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Melissa Makes Top Billing And The Road To Tokyo Is Clear

It’s been a breakthrough year for Welsh athlete Melissa Courtney, who now carries the official tag of world class. Owen Morgan meets the Olympic hopeful who believes she can run even faster now she’s assisted by more than just the wind. 

Melissa Courtney has described being named in British Athletics’ World Class Programme as “the cherry on top” of an unforgettable year littered with medals, records and personal bests.

The selection is fitting reward for a spectacular season, which saw the Welsh international win bronze at the Commonwealth Games and shatter two long-standing Welsh records.

Courtney is one of nine Welsh athletes included in the 2018-19 programme which is based on athletes’ potential to win an Olympic or Paralympic medal at Tokyo 2020 or Paris 2024.

The Loughborough-based runner has been added to the Olympic Podium Potential section where she joins Llanfynydd’s distance athlete Dewi Griffiths, who was already part of the programme.

The National Lottery Funded initiative created by UK Sport provides financial and practical support enabling athletes to compete at the very highest level.

Speaking to Dai Sport following the announcement, Courtney said: “It’s been a really good year and that was the cherry on top.”

Melissa Courtney competing at the British Athletics Championships. Pic: Owen Morgan.

The 25-year old is delighted to receive the support and recognition inclusion on the programme brings following the disappointment of not featuring in the previous round of backing.

“It was quite hard for me last year,” said Courtney. “I didn’t get on the programme and I didn’t really feel at the time I deserved to be on it.

“It’s difficult, you think that people don’t believe in you. But this year has gone really well. It couldn’t have gone better, really.

“It’s just nice to be recognised for your achievement. I was obviously very happy with my year, but to know that other people in authority actually believe that you can go on and hopefully make the Olympics and do well there – it’s nice to have that belief behind you.”

Courtney certainly earned the belief which has now been shown in her. The season got off to a flying start when she represented Wales at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April, competing in both the 1500m and 5000m.

She delivered on her early season optimism by producing a brilliant bronze-medal winning performance in the 1500m final – finishing third in a big PB of 4.03.44 behind Kenya’s Beatrice Chepkoech and global superstar Caster Semenya, of South Africa, who claimed gold.

Four days later she followed that up with a ninth place finish in the 5000m final. But that was only the start.

In July, she won silver in the 5000m at the British Athletics Championship in Birmingham, a performance which saw her qualify for the European Championships.

Melissa Courtney signing autographs at the British Championships. Pic: Owen Morgan.

The games, staged in Berlin the following month, saw her perform better at the longer distance than she had in Australia. This time, she not only finished fifth in the 5000m, but also smashed Angela Tooby’s 31-year-old Welsh record in a time of 15.04.75.

Later in August, the Poole-born athlete was in record breaking form again, breaking Hayley Tullett’s 17-year-old 3,000m Welsh record when she clocked 8:39.30 finishing fifth at the Diamond League meeting in Birmingham.

The season ended with Courtney finishing third and clocking a PB in New York’s Fifth Avenue Mile before being named as Welsh senior track and field athlete of the year.

Asked why she thought the season had gone so well, the Brunel University graduate put it down to the developing partnership with coach Rob Denmark.

“I will have been with my coach Rob for two years in January or February,” said Courtney.

“Although we’d already had a really good year together, we were still learning so much about each other. He needed to get to know what things worked well for me and I needed to get used to different things in training.

“I feel that this year it all came together, which was exactly how we thought it would come together, but it had just taken some time. It doesn’t always happen overnight.

“And I finally learnt how to race, which was the best thing. I’d always seemed to make tactical errors, but this year I learnt to be a bit more decisive in my decisions and racing situations.”

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Courtney says the extra support from British Athletics will compliment the invaluable backing she already receives from Welsh Athletics.

“It makes things a lot easier knowing you have that financial and medical support. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve already had support from Welsh Athletics. Some athletes don’t get similar support and it really does make a huge difference to me.

“I can’t thank them enough, this year has been amazing and I owe a lot of it to them for their support. They send the physio Adam Rattenberry, who has been treating me for three or four years now, he comes up to see me quite regularly in Loughborough along with the other Welsh athletes here.

“And then there’s Chris Jones, who is constantly communicating with me and my coach about my plans and how things fit in and how they can support me.

“They contributed to my altitude camp which made really big differences to me in the past year when I didn’t have the financial support from British Athletics.

“They would help me with these camps, which made all of the difference at the Commonwealth Games.”

Being added to the podium potential programme means Courtney will now have additional support even closer to hand.

“Based in Loughborough and being on the Olympic podium I can now easily go and see a physio if I have a problem, just for those little niggles that you worry about and try to push to the back of your mind. It makes the difference to have someone look at them straight away.

