Jake Heyward broke own Welsh record to reach Olympic 1500m final in Tokyo. Pic: Getty Images.

Jake Heyward Making A Happy Habit Of Creating History As Olympic Final Dawns

By Owen Morgan

Making history is becoming a happy habit for Olympic 1500m finalist Jake Heyward.

When the Cardiff athlete was named in the Great Britain team to travel to Japan, he became the first Welshman in 89 years to compete at the Olympics over 1500m.

Not since Pembroke Dock’s Reginald Heber Thomas took to the track at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1932 had a Welsh male athlete graced the games over the metric mile.

Unfortunately, Thomas, who went on to become a squadron leader in the RAF, was destined to limp out of his heat with an Achilles injury.

But Heyward, who has suffered his own fair share of injuries – including a long-standing Achilles problem – had no such worries in Tuesday’s heat which he won in fine style.

When the former Cardiff University student subsequently finished sixth in Thursday’s semi-final, he made history by reaching the Olympic 1500m final.

The last Welsh athlete to come close was triple Commonwealth Games gold medallist Kirsty Wade who finished ninth in her semi-final at the Barcelona Games of 1992.

Jake Heyward in action at the Tokyo Olympics. Pic Getty Images.

In qualifying for Saturday’s final as one of two fastest finishers outside the automatic qualifiers, Heyward also claimed a further slice of individual history by breaking his own Welsh record.

Until May 29 this year, the record had been in the possession of Newport’s Neil Horsfield for 31 years. Three minutes and 33.99 seconds after the starter’s pistol fired at a track in Portland, Oregon, Heyward had obliterated Horsfield’s long standing best of 3:35.08 set in Brussels nine years before the 22-year-old Welshman was even born.

In Thursday’s Olympic semi-final, Heyward once again lowered the Welsh record by more than a second  to 3:32.82. The race itself was won in the fastest 1500m time in Olympic history, with the winner Abel Kipsang, of Kenya in 3:31.65.

There is a genuine chance Welsh record statisticians will be employed in re-writing the books once again this coming weekend.

Whether he lowers the record again or not, when Heyward steps out on the track at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium shortly before 12.40pm (BST) race start time on Saturday, he will be making a little bit of collective history.

At the 1984 games in Los Angeles, three British runners famously made the 1500 final in the shape of the holy trinity of English middle distance running – Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram

Saturday will be the first time since then all three Britons have reached the 1500m final, but more importantly, it will be the first time three Celts have made it!

Proud Welshman Heyward will be joined by two Scots – Josh Kerr and Jake Wightman, who himself has Welsh heritage as the son of former Wales and Great Britain distance Olympian Susan Wightman (nee Tooby).

But anyone assuming Heyward’s history making exploits at the Olympics have been  achieved overnight would be mistaken.

In 2016, Heyward’s successes as a young athlete were starting to gain the attention of the wider Welsh sporting community  when he received the prestigious Carwyn James young sportsman of the year award after winning the European Youth Championships 1500 gold in July of that year.

Incidentally, the female prize that year was won by a rising taekwondo star – Lauren Williams, who has gone on to win a silver medal in Tokyo.

The following year, Heyward was winning gold in the 1500m at the European Athletics Under-20 Championships where he beat fellow Olympic finalist Jakob Ingebrigtsen.

The 2018 season saw Heyward move above 1984 Olympic 1500m silver medallist Cram in the all-time British Under-20 rankings after running 3:39.84 at a Diamond League meeting in Oslo.

That summer, as Heyward prepared for the World Junior Athletics in Finland, Cram, who won 1500m gold at the 1983 World Championships before becoming the voice of BBC’s athletics coverage, spoke exclusively to Dai Sport about Heyward.

The man who is commentating on Heyward’s races for the BBC in Tokyo said:  “What is ideal for him at the moment is that he is coming into British senior 1500m running which is in a good state of health at the moment, there’s a lot of competition just to get into the British team and that pushes standards up.

Jake Heyward leads in his Olympic Games semi-final 1500m. Pic: Getty Images.

“So over the next couple of years he’ll be dreaming of going to the Olympics in Tokyo in two years time and he’ll know you’ve got Josh Kerr, who’s another good youngster from Scotland, and the established guys like Jake Wightman, Charlie Grice, Chris O’Hare and others.

“So the standard’s high, a bit like in our day, if you’ve got three, four, five, six guys all doing well, someone’s going to  jump out of that pack and it could be him.

“We want that strength in depth and that’s about our seniors being good and the next level, the under-20s with Jake a case in point, already pushing them, going off and doing their age group competition, but then being able to come back again and compete at that level.”

Crammy undoubtedly knows talent when he sees it.

Heyward finished fourth in Finland behind Ingebrigtsen, who won silver. But it hasn’t been all plain sailing for the former Llanishen High School pupil since then.

While the Ingebrigtsen went on to become a senior European Champion over 1500m and 5,000m in Berlin later that summer, Heyward’s career saw injuries start to slow down his progress.

By the end of 2019 he decided to leave Cardiff, where he was part of former Wales and Great Britain middle distance star James Thie’s highly successful training group and relocate to the west coast of the United States.

Heyward joined the world renowned Oregon Track Club Elite under the guidance of coach Mark Rowland, himself an Olympic steeplechase bronze medallist.

However, the young Welshman continued to be plagued by an Achilles problem, which saw him race competitively just three times in 2020.

But this season has seen a finally fit and healthy Heyward thrive in Oregon as witnessed by his Welsh record breaking exploits over 1500m and a new personal best over 800m.

He also took another long-standing record from poor Horsfield when he ran the fastest ever mile by a Welshman, clocking 3:52.50 in his last race before heading to Japan at the Diamond League meeting in Gateshead.

Despite all his success this season, Heyward has remained the polite and humble young man he was when I first interviewed after he strolled to victory in a high class under-20 race at the Cardiff Cross Challenge in 2018.

When I spoke to him after his selection for the Tokyo games had been announced, Heyward paid tribute to those who had helped him through his athletics career, from Llanishen High School PE teacher Dai Griffin and Cardiff Athletics coaches Tim Fry and Paul Darney, through to Thie and Rowland.

Jake Hayward in action six years ago, he is now in an Olympic Final. Pic: Getty Images.

Heyward said: “I think there’s a lot of people who have an influence on my track career to be fair. It would be too difficult to name everybody. And I think I would definitely leave some people out!

“But taking a step back, even thinking about just starting out in athletics, it’s so important that you have people like Tim Fry and Paul Darney, who are there, who volunteer, don’t get paid to do what they do.

“But they show up down the track on a cold, wet windy night in the middle of winter  to coach you.

“So those two and then my training group when I first started, and then moving on to James Thie. James definitely played a big role in helping to guide me and take me to that next level.”

And when he won his Olympic heat earlier this week, Heyward was quick to heap praise on his current coach.

“I think my coach, Mark is a genius,” he said. And I think together we’ve figured out a plan for me and what works for my body, and hopefully I can show that in the next rounds because it’s only going to get tougher.”

And now he prepares to take the greatest sporting stage of all in Tokyo this Saturday lunchtime.

After yesterday’s semi-final Heyward said: “I hope everybody at home is proud of me and hopefully they’ve now got something to watch on Saturday!”

We’ll certainly be watching. But whatever happens, a nation is already proud of Heyward’s history-making exploits.



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