Only one athlete from Wales will wear a Great Britain vest out on the track at the Olympic Games in Tokyo – Jake Heyward. Tipped for greatness as a junior, his race to this point has been far from a straight run, though, as he tells Owen Morgan.
Wales’ latest athletics Olympian was made in Cardiff but re-born in the USA.
Jake Heyward is the only Welsh athlete in the Great Britain team for the Tokyo Olympics and the first Welshman to compete in the 1500m at the Games since Reg Thomas in 1932 in Los Angeles.
After a whirlwind few days following his selection, Heyward told Dai Sport where his athletics journey started and how a move to the United States helped his Olympic dream come true.
Speaking from Stockholm, where he is due to compete in today’s Diamond League meeting, Heyward said: “The main person behind it all is Mark Rowland at Oregon Track Club.
“He’s the person that really took me on to another level. I owe him a lot and the group at Oregon Track Club is fantastic.”
After taking the international scene by storm as a junior, the 22-year-old’s career seemed to have stalled due to a persistent Achilles injury.
But then came the decision to uproot himself from his native Cardiff and relocate on the west coast of the United States in late 2019.
Heyward left the familiarity of his home city and the successful training group run by former Wales and Great Britain international James Thie, which is based there.
His new home was Eugene, the location of the world famous Oregon Track Club Elite, where he would train alongside the likes of Olympic 800m silver medallist Nijel Amos under the tutelage of highly respected British coach Rowland.
However, much of 2020 proved to be difficult competition-wise as injury restricted the middle distance star to just three races.
Commenting on his injury frustrations, Heyward said: “It was a difficult period, because I had an Achilles injury when I was with James, in 2019. We couldn’t get to the bottom of what it was.
“It was like an ongoing cycle of rehab and training. I was basically running off hardly any training.
“I took a lot of time off, came back, obviously went out to Mark but was still having a few issues. I think there was a lot of other things going on, you know, in that I moved to the other side of the world.
“There are a lot of factors that go on. I’ve moved to a new coach, he’s never seen me train before, and he’s got to work out how to coach me and do it in the right way.”
Rowland, himself a bronze medallist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, certainly seems to have found the right way to get the former 1500m European Youth and Junior champion ticking again.
Since his return to regular track action in May of this year, Heyward has not only set a new 800m personal best but has twice improved his 1500m best to 3:33.99 – a new Welsh record which smashed Neil Horsfield’s 31-year-old mark.
This guys story needs telling!
A true gentleman of the sport, hes had some unbelievable injury set backs over the last few seasons and even with the incredible depth and quality of GB middle distance running, he rightfully earned his place in Tokyo for @TeamGB! Incredible stuff👏🏻 https://t.co/eaFqTTiMuV
— Tom Bosworth (@TomBosworth) June 29, 2021
A third place finish in the 1500m behind automatic Olympic qualifiers Josh Kerr and Jake Wightman at last weekend’s British Athletics Championships final, ultimately secured his own selection for Tokyo, which was confirmed on Monday.
Heyward says of his recent form under Rowland’s coaching, “It takes time to develop that relationship and develop that understanding of what I need and what makes me tick, I guess.
“To be honest, it just took time for me to get healthy again. I needed to be able to show what I’m capable of.
“The fact that he’s (Rowland) coached Olympic medallists speaks for itself really, that’s the kind of level that he’s operating at.”
If Heyward’s career has been refined Stateside, it was certainly nurtured in Wales where he became one of the best young 1500m runners in the world.
The Cardiff Athletics product won 1500m gold at the 2016 European Youth Championships and European Junior Championships the following year, where he beat Norwegian sensation Jakob Ingebrigtsen.
In 2018, he smashed a 50-year-old British indoor junior record in the 3,000m with a time of 8:00.93 before placing fourth in the 1,500m at the 2018 IAAF World Junior Championships in Finland.
Heyward started running at Urdd events when he was at Ysgol Fach Llanishen and then came under the wing of PE teacher Dai Griffin at Llanishen High School, who encouraged the talented youngster to pursue athletics.
Delighted to see @jakeheyward7 smash the @WelshAthletics record & Olympic games standard with a 3:33.99 1500m👊 huge congrats to him & his @OregonTCElite team including my old coach Mark Rowland #RowKnows
— James Thie (@TeamThie) May 30, 2021
Heyward said: “Mr Griffin – he was the person that really, really encouraged me, made sure that I went down to the track.
“It was something that I was going to do anyway and go down to Cardiff Athletics, but he definitely took a keen interest in athletics.
“I first joined the Cardiff Athletics group – Track Rats I think it was called. But at that point, you’re kind of just dabbling in high jump, sprints and a bit of everything.
“Then I got entered into a competition and I got moved up to a group with a guy called Tim Fry. There were some older athletes in that group, so I started training with them for a little bit.
“And then the group above that, Paul Darney was looking after, and that had Mike Ward, Jacob Preece, Matthew Edwards, people like that, who were three or four years older than me.
“I knew that I wanted to train with them, because I knew I could keep up with them. And so that was the first time I started taking it seriously when I moved to Paul.”
