Above: Hamish Carson wins his fouth national 1500m title in Wellinton ahead of fellow Rio Olympian Jaulian Matthews in 2014. Photo Alan McDonald Macspeedfoto.
Earlier this month Hamish Carson earned confirmation he was one of three men set to don the Black Singlet in the 1500m at the Rio Olympics. As Steve Landells discovered the 27-year-old’s journey to the sport’s pinnacle event has been a richly deserved prize after years of near misses.
As a five-time New Zealand 1500m champion it is perhaps no big surprise Hamish Carson has held a long-time dream to represent his country at an Olympic Games.
Yet rewind back 15 years ago and the aspiration for the ski-obsessed youngster from the Kapiti Coast was less to appear at a Summer Olympics but more the Winter Olympics.
A keen downhill skier in his youth, Hamish spent successive winters in the tiny town of National Park at the base of Mt Ruapehu. He later lived for three months in Wanaka and tried his hand at cross country skiing proving good enough to win the New Zealand Junior title.
Little did he know at the time but competing in the gruelling endurance winter sport was to prove the perfect trigger for his subsequent track career.
“After I started college on the Kapiti Coast, I wanted to keep up the fitness I’d gained (cross country skiing) but as I didn’t have any mountains to ski on I started running,” explains Hamish who was raised and still lives in Raumati South.
Aged six or seven he flirted with “a wee bit of athletics” at the Paraparaumu Athletics Club without it ever featuring as a significant part of his life.
However, taking up the sport more seriously aged 14 and training twice a week at Newtown Park under the coaching of Graham Tattersall, he quickly realised he had a gift for middle-distance running.
He developed into one of the leading schoolboy 1500m athletes and he recalls as a 16-year-old finishing fourth at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships - one place behind Julian Matthews one of his fellow Rio-bound Kiwi team-mates.
After leaving Tattersall in 2005 and in an effort to identify his replacement, Hamish’s mum rang up then the veteran coach Arch Jelley, the man who guided 1976 Olympic 1500m champion John Walker, for advice. It proved to be an inspired phone call.
“He asked about my vital statistics such as height, weight and race times before he rang back and offered to coach me,” explains Hamish of Arch’s shock decision to return to coaching following a ten-year break. “John Walker was an idol of mine, so I was thrilled to be coached by the famous Arch Jelley. It has gone fantastically well since then. He’s a very nice man with a good sense of humour and he has decades of knowledge to draw on when setting my training.”
Hamish steadily improved under Jelley’s astute guidance signing off his school career with a 1500m silver medal at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships behind his long-time rival Julian Matthews again.
Studying an honours degree at Victoria University of Wellington in Ecology and Biodiversity he found balancing the demands of higher education, part time work and running challenging at times.
Yet under Arch’s patient guidance, he made a big leap forward in 2010 wiping more than four seconds from his 1500m PB running 3:44.64 clocking in Christchurch and also landing the senior national 1500m title – his first New Zealand title at any level.
The next year he continued his development by slashing a further four seconds from his 1500m lifetime best running 3:40.52 in Sydney and retaining his national crown in Dunedin. He also experienced his first European summer of racing and ended a long campaign with an appearance at the 2011 World University Games in Shenzhen, placing tenth in the 1500m final.
“I was not on fresh legs, but I really enjoyed the experience,” he recalls of his first and so far only major championship. “There were so many people there, massive crowds and when I look back on these memories it will give me some sort of idea of what to expect in Rio.”
The next season his goal was to run the Olympic A qualifying standard of 3:36. Invited by Nick Willis to train in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a spell he thrived in the environment. He chipped two seconds from his PB with a 3:38.04 effort in Swarthmore (coincidentally the same meet in Philadelphia he was to set his lifetime best earlier this year) but ultimately fell short of his London ambitions.
The 2013 season was dogged by breathing problems as Hamish was misdiagnosed with exercise induced asthma. After many months battling to find a correct diagnosis it was discovered the middle-distance runner’s vocal chords were spasming during high intensity exercise and closing his airways.
“It was a crazy thing to happen,” he explains. “To fix the problem I went to a speech and language therapist where I was put on a treadmill. Once I reached a high speed and the vocal chords would spasm we’d work on ways to control that. It was very strange. It only took four sessions to sort out and after a year of poor performances, I was miraculously able to breathe again.”
The 2014 campaign was all about targeting a place at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Typically based on the Kapiti Coast he spent larger chunks of time up in Auckland to be overseen by Jelley – now aged 93. He retained his national 1500m title but injury issues interrupted his preparations and he missed out on Glasgow.
Last year brought more frustration. Targeting a place on the World Championship team for Beijing he travelled over to Europe in pursuit of a qualification time only to suffer an unfortunate mishap. Living in an apartment block in the Belgian city of Leuven he slipped and fell jumping over a rock wall breaking both wrists. An accident which brought an abrupt end to his World Championship goal.
