Above: James Preston in the blue and white of Wellington Harrier Athletic on his way to a surprise victory in the Porritt Classic 800m. Photo by Alan McDonald Macspeedfoto.
Teenager James Preston made a huge breakthrough by slipping under the World Junior Championships qualification mark in Hamilton earlier this month. Steve Landells profiles an athlete who is making waves in the New Zealand athletics community.
Should James Preston go on to enjoy a stellar senior career in the sport, there is little doubt that Porritt Stadium will hold a special place it in his heart.
It was at the Hamilton-based venue where the emerging Wellington middle-distance produced a Beamonesque (after the US long jump ace who bettered his PB by 55cm to set a world long jump record of 8.90m and secure Olympic gold) breakthrough by demolishing his previous 800m PB by 2.21 seconds to clock a time of 1:48.92.
The performance was impressive for many reasons. From a competitive point of view he had beaten a top quality field including leading Kiwi middle-distance duo Brad Mathas and Hamish Carson, who have snared ten national senior track titles between them. Secondly, the 18-year-old had dipped comfortably below the 1:49.50 qualification mark for the World Junior Championships and, thirdly, he had come within 0.19 of Jason Stewart’s 16-year-old national junior record.
“When I crossed the line I was pretty sure I had run the (World Junior qualification) time, it was only later I realised I was so close to the junior record. I was definitely shocked to run that time.”
It was a display of rare quality by a young man who deserves an introduction.
Raised in the Wellington suburb of Karori on the western edge of the city, James was first exposed to athletics as a primary school student at the local Karori Amateur Athletics Club. Each Wednesday during the summer months he enjoyed trying the full range of athletics events but he admits he was no superstar and at the time was more interested in the sport of hockey.
His connection with athletics was to step up a notch when he began attending Scots College at the age of 13 and his cross country potential was spotted by the school athletics coach at the time Graham Tattersall, former coach to multiple World mountain Running champion Jonathan Wyatt.
He was invited to join the training group and enjoyed some success developing into “a middle of the pack” cross country runner at a national secondary school level.
Simultaneously he continued to make progress on the hockey field. Like his father, Stuart, he played the game to a representative level and helped Scots College earned a top ten national ranking.
While hockey may have been his primary passion back then, it was Tattersall who gave James the perfect introduction to athletics. Training as part of the G Squad (the G standing for the first initial of their coach) he was inspired to run.
“Graham was an amazing coach and he was the driving force behind me running competitively,” says James. “He could coach people at any level and his commitment to running was huge. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t at training.”
James describes Graham’s death in October 2014 as a “big shock” but the group was fortunate that Evan Cooper - the 2012 New Zealand Road Race silver medallist who was formerly coached by Tattersall – quickly took up the coaching reins of the group.
Sharing the same “philosophy” as Tattersall the switch to Cooper leading the G Squad was a smooth one and as James started to step up his training gradually his results started to improve. Enjoying greater success in the middle-distances rather than cross country, he finished fourth in the 1500m at the 2014 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships.
Then last March he grabbed the North Island Secondary Schools title 800m title in a PB of 1:54.52 – a performance which gave the 6ft 2ins tall athlete a hint his future might best lie in the two-lap event.
Enjoying a full winter’s training of six days per week, which includes three track sessions, his confidence and belief that 800m was his primary distance was reaffirmed after he ran an almost two-second PB last November of 1:52.74 at a Central League meeting in Palmerston North.
One month later he secured his maiden national title when taking the 800m senior crown at the National Secondary Schools’ Championships in Timaru.
“It was definitely good to tick off that first national title,” says James, who carries out his track sessions at Newtown Park and his longer runs out from the Wellington Harriers clubrooms on Mount Victoria.
At Potts Classic in January he trimmed more than half-a-second from his lifetime 800m best recording a time of 1:52.13 yet his Porritt Classic preparations were to suffer a huge jolt when he was hospitalised after mysteriously collapsing while out on a training run.
“From what I understand I fainted, hit the hit the ground and I had a seizure,” explains James. “All I remember was waking up in an ambulance and being really confused with what I was doing there.”
The middle-distance runner spent the night in hospital and tests have proved inconclusive in terms of what may have caused him to collapse. James says since the incident he has “lost a bit of confidence” and that he “prefers to now run in a group at all times.”
Thankfully, the seizure left no physical hangover and a little under two weeks later he bounced back at Porritt Classic to earn his breakthrough performance, for which he should go on to secure selection for the IAAF World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz in Poland.
So what are his hopes for what will be his first major international competition?
“I would like to get the New Zealand junior record because I was so close at Porritt and it would be nice to progress through to the semi-final,” adds James, who will be travelling to Europe for the first time.
His next major outing will be targeting the junior 800m title at the forthcoming New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Dunedin before he then steps up his preparation to focus on his World Junior assault.
In the coming weeks he will face changing times as he starts his university life studying architecture at Victoria University, but athletically he has set some simple goals for the future.
“I like the aspect that I can improve upon and build on my results, but definitely Evan and Graham have played a key role in keeping me interested in the sport,” he concedes.