Above: Olivia Burdon on her way to the 2015 New Zealand Youth Women's 1500m title in Wellington. (Photo by Alan McDonald MacSpeedfoto)
Olivia Burdon performed with pride for New Zealand at last month’s IAAF World Youth Championships in Colombia. Steve Landells chats to the talented Australian-based middle-distance athlete to talk about her rise to prominence.
It was as an eight-year-old living in Singapore when Olivia Burdon first realised she had ability to run.
So confident was Olivia of winning the school cross country she recalls telling her mum; “Can you come and watch me race, I think I can win?”
That day she delivered on her promise and so began a winning habit which has helped the gifted young Kiwi with the long, raking stride to develop into one of the world’s best 1500m runners in her age group.
Born in Auckland to Kiwi parents, Andrew and Rachel, Olivia left her country of birth to settle in Singapore aged three before seven years later moving on to live Australia’s Gold Coast.
Yet despite the fact Olivia may have only spent a fraction of life in New Zealand there is little denying her roots: “I may sound Australian and I live in Australia, but I’m definitely a New Zealander,” explains Olivia, who says her father, who works as a financial advisor, hails from Queenstown and her mother was born in Blenheim.
If Singapore formed her athletics grounding, it really started to take shape shortly after her arrival in Australia aged ten. In her first year living in the country she finished eighth in the 2km under-11 event at the Australian Cross Country Championships - an event which provided a fascinating insight into the demands of the sport.
“I was training one day a week back then with my old school coach,” explains Olivia, whose father isa former South Canterbury cross country champion. “I remember it was a big step up and even back then some of the girls were taking it more seriously than me.”
The next key stage in her athletics development came aged 13 when she linked up with her current coach, Brian Chapman, out of the Border Striders club.
As her training regime became more “intense” the results started to follow and she finished second at the under-14 Australian Cross Country Championships.
The confidence she gleaned from that result translated to greater success on the track and last year Olivia secured the Australian Under-17 3000m title. Since then, Olivia, a talented netball goal attack, who featured as a reserve for the under-16 Queensland team, has quit the seven-a-side sport to focus on athletics.
“I really enjoyed playing a team sport and I think it helped build my physiological and mental resilience,” admits Olivia. “But I decided the risk of injury was too great.”
It has so far proved the right decision. In December she shattered her lifetime best to win the 1500m title at the All-Australian Schools’ Championships in Adelaide in 4:23.33 and then her thoughts turned to representing New Zealand at the World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia.
Olivia had first become aware of the IAAF’s flagship global event for under-18 athletes after Katelyn Simpson, an athlete Brian Chapman used to coach, placed tenth in the 1500m at the 2011 edition in Lille.
She too desperately wanted to experience the event and secured her ticket for Colombia by winning the under-18 girls’ 1500m at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Wellington, a feat she comfortably managed to achieve in 4:25.40.
“It made it all a bit more real,” she says of the experience of competing in New Zealand for only the second time in her career.
With her place secured, Olivia, who was training six times a week in preparation for Colombia, then joined up with the New Zealand team to spend some time in their pre-Championships training camp in San Francisco.
It was here, Olivia put the finishing touches to her World Youth Championships preparations and also familiarised herself with the six-strong Kiwi team plus support staff.
“It was a small team, but really supportive and I really enjoyed being a part of it,” she says. “It was great to have a good management team and a great physio to work with in Tawhai Whitewood. It was the first time I had enjoyed regular physio and he was so good in helping me mentally prepare for my races.”
The psychological edge she gained clearly worked. Olivia performed with pride inside a steaming hot Pascual Guerrero Stadium, advancing to the final in fifth and slicing almost two seconds from her lifetime best in 4:21.36.
“I tried to race the prelims like I would the final,” she explains. “The hot conditions did not affect me too much as it is pretty hot where I train in Queensland. A bit of the pressure was off because I knew the first heat had been a slow run race, but my goals were to qualify for the final and I was hoping for a PB, so I was happy.”
In the final, Olivia found the blistering pace from the start difficult to handle, but acquitted herself with pride to finish ninth in 4:23.04 – for the second fastest time in her burgeoning career – coincidentally one place better than Katelyn Simpson achieved at the 2011 World Youth Championships.
“I was pretty happy with my position (in the final) and it has motivated me to do better in the future,” she adds. “Racing at night in a great atmosphere was fun as I’d never experienced anything like that before. It has really motivated me for the future and now I want to qualify for the World Junior Championships (in Kazan, Russia) next year.”
Since returning to Queensland, she has taken a rest with the exception of one small important date – her school athletics day at St Hilda’s School – where she not unsurprisingly secured victory in the 800m, 1500m and 3000m.
Olivia is far to modest too reveal the size of her victory in those three races, but although she may be back in Gold Coast her heart is very much on the eastern side of the Tasman Sea.
“Representing New Zealand for the first time has really opened my eyes,” explains Olivia. “I’d love to compete at a future Commonwealth Games,” she adds.