By Owen Morgan
Athletics was the ultimate winner on Sunday as the two-day Welsh Athletics Indoor Championships came to a close in Cardiff.
After a two-year gap between the winter national championships due to Covid, athletes, fans and organisers were all glad to be back at the National Indoor Athletics Centre – especially as there were still doubts surrounding the event up until two weeks ago.
But following the Welsh Government announcement that restrictions on indoor events were due to end last Friday, it was all systems go for the championships.
After the final event on Sunday afternoon, Welsh Athletics’ head of competitions Rhiannon Linington-Payne allowed herself a small sigh of relief at how the weekend, which also included the national under-15 championships, had gone.
“We only found out two weeks ago that we could have a normal event,” said Linington-Payne.
“Up until that point, we’d been planning scenarios A through to Z, some of which involved no more than 30 people in the building at any one time.
“But obviously, with a championships, where you have heats and finals to contend with, it becomes quite tricky.
“So, it was a relief the restrictions were lifted when they were, but at the same time, it did mean that an event that would normally take three months planning was done in two weeks.
“I’m really proud of the staff team and the team of officials and volunteers who were pulled together to get it to happen.”
Asked whether they were times when she doubted the event would take place, Linington-Payne replied: “Yeah, quite a lot!
Indoors is back 2.0 😅
What a day and what a weekend – thank you officials, staff, athletes and all!
6am start, train, Welsh Champs Day 2, 6pm finish – and they say Sunday is a day of rest 🥵
Great to catch up with my first coach who bought me into this wonderful sport too 🥰 pic.twitter.com/qJn3JYLf3o
— Rhi (@RhiLP) January 30, 2022
“Working in events involves long days in the lead up to the event. But there were a few times, especially this week, when myself and a couple of the team thought, actually, there’s just not enough hours in the day for us to get done what we need to get done.
“There were probably a few teething problems here or there. But we’ve got a great staff team and a great team of officials and volunteers who were all savvy to that fact we could work through the issues as they arose together. Luckily, there weren’t that many.
” We would have liked to allow more spectators through the door to create a bit more of an atmosphere and a bit more of a buzz. But I know that the people who have been able to make it have been really grateful to be back and have really enjoyed their weekend.”
The gratitude was shared by more than 350 senior and under-15 competitors who entered the championships across Saturday and Sunday.
Linington-Payne, herself a current international sprinter, added: “I’m quite close personally to a lot of the athletes and so many of them have said they’re just so thankful for the opportunity to race locally in Wales because the mileage stacks up and the hotel bills stack up for everyone as well.
“It’s really been putting people in Wales at a disadvantage up until this point, so it’s nice to be able to give them that opportunity to compete here.”
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the event, some elite athletes weren’t able to attend, having already made arrangements to compete elsewhere during the Welsh restrictions, but those who did took full advantage of the opportunities.
One of the local athletes who was delighted to compete close to home was rising middle distance star James Heneghan.
The Cardiff Athletics man cruised through his heat and then backed up the performance by leading the final from start to finish to take the Welsh 800m title in a time of 1:52.53.
Heneghan was pleased with his performance and excited by what it could lead to in a big season of championship events.
“It was good,” said Heneghan after the final. “I wanted to get out and see what I could do in a second hard run of the day.
“I went through 200 and it was a little slow. The next lap was really good. But then I wasn’t able to really keep on it. But indoors is quite a bit harder than outdoors. To get the win, gun to tape was lovely.
“Training has been going really well. To be able to produce two very solid runs three hours apart, shows it’s there.
“I just need to keep pressing up and then see what we can do at the other championships.”
Indoors, those championships will include the British Universities Championships and the British Indoor Athletics Championships in the coming weeks.
But Heneghan is also eyeing a summer which includes a dream of representing Wales at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham over 1500m.
First, he must lower his personal best of 3:41.66 and achieve the 3:39 nomination standard to be in with a chance of selection.
“That is the aim,” said Heneghan.
“Obviously, 3:39 is a very quick time and to get it by the eighth of May, a lot of things are going to have to fall into place nicely.
“But there’s definitely some plans in place to go into April and just start smashing everything.”
There was an equally impressive performance in the women’s 800m where Bracknell’s Rachel McClay won in 2:12.09.
