By Rob Cole
The rise and rise of Jake Heyward is certainly setting the pulse racing among Welsh athletics fans and quite rightly so.
His latest personal best over 1500 metres of 3.39.84 at the Bislett Games in Oslo – followed by gold at the England Athletics U-20 and U-23 Championships in Bedford on Sunday – not only rocketed him up the British Under 20 all-time rankings, but also underlined his credentials as a potential finalist at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Tampere, Finland next month.
The teenager already has European Youth and European Junior gold medals in his collection after two exceptional summers, but the step up in class to a world level in 2018 will probably reveal more about his true potential. The 1500 metres title at the previous 16 championships have been won by African athletes on 15 occasions and the other gold went to Quatar.
In fact, of the 48 medals in the event, only four have been won by European runners. Germany’s Wolfram Muller was the last one to get on the podium, taking silver 18 years ago.
World Junior Championship Titles at 1500m
1986 Johan Boakes (UK) Bronze 3.45.80 Athens
1988 Fermín Cacho (Sp) Bronze 3.47.31 Ontario
1990 André Bucher (Switz) Silver 3.40.46 Lisbon
1996 Robert Witt (Pol) Bronze 3.43.47 Sydney
2000 Wolfram Müller (Ger) Silver 3.39.37 Santiago
In stripping almost three seconds off his previous best to lower his Welsh junior record to 3.39.84, Heyward not only overtook former world record holder Steve Cram (3.40.09), but also crept up on Graham Williamson’s 39-year-old UK Under 20 best of 3.36.6.
His latest improvement saw him move from 14th up to third in the UK Under 20 rankings as he put his previous best of 3.42.12 firmly in the shade.
It was also the 18th fastest time in the world this year in his age group and made him the 11th fastest athlete over the distance ahead of the IAAF World Junior Championships between 10-15 July.
Six of those athletes are from Kenya, two from Ethiopia, one from Norway and one from South Africa. Samuel Tefera leads the way with 3.31.63 clocked in Shanghai on 12 May, although each nation is only allowed to send three athletes per event to Finland.
The Norwegian junior star, Jakob Ingebrigsten, was four places ahead of Heyward in fifth in the Diamond League race in Oslo. His personal best of 3.36.06 means he will be leading the European charge with Heyward. The likelihood is that Moroccan star Abdalaati Iguider championship best time of 3.35.53 set in Grosseto, Italy, in 2004 could come under serious threat.
But for now, at least, let’s all bask in the glory of dreaming of what might become of young Jake. His coach, James Thie, believes he has greater potential than any Welsh middle distance runner of any era.
That is a big claim, but certainly hard to argue against. The Welsh record has belonged to Neil Horsfield since 1990 and the former Newport Harrier had a great record as a junior, winning the European Junior 1500 silver medal in Cottbus in 1985.
He turned his potential in Welsh records at 1500 (3.35.08 in 1990) and the Mile (3.54.39 in 1986) and also won the AAA 1500 title in 1990 and was crowned UK Champion in 1987 and 1990. He ran at the 1986 and 1990 Commonwealth Games and reached the final of the 1990 European Championships.
He was part of a British trio in Split, Yugoslavia, that included Peter Elliot and Cram. He attacked around the final bend and briefly led before falling back to ninth in 3.40.59. The title went to East Germany’s Jens-Peter Herold in 3.38.25, with Elliott fourth and Cram fifth.
Horsfield’s landmarks have been dangling like a carrot in front of a generation of Welsh athletes. He set the bar very high – his 800 metre record of 1:45.44 stood for 22 years before Gareth Warburton cracked it in 2012 – and three times he lowered the Welsh 1500 best.
These days based in Auckland, New Zealand, Horsfield has been waiting for the moment his records are written out of Welsh athletics history. He has been looking over his shoulder at Tom Marshall and Rowan Axe, who both went to the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, but now there really is a new kid on the block with all the capabilities to surpass him.
Having moved into 11th on the all-time Welsh 1500 metre list with his Oslo performance, Heyward can now start setting his sights on two more notable landmarks.
The first will be running faster than his coach, James Thie (3.37.06) and then Horsfield’s Welsh record.
For the moment, though, the Cardiff University student can content himself with looking down on some pretty big names in the UK Under 20 rankings.
Fastest Times at Under 20
Jake Heyward 3.39.84 2018
Steve Cram 3.40.09 1979
Neil Horsfield 3.44.49 1984
Steve Ovett 3.44.8 1973
Seb Coe 3.45.2 1975