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“I  think it will make things a lot easier, you don’t have those extra stresses, especially if it helps a little bit more financially, you don’t have to worry so much about the extra costs, money and different things.

“I am lucky that Welsh Athletics will continue to help and support me any way they can alongside British Athletics.”

The backing means Courtney will continue to be able to compete full time, a decision she made after completing her Msc in sport, exercise and psychology at Brunel.

“I finished my masters in 2017. I handed my dissertation in a year before the Commonwealth Games and I said I would give myself that year to focus full time and give it everything I could because I wanted to go there and give the best I could.

“And then, obviously, after that I decided I needed to keep doing it full time. It seemed to work for me.”

It certainly did. Courtney rates claiming the bronze medal in the 1500m on the Gold Coast as the number one highlight of a season which featured so many contenders.

“Winning the medal at the Commonwealth Games was by far the best moment. The whole race is still a bit of a blur to me. When I think back to it, the whole lap of honour, everything  . . .  it was just phenomenal, amazing.

“I had so many friends and family in the stands, it was really special. Every time I kept moving round on my lap of honour, I kept seeing more and more people, which was really nice.

“I had my parents there, my sister lives in Australia so she was there, my boyfriend was there and his family. Even my old coach, along with my current coach.

Melissa Courtney wins Westminster Mile. Pic: Mark Shearman

“So it was really special, that one. I don’t think anything can really beat that. I didn’t actually know I’d run a PB until quite a bit of time after the race, I hadn’t looked at the scoreboard at all so I had no idea it was a good two-second PB.”

Winning the medal in the red vest of Wales was a huge moment for Courtney and particularly her Caerphilly-born mum, who is the reason she competes for Wales, despite being born in England.

“My mum was born in Caerphilly and she grew up in the valleys. It’s really special to my mum, actually.

“I know it meant so much to her the first time I put on a Welsh vest. She cried her eyes out and it was only for a small international event, it wasn’t a big competition. She really loved that I chose to compete for Wales.”

As well as winning the Commonwealth bronze, Courtney is particularly proud of her performance at the European Championships, which brought her the long-standing Welsh 5000m record.

“I said from the beginning of the year I wanted the Welsh record. I didn’t know when it would happen. I just hoped it would come, and I was lucky that the Europeans was a fast race and I got pulled along to break the record.”

Having tasted success at major championships this season, Courtney is now setting her sights on the World Athletics Championships in Doha and is keeping her options open as far as which distances to run.

Melissa Courtney after receiving her silver medal in the 5000m at the British Athletics Championship in Birmingham.

The Poole AC athlete said: “The priority now is the World Championships next year. Whether we do the 5000m or the 1500m, I’ll keep racing both of them throughout the season.

“It’s hard because the 1500 has always been my favourite event and then last year I really started to work on the 5k.

“Over the past 12 months, I’ve really specifically trained as a 5k runner and I feel that has actually improved my 1500 where I’ve had a big PB off 5K training.

“So, I think the best thing for me is to keep training how we were, but to know that I can race all the different distances.

“At the elite level, where you want to be hopefully at World and Olympic finals, you need to have the speed of a 1500m runner and the endurance of a 5k runner, so they do complement each other.

“I’ve never been to a world championships. I had the qualifying time for London, and unfortunately there were so many girls, the competition was just so strong, I missed out on it.

“I was really gutted. I said to Rob ‘I don’t want to miss out on any other teams any more’. It was really hard being at home.

“So, I made it my goal to be at the Commonwealth Games and the Europeans. I’m going to do the same again next year and hopefully, fingers crossed, I’m going to be there.”

And beyond the worlds, there is the enticing prospect of competing at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 to target – the main reason she has been included in the World Class Programme.

“That’s definitely the aim,” says Courtney. “Even back in 2016, I think it was the first year I started to think perhaps I could go to the Olympics one day. I was about half a second off the time for the 1500 then. It’s a fair amount, but I was still close, so it was realistic I could actually get the time one day.

“Obviously now, after winning a medal at the Commonwealths it’s definitely something I want.”

  • There are three levels of membership of the WCP, split into five sections. For 2018-19 the breakdown is as follows: Olympic Podium, Paralympic Podium, Olympic Podium Potential, Paralympic Podium Potential and Olympic Relays.Courtney is joined by Dewi Griffiths in the Olympic Podium Potential section, while fellow Welsh athletes Hollie Arnold, Olivia Breen, Aled Davies, Sabrina Fortune, Kyron Duke and Jordan Howe have been selected for Paralympic Podium. Harri Jenkins is included under the Paralympic Podium Potential section.However, two Welsh athletes, hurdler David Omoregie and 400m runner Seren Bundy Davies have lost their World Class Programme support.

 

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