By Owen Morgan
Welsh sprinting is set to blast out of the blocks and onto the fast lane to success if the events of the last six months are anything to go by.
Thrilling victories by the Wales men’s and women’s relay teams at the under-20 international in Cardiff this week were the latest in a string of achievements by our speed merchants during 2019.
Jeremiah Azu’s emergence as Europe’s fastest teenager, Joe Brier’s European Under-23 Championships relay silver medal in Sweden and Sam Gordon clocking the fastest ever 100m time by a Welshman are a sure indication our sprinters are hitting the accelerator pedal.
As well as Brier, there were three other Welsh sprinters in the Great Britain squad for those Under-23 championships in Sweden – big sister and Commonwealth Games athlete Hannah Brier, Melissa Roberts and Shannon Malone.
The emergence of Wales’ sprinters has been no overnight success. It has been building in recent years thanks to the hard work of a network of sprint coaches up and down the country.
Last year the 400 metre runners took centre stage, Swansea Harrier Brier won a World Junior Championship bronze medal as part of the Great Britain team competing in Finland.
While Cardiff’ Athletics’ Owen Smith represented the Great Britain senior team at last year’s World Indoor Championships in Birmingham and ran at two Diamond League meetings. Earlier this year the North Wales product was running for GB once again at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow.
And Swansea Harrier Lauren Williams clocked a PB of 58.09 winning the 400m hurdles for Great Britain at the Berlin Under-20 match against France and Germany at the iconic Olympic Stadium.
Matt Elias, the man tasked with bringing together all the good work being laid down on tracks around the country, was wearing a broad smile last Wednesday night after watching Wales’s young relay teams beating the best from around the rest of Britain.
The recently appointed national talent development coordinator for sprints and hurdles said: “It was the start of something last year and we are seeing it grow a little bit more this year.
“The 100m runners have wanted to join the party with Jeremiah Azu obviously topping the European rankings.”
Cardiff’s Azu was the red hot favourite going into the 100m final at the recent European Under-20 Championships in Sweden having lowered his personal best to a blistering 10.27 this season – the fastest junior time across Europe.
Unfortunately he suffered a recurrence of a hamstring problem suffered at the championship trials. Leading going into the latter stages of the final, he collapsed in pain on the track, holding his hamstring as the rest of the field surged past him.
Elias, the former Welsh 400m flat and 400m hurdle champion and Olympian, who won a clutch of Commonwealth and European medals during his illustrious career, said: “It was very disappointing to see what happened to him during the championships. But I think some valuable lessons will be learned from that.
“To get to the start line after tearing his hamstring just a couple of weeks earlier was a miracle, to be honest. That was a big learning process.”
Just a few days before Azu competed in Sweden, Sam Gordon was tearing up his newly laid home track at the International Sports Campus in Cardiff to register the fastest ever time by a Welshman.
Unfortunately his wind-assisted 10.08 to win the Welsh 100m title will not go down in the record books, but Elias says it is another definite indication that the Welsh short sprinters are following in the footsteps of the one lap wonders.
“Sam Gordon running the fastest time ever by a Welshman . . . yes, it was wind assisted but your legs have still got to turn over that fast,” said Elias.
“I think with Sam we have got to try to get him into some higher level competitions, get him to those ten flat, ten one guys on a more regular basis.
“I have no doubt that in the next couple of weeks he will be able to push towards a time like that in legal conditions.
“Owen Smith had a really good indoor season, semi-final at the European Championships. But he had a few injury niggles at the start of this year so we’ve held him back a little bit.
“But now, four weeks out from the British Championships, he’s starting to get himself into a really good place. He’s racing the English Championships this weekend and will hopefully put a good one down there.
“Joe Brier again has built on last year and is making a habit of winning medals in relays now – a European Under-23 Championships silver medallist.
“So it’s building, it’s really building. It’s exciting to see some of the kids here stepping up tonight.
“Owain Lloyd Hughes looking really good in the 200m. We won both the relays. Issie Tustin had an outstanding run on the last leg for the girls.
“It’s exciting times, it’s nice to see some of the older athletes, 24, 25-year-olds starting to step up into the British ranks and some of these younger ones starting to push through as well.”
Elias is hoping the excellent form being shown by Welsh sprinters this season can now be taken into upcoming meetings like next weekend’s Belfast International where the Welsh 4x100m squad will have an eye on the 21-year-old Welsh record, and the British Athletics Championships in Birmingham at the end of the month.
“It’s going to be an interesting championships in terms of it being pretty much the last weekend of August, how people manage themselves to be peaking for a British Championships that late into the year.
“You look at things like the men’s 100, Adam Gemili is absolutely flying at the moment, Reece Prescod should be coming back to form, you’ve got CJ Ujah.
“And then, I think after what Sam ran here, he’s thrown his hat into that next bracket around and hopefully he can be competitive with those guys, take some scalps, get into the final first and foremost and then see what he can do when he’s in that final.
“The thing with Sam is that he is a championships performer. Because we’ve struggled to get him into some of the big races, we’ve struggled to get the best out of him.
“As soon as there is a championship environment, like at the Welsh where he wants to put on a bit of show, that’s what he comes and does. We just need to try and get him into those situations a little bit more often. He’s in a great place going in to that.
“He’s got a race next week in Belfast where we are going to be running a Welsh 4×100 team as well.
“You never know, with some of the guys we could push towards the Welsh record which was set back in 1998 which would be a nice one.”
When 24-year-old Gordon ran his 10.08 at the Welsh Championships, he pulled a number of other sprinters through to wind assisted PBs, including the likes of Makoye Kampengele, Lloyd Hughes and Arron Owen.
Elias said: “Makoye has been running really well this year, obviously Owain Lloyd Hughes looked very good as well, Josh Brown looked superb in the heats but was then suffering from some cramp because it was very warm on the day.
“So we have got a group now, and of course with Jeremiah Azu, where our potential for the next few years towards the Commonwealth Games is really, really exciting.
“And if some of those athletes can step up and are running ten three, ten two consistently, then all of a sudden, you never know what we might do. It’s exciting.”
Unfortunately, Azu’s season appears to be over due to the injury sustained in Sweden, but Elias is confident he will come back stronger and even faster with an eye on next year’s World Junior Championships.
Elias said: “He’s had a bit of a breakthrough this year, he’s still ranked number one in Europe, he’s got nothing else really to prove. He’s got the World Junior Championships he can focus on next year.
“So I think he’ll shut it down for this year, rehab it and then we’ll see a stronger Jeremiah next year.
“I’ve had a couple of good conversations with him and Helen (James), his coach, and they have both been able to put this into context.
“As they both said, just getting him to the start line was almost a miracle in itself. Adam Rattenberry the Welsh Athletics physio performed miracles getting him there.
“So I think he is the type of guy who will learn a lot from this and he will come back stronger. Ultimately, there isn’t an elite athlete on this planet that hasn’t had some injury issue at some point and come back from it.
“So he’s had to learn a big lesson quite early on in his career and I think it’ll be one of the makings of him.”