Bumped off the high performance programme at the end of the year he admitted going through some “serious soul searching” as to whether he wanted to continue in the sport. After some contemplation he decided to carry on.
“I was sick of running poorly that season but after talking with Arch and with the Olympics coming up, I thought it would be pretty silly of me to throw it all away without giving it one last shot”
Should he achieve his Rio ambition, however, he knew he needed to diligently organise his life both on and off the track.
Without high performance funding and with aspirations to train and race in the US and Europe for up to six months he faced a financial chasm. Saving as much money as possible from his job in ecological restoration he says his mum has been hugely supportive but so too has his club, Wellington Scottish, where he has received much appreciated financial assistance from the Scottish Supporters Trust.
“The club has been fantastic in terms of working out what I need and how I’m going to achieve it,” he says. “Speaking to Todd Stevens (programme manager at Wellington Scottish) and working out how I could make this happen was really crucial not only from a money perspective but also the planning. Todd knew as well as I that making the Olympics would be tough to achieve but he instilled in me the mindset of leaving no stone unturned. That meant planning everything I could control to maximise my chance of success.”
Receiving the monetary and organisational assistance needed to fulfil his dreams, Hamish has also worked hard on maximising his running potential. Following his accident in Belgium it was not necessary to take an end-of-season break so he re-started training much earlier than he typically would – a decision which has allowed him to put in a stronger endurance base.
Yet another vital ingredient in his breakthrough year has been the huge role played by Nick Willis, Julian Matthews and everyone involved at the Very Nice Track Club. On the advice of Nick, the 2008 Olympic silver medallist, Hamish has added more tempo runs into his training programme and the fruits of his labour were evident during one of his first training sessions of the season with Nick at Newtown Park in December when in Hamish’s words, “I was able to keep up with Nick throughout a training session for the first time.”
Emerging a stronger, much improved athlete from his two-month training stint with Willis he clipped more than a second from his mile PB with a 3:56.72 effort in Wanganui before later securing his fifth national 1500m crown in Dunedin.
Buoyed by a new-found confidence he then moved out to the US for further spells of training and racing with Nick, Julian and rising Kiwi 1500m talent Eric Speakman in pursuit of the A standard 3:36.20.
Thriving in the environment Hamish is quick to praise the role that Nick and his coach, Ron Warhurst have played in being open to allow him to join the Very Nice Track Club.
“Nick’s paced us, he trains with us and he’s never shy to give advice. He’s helped me get into races and he’s done all he can to ensure I have the best chance possible of making this team.”
Yet what perhaps Hamish has learned most about training with Nick is that it is not necessary to hit training to the maximum every day.
“Not having Arch around to oversee every training session, because he is up in Auckland, the tendency was to hammer it every day in training” he adds. “But Nick doesn’t kill it every day. Sometimes doing less is more and what is working so well for me is to have that gradual training stimulus day after day without pushing it every time.”
The elixir has worked as his US and European 2016 campaign has seen the Wellington Scottish athlete produce the five quickest 1500m times of his career. His quest for an Olympic qualification time began in earnest in Swarthmore in May where he logged a new lifetime best of 3:36.25 – an agonising 0.05 shy of the Olympic A standard.
In a race selflessly paced by Willis, Hamish launched his victory assault with 100m to go only to tie up in the final 20m to be pipped by American David Torrence and Kiwi Julian Matthews.
“To find out I missed the time by a whisker put a little bit of a dampener on things,” he says of the most bittersweet of PBs.
He then embarked on a consistent run of races from Canada to Belgium and the Czech Republic to the US - all within less than a second of the qualification mark without ever quite pushing below the elusive time.
In the last of those races – a brave 3:36.53 effort at the Boston Games on June 17 – he faced a dilemma. Hamish may not have achieved the automatic standard but he had another route into Rio as the IAAF invites the top 45 athletes ranked athletes irrespective of them achieving the standard. At the time ranked 40th he could either push on in pursuit of a qualification time with the risk of burn out or gamble that he has done enough and return to training.
After consultation with Nick and Arch he took the latter option.
“At that point it was looking pretty good that I would make the top 45,” he says. “It did get quite tense at one stage following a race in Barcelona when I few people pipped me for a spot and there was a time I was thinking about getting on a plane to race again.”
Thankfully for Hamish his gamble not to mention his hard work and sheer perseverance paid dividends as he received confirmation earlier this month from Athletics NZ he was on his way to Rio.
With a little over a week to the Opening Ceremony, Hamish is relishing the thought of making his Olympic debut in what will his first major championship for five years since his World University Games appearance.
So what are the 27-year-old’s expectations in Rio?
“I hope to take it one step at a time,” he explains. “I want to get through the heat and if I manage that the next step is to get through the semi-final and into the final. I want to give it my all. I’m under no illusions as to how tough the challenge is, but I’m excited to give it my best shot against the best in the world.”
Few athletes will deserve it more.