideal homecoming, as she trailed home last. However, the Stockport-based runner kept her patience and continued to progress to finish a respectable 5th in the 1500m at the World Trials and British Championships.

Then, showing glimmers of her former self, the 2006 British Athletics Writers Association Athlete of the Year finished 5th overall and fourth Britain in 2:00.86, in the second leg of the British Grand Prix at Crystal Palace. The 2001 European Junior and 2003 European under23 800m champion had an anxious wait as her global championship fate was decided by the GB selectors; who luckily, put their faith in her by giving her the final 800m berth for Osaka. "It's weird as I'm not really celebrating, as the aim at the start of the year was to run well in the Worlds not just to qualify - I really want to get the job done," responded Lyne to the news of her selection. "I had inkling after Crystal Palace that I'd get picked - I showed the progress I'm making and I hope to repay the selectors' faith by continuing to go from strength to strength."
On her sensational return to Great Britain duty, the 2006 World Athletics Final 5th-placer says, “If I stay injury-free and continue to train well, anything's possible. I've got a good training base behind me." World-ranked 46th on the season’s 800m rankings, Lyne is reluctant to predict an instant return to medal-winning form; "I'm not taking anything for granted or making predictions - I've learnt how quickly things can be taken away from you."

A member of Hallamshire since aged 13 and a former child ballet enthusiast, the 2006 World Cup 4th placer contributes the 1991 World Student Games, held in Sheffield, as a source of initial inspiration. “It gave me my first taste of athletics and left a great sporting infrastructure in the city-something that all four of us have benefitted from,” revealed the 2005 World Student Games 1500m 5th-placer; who additionally revealed that athletes never get to see much of the countries they get to visit, although “it’s nice to meet new people, but I prefer racing in England anyway – for the home support.”

Ranked 3rd on the British all-time lists with 1:58.20, the promising two-lap specialist explained that despite no longer residing in Sheffield, she still likes to regularly tie in visits to the EIS with catching up with family and friends and if she wasn’t an athlete, Lyne would go into exercise physiology to encourage healthy living.

Billed as the next Kelly Holmes, Lyne appears to cope admirably with the pressure she constantly faces; “I’m not going to dwell on my past achievements. I try to keep it simple and not get distracted,” explained the humble Northerner; who rarely reads about, or watches herself. “My motivation is about proving to myself I can do it. Every day’s a test and I want to succeed in those tests. I do enjoy what I do; the more success I’ve had, the more determined I’ve become.”

On her British counterparts, Lyne adds; “Abby’s a big, big talent; I’m so pleased she’s realising that now – all credit to her; she’s battled on and got recognised. It’s weird almost, as she’s now a rival. She used to be the little girl behind me in training. I don’t know Hatti well, as she moved to Sheffield when I left but it’s good she’s progressing well. Once when I volunteered at a schools league, Jess won by the high jump by miles – that’s my claim to fame-measuring her height! I sometimes see her out clubbing (very rarely of course) and we’ll say to each other – you shouldn’t be in here!”

Further proof that elite athletes are just like any other ordinary people, is another Hallamshire Harrier, 25 year-old Hatti Dean. The Oxford and Sheffield University maths and statistics-graduate, combines full-time training with 32.5hours of work per week, as a civil service statistician. Although the Bud Baldaro-coached steeplechaser enjoys her job, it is a far cry from the lifestyle expected of an athlete of her calibre.

Having thrice broken the British 3000m steeplechase record this season, Dean understandably goes into the World Championships brimming with confidence. The Puma-sponsored runner, who has improved her best mark by 13seconds this year, began her track campaign with double victory at the Yorkshire Championships, over 1500m flat and 2000m steeplechase respectively; the latter performance lifting her to no.2 on the UK all-time lists, with a scintillating 6:30 clocking. The 2007 World cross-country 10th-placer then further impressed during England representative duty at the Loughborough International, by front-running to a comfortable 9:51 3000m steeplechase victory.

Next on the agenda was the British Miler’s Club Grand Prix in Manchester on June 9th; a meeting where Dean’s performance cemented her place in history, gaining her national recognition in the process. Floating over the barriers to a swift 9:43.11; it was here where Dean notched up her first national record. The former England international Lacrosse and regional-standard tennis-player, then excelled in the international arena at the European Cup First League in Finland with an impressive emphatic twelve-second victory, this time stopping the clock at 9:42.66; bettering her own British record. Continuing her spectacular vein of form, Dean progressed to a sensational 9:38.56 clocking at the Don Valley leg of the British Grand Prix, and was thus awarded $2500 for her efforts. Honing her speed with a ninth-place finish over 1500m flat at the World Trials and British Championships, the PACE-Management signed-athlete then stormed to a scintillating 8:58 3000m flat clocking at the Crystal Palace Grand Prix.

Ranked 28th in the World over the barriers this year, Dean was keen to praise the help of her coaches during her stellar track campaign thus far; “Bud’s been so good for my confidence; he’s always motivating me and really makes me believe in myself. Simon Richardson, my hurdles coach, has really helped my hurdling, too.”

A talented runner as a youngster, Dean swapped national athletics titles for revision; as injuries and competitive academia environments contributed to her quitting the sport at 18. Luckily, for the athletics world, she found the pressure and nerves in her other favoured sports, too much – therefore, the 2006 national steeplechase Champion has achieved such fascinating success, off only three years consistent training.

Eighth in her heat at the 2006 Europeans in 9:52, Dean claims she now copes with pressure much better than she used to. “I do get really nervous still, though,” she reveals, “I find it hard when I’m expected to beat people. On her motivation, Osaka aims and the remaining three-quarters of the ‘awesome foursome’, the former Radley Ladies athlete divulged; “Running gives me confidence, it makes me happy. My aim for the Worlds is to get to the final. I never intentionally go for the British Record, but we’ll see. The other girls have all done amazing in their own ways. Abby’s matured so much; I have real confidence in her when I see her run; she looks so strong. Becky’s done very well to get back and improve – she could peak for Osaka and Jessica’s just amazing in everything she does.”

So there you have it; a sneaky peek into their lives of four of Britain’s most promising athletes. Feeling inspired? I am!

To see how the ‘awesome foursome’ faired in Osaka, see and

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