Heyward is hugely appreciative to all those who have helped develop his career, particularly during his formative years.
Huge congrats to @jakeheyward7 on his stunning run in Oregon, smashing 31-year-old @WelshAthletics 1500m record -and in @Tokyo2020 qualifying time. @owenmogs77 has the story on @Dai_Sport_ @OregonTCElite @CymruReview @Cardiffuninews @lizruth82 @BritAthletics @jwilliams1500
— Dai Sport (@Dai_Sport_) May 30, 2021
“I think there’s a lot of people who have an influence on my track career to be fair,” he says. “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.
“That is really important and I do worry whether we’re going to have the new generation coming through, especially with what’s going on with Coronavirus.
“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.”
Competing at the Olympics has been a long held ambition for the former Cardiff University accounting and finance student.
” I know there are a lot of kids who have that dream and how realistic is it for everybody?
“But when I was coming to the age groups, it wasn’t necessarily something that I thought about, but it was a goal that would be amazing if I did – way further down the line.
“But I’d say the first time I started to really consider it was around the European Juniors sort of age.”
Heyward described his delight at the moment his dream finally came true when he received a phone call from Wales national coach Chris Jones, who is also responsible for developing Britain’s endurance talent.
“I was obviously really, really happy with the selection,” said Heyward, who was back home in Cardiff when the call came. “It’s nice when you’ve been working so hard for such a long period of time.
“The fact that I came third at the championships and it ended up in the selectors’ hands, obviously it was a nervous wait. But yeah, it was nice.
“I knew the selection meeting was on the Monday, so I assumed that they would call some point that evening.
“I was actually on my own. My parents weren’t in at the time, it was just me. Chris Jones gave me the call and it was nice speaking to him about it because I know him very well.
“My parents were obviously over the moon. I think my dad started tearing up a bit. I won’t go as far as saying crying, but I definitely saw a tear there!”
Life has been something of an emotional whirlwind since the British Athletics Championships in Manchester.
EX PUPIL AND WELSH JUNIOR 1500m Record holder! @jakeheyward7 -?’17 European champion and ‘18 England U20 Champion! Incredible athlete, floats around the track. What a fanatastic and humble young man! Role model all day. He’s with us tomorrow on VSD.Forever Blue💙Love pic.twitter.com/WSdkGpaxaX
— Llanishen High PE Department (@LlanishenHighPE) June 25, 2020
“The champs in itself is draining mentally, as well as physically,” said Heyward.
“And I think sometimes athletes don’t consider the emotional stress that you actually go through. Because at the end of the day your whole season is geared around this championship.
“It determines a lot of things, financially, as well as just your own aspirations and what you want to achieve.
“So, I was definitely a little bit flat afterwards. And then obviously had to wait for the selection and then went up to get my kit.
“I think there was a couple of days after that, where I just needed to sort of ease back and take it easy for a couple of days.”
Picking up his Great Britain Olympic kit was certainly one of the highs of the past week.
“That was really exciting,” said Heyward. “When you do stuff like that, when you get kitted out, it’s the first step of ‘okay, this is actually real now!’
“You get your kit for the championships, but the Olympics is so special. And you know, it’s everything – the opening ceremony kit, the suits, etc. So, yeah, I think there’s obviously something extra special about becoming an Olympian.”
British Olympic team: https://t.co/3mPekOnpV7
— Jon Mulkeen (@Statman_Jon) June 29, 2021
If the past week has been busy, the next few weeks will be equally demanding for Heyward with two Diamond League meetings on the horizon over the next 10 days before final preparations begin for the Olympics with the first round of the 1500m taking place on August 3.
“I’m doing Stockholm on Sunday and I’m going to run the mile at Gateshead,” said Heyward. “That’ll be my last race and then just focus on training before the Olympics.
“I’m still undecided, but I think I’m going to base myself in the UK until the Olympics.”
Heyward’s coach Rowland, believes his third place finish at the British Championships will stand him in good stead in Tokyo, given the current high standard of middle distance running this side of the Atlantic
“Jake has stepped up a level this season, before expected, which we’ve welcomed.” said Rowland.
“However, he knows there is much more to come and to develop. He has great expectations of himself and is eager to learn.
“He wants to continue to progress leading into the Olympics now that he has gained selection to the team, which he deserved and earned during the Great Britain Trials, finishing behind what I view as two medal contenders.”
36 years ago today at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Seb Coe won the 1500m., retaining the title he had won 4 years previously in Moscow @AthleticsWeekly @runbritain @EnglandAthletic @BritishMilers @WorldAthletics @LboroSport @sebcoe @BritAthletics pic.twitter.com/x8dAUz2LQ5
— Mark Shearman MBE (@AthleticsImages) August 11, 2020
Commenting on his own Olympic expectations, Heyward said: “I have my own goals in mind but I’d prefer to keep them to myself.
“But I’m not there to make up the numbers. I think if you can make the British team, you’re in a pretty good place to actually make something happen.
“You only have to go back two years to Doha and the three boys to make the team were obviously in the final and in contention.
“Jake and Josh are obviously two years stronger on from that as well. So, yeah, it fills us all with confidence that we can go there and have good championships.”