Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Steel city strider (written for Athletics Weekly 09/07).

World 1500m semi-finalist, Abby Westley describes her emotions to NICOLA BAMFORD following an unprecedented summer that has made her hungry for more.

The year 2007 will be highlighted as a breakthrough season in the diary of metric-mile wiz, Abby Westley, for the Loughborough Students AC runner has this summer propelled herself from top under-23 to joining the world’s elite in the senior ranks; irrespective of her tender 20 years of age.

The Sheffield-born middle-distance star’s meteoric rise, although unexpected so soon, is no surprise to keen followers of the sport, as the George Gandy-coached ace had made steady progression over the years before establishing herself as a key protagonist for senior Great British selection. Her achievements of late are a million miles away from her days as a 12 year-old novice at Hallamshire Harriers, yet, keen to praise those who contributed to her successful teenage years and rise to World-level, Westley credits her former coaches; “I’d 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.”
Initially a swimmer for the Dronfield Dolphins, the secret recipe behind Westley’s eye-catching achievements has appeared to coincide with her collaboration with the Director of Athletics at Loughborough; George Gandy. Frequently referred to as the ‘guru of endurance running’, Gandy’s work, which incidentally has landed him a place in the SportsCoach UK Hall of Fame, with the psychology undergraduate has bore fruition this summer, with further success indisputably heading their way.

The 2006 European junior cross-country 10th-placer began her 2007 track campaign with an emphatic 2:04.14 800m victory at the British Universities Championships, improving her best by over a second and thus showing glimmers of her forthcoming prowess over the her specialist, longer discipline. The 2005 World junior cross-country and European under20 800m-representative then dramatically stamped her authority on the UK middle-distance scene by scorching to a sensational 4:08.74 1500m triumph at the Loughborough International; obliterating her personal best by nine seconds in the process and catapulting herself to second on the outdoor British season’s list.

Consolidating her sudden superlative form and refusing to rest on her laurels, the World-Class Development funded –athlete subsequently impressed on her Great Britain senior debut by claiming 1500m victory in the European Cup First League. Rising spectacularly to the occasion at the televised event, Westley unleashed her trademark scintillating finishing-kick to triumph in a tactical 4:21.12 at the Finnish venue. "I really enjoyed competing in my first senior international. It was a huge honour to be selected and I was pleased to win maximum points for the team," recalls Westley.

A comfortable win at the Luzern European Permit meet in Switzerland soon afterwards, guaranteed Westley went into the European under23 Championships brimming with the confidence and expertise required of an international gold-medal contender.

Indeed, the birthday wish came true for likeable Yorkshire lass, who lives with fellow athletes, Chris Warburton and Tom Settle, as she celebrated her 20th birthday in style, by claiming the European under23 1500m title in Debrecen, Hungary. Despite entering the championships as only third-quickest on the age-group 2007 rankings, Westley used her international racing experience and trademark finishing kick to devastating effect, to triumph in 4:15.48. In a tactical affair, Westley waited patiently on the shoulder of the long-time leader before unleashing a scintillating final 100m to seal the best birthday present she could have wished for; the gold medal. “I’d waited all week for my final - it was quite slow with a bit of pushing, so I thought there’d be more people with me at the end. I was so pleased to win; it felt like it was meant to be, as it was my birthday. The GB team sang ‘happy birthday’ to me when I was on the podium!”

The European title was the icing on the cake for the baking enthusiast until World Championship selection beckoned. “I was delighted, especially as I was ill and didn’t run in the World Trials. I didn’t know if I’d blown my chances and what to expect from the selectors,” Westley explained. “I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t expect it, as I only got the development qualifying standard. I rushed to tell my mum, dad and boyfriend, and George was really pleased, especially as he coaches Lisa (Dobriskey – my training partner), too,” she recalled of her excitement, despite having to turn down the chance to compete in the World University Games in Bangkok.
Continuing her outstanding vein of form, Westley gave herself a superb farewell present ahead of flying out to the GB acclimatisation camp with two commanding displays at Stretford, Manchester in the BMC 800m open and BMC Grand Prix 1500m, respectively; clocking 2:03.24 to rank 12th on the British senior lists and another confidence-boosting 4:08 performance.

Aware that her winning streak was undoubtedly nearing an end, the baby of the GB squad in Osaka, Japan drew reminiscence of a young Steve Cram, making his global debut at such young age. World-ranked 51st heading into the cauldron of top senior competition, Westley passed her baptism of fire with flying colours; to establish herself amongst the World’s elite and cope admirably by making it to the semi-final stage. “I wasn’t nervous - I got used to running with a camera in my face back at the European Cup. I was just so excited – I’ve worked so hard so it’s nice to get a reward; it’s a big boost,” asserts the mature runner.

Ranked 11th out of the 13 athletes in her heat, Westley brushed aside the 35-degree heat and eighty-percent humidity to produce a fine 4:09.67 sixth-place finish in her heat to grab the last automatic qualifying spot. Then, starting her semi-final as the seventh fastest of the twenty-eight qualifiers, the young British Lioness bravely fought her way through a extraordinarily tactical race to finish a credible eighth in 4:16.21. "I hadn’t raced with a pace that slow all season," revealed Westley, evidently frustrated. "It took me by surprise because I thought the first lap alone would be ten seconds quicker. It changed the race and unfortunately I wasn't in the right place at the right time and they got a jump on me that I couldn't close. There was quite a bit of bumping and pushing but these are world-class athletes and they are not going to give you an inch. It was all good experience for next time."

Her Osaka experience proved a steep learning curve for the talented teen, yet Westley refuses point-blank to say a permanent sayonara to World-level competition; "I’d love to go to Beijing but I’m not going to take anything for granted. I can't imagine what it will feel like to miss the Olympics or another major championship now. I'd hate to watch it on TV and not be a part of it but I need to keep working hard and improving,” divulges the determined Westley. “It was great in Osaka. When I got to the stadium I almost had tears in my eyes. I was warming-up with people like Sanya Richards and Jeremy Wariner; people I've watched on TV and admired for years. It still feels a bit unreal that I'm actually part of it.”

Westley must now become accustomed to the senior elite environment however, as she looks set to be a part of it for many years to come. "This season has been such a learning curve. I'm really proud of what I've achieved but I'm not going to rest. This is where I want to be and it's given me such a taste for it. I'm loving what I'm doing and I'm showing that I can beat some of the best girls in the world. I'm still young but I don't see why I can't be one of the big names in a few years."

Further ensuring the bubbly battler is firmly situated on the athletics radar and can look back on her remarkable 2007 campaign with pride, is her nomination for the inaugural Waterford Crystal European Athletics Rising Star award; the result of which will be announced in October.

Reflecting on her remarkable summer, Westley, who cites fellow Sheffield-born athlete, Becky Lyne as her inspiration and role model, states; “My season’s been quite surprising, as I was injured between January and March. But everything started to click, and then I got stronger and made a big step up.” Paying tribute to the man instrumental in achieving her extraordinary form and to those who have supported her; “I must say a big thank-you to George; he’s brought me on a lot and came out to Macou and Osaka to support me; and also to my parents and boyfriend, Tom.” Should her athletic achievements stall, however, Westley harbours hopes of specialising in clinical psychology.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 1500m starlet for being brash but no; “There’s no reason I should change just because I’ve gotten faster!” the Steel city strider exclaims.

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