Hannah Brier followed up her win in the 60 metres the previous day with a championship best performance in the 200m as she clocked 24.15 to win her heat.
However, the Swansea Harrier was unable to take her place in the final where Melissa Roberts – the previous holder of the championship best – claimed the Welsh title in 24.73.
In the women’s high jump, Lauren Evans continued the outstanding form she has enjoyed since the turn of the year.
The Cardiff Athletics multi-eventer won bronze at the English Indoor Combined Events Championships earlier this month where she set a new pentathlon personal best of 3,862.
On Saturday, she set a new 60m hurdles PB and on Sunday she improved her high jump personal best by a huge 7cms to 1.80m to win the Welsh title.
A great end to a brilliant Welsh Indoor Champs! 🎉 Thank you to all the athletes, coaches, spectators, officials, volunteers and staff for making it happen. We hope to see you all again soon.
You can check out the final results here: https://t.co/SWUMoi87um pic.twitter.com/VqZHstohlT
— @welshathletics (@WelshAthletics) January 30, 2022
A delighted Evans said: “It’s awesome, I’m so happy to go from 1.73 to 1.80. It’s looking good for the pentathlon with the high jump going up and the hurdles time coming down.
“I’ve got the British Champs coming up at the end of February. To get over 4,000 points there would be nice. ”
The under-23 star said she felt her form was down to an improvement in confidence.
“Training’s been going great, I’ve got a great team around me and they believe in me.”
One of the distances which suffered from a lack of athletes was the 3,000m which had only four competitors, resulting in a combined male and female race where Commonwealth Games 3,000 steeplechase hopeful Lauren Cooper was the only female runner.
“It was a bit of a strange one since I was the only girl in the race and I knew how fast those boys were going to go from the start,” said the Parc Bryn Bach athlete, who clocked 9:52.09.
“It was more about holding back at the start and not trying to race them.
Busy weekend at Welsh Champs!🥈1500m 🥇3000. Not the times I wanted, but plenty of lessons learned! XC last weekend, Indoors this weekend- might as well have a run out on the roads next- PUL5K incoming 🏃🏼♀️ diolch @WelshAthletics and as ever thanks @CardiffUniSport for the support https://t.co/HghYIGiPkd
— Lauren Cooper (@LaurenCooperl7) January 31, 2022
“But then 15 laps is a long way to be completely by yourself, you switch off a little. It was a steady tempo and it’s just hard to put that kind of effort in by yourself.
“Training is going really well, even if it’s not coming out in races yet, but I’m sure it will. I’m enjoying the training more than the racing, but we’ve got some big plans for the rest of the season so I’m hoping to click sooner rather than later.
One of those ambitions could hopefully be the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s still an outside chance but I’m going to give everything I’ve got,” said Cooper.
“We need to get the qualifying time early in the season, so for the next couple of months that is the focus and then try and have a bit of fun in the summer.”
Cooper says her rivalry with Kate Seary, with whom she swapped the Welsh steeplechase record last season, could help both women chase qualification.
“Definitely. I think I was maybe too comfortable with being the dominant or the sole steeplechaser.
“But since Kate has come in, it’s sort of rallied us both and we were taking the record off each other last year. I was just disappointed she managed to get it back in the last race of the season!
“Hopefully, we can start taking it back off of each other again early on in the season. It definitely helps having somebody as talented as Kate racing against you.”
The men’s 3,000m title was won by World Championship and Commonwealth Games steeplechaser Ieuan Thomas, who crossed the line in 8:18.01.
Other highlights of the day saw Rebecca Chapman warm up for next week’s DNA Indoor International in Glasgow by continuing her domination of the Welsh long jump scene with another national title thanks to a jump of 6.12m.
In the men’s long jump, Cardiff decathlete Curtis Mathews followed up his three-medal haul on Saturday, by claiming a silver medal in the men’s long jump, where the Welsh title was won by Ryan Edwards, of Maldwyn.
In the under-15 championships, Libby Hale completed an outstanding double when she won the 800m in a time of 2:19.54 on Sunday.
The previous day, the Swansea Harrier won the 1500m in a new Welsh Indoor Under-15 record of 4:39.62.
A full round up of the championship’s results are available on the Open Track website.