Above: The national 4x100m junior relays squad at a camp in Hamilton.
In the previous edition of Athletics in Action we brought you the story of how Athletics NZ Sprints and Relays Co-ordinator Kerry Hill has put in place a plan to invigorate relay running in New Zealand. This week we chat to Kerry about his work leading a very exciting New Zealand junior women's 4x100m squad bound for the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz next month.
How did your formal involvement in the group start?
I got involved again as the sprints and relays co-ordinator three years ago. It is something I've done before either side of 1993 and in 2003. For me, the relays are a great pathway for people to be involved in top international competition. Countries such as Japan, Netherlands, Australia and Canada have all won Olympic or World Championship senior relays medals in recent years, although none of these nations have won a medal in an individual sprint event. To win a medal at an Olympic Games or World Championships level is a significant accomplishment and I believe it is also an achievable target for New Zealand to reach that level. I think there is an understanding within these countries that they do not expect a medal every time, but if they keep knocking on the door then they have a chance. I would say for our top sprinters it is a good long-term option. Since we began the relay programme three years ago, we've achieved some good relays results. The women qualified a 4x400m team at the Commonwealth Games and the women's 4x100m team finished fourth at the World University Games last year. We hope to continue relay development and we want to emphasise that competing in relays offers a tangible target for sprinters to aspire to in the future.
New Zealand boasts a gifted crop of teenage sprinters, particularly on the women's side, to what extent has good fortune or planning played in their development?
A little bit of both. The girls are widespread across New Zealand, many of them in small towns. They have good coaching behind them and the thought of competing at bigger international meets acts as a good motivation. In the past we have had quality groups of maybe two, three of four athletes as part of a relay squad but not six or seven (as in the current women's 4x100m set up). Their success is down to the enthusiasm of the group and the culture of co-operation and friendliness among the coaches. A massive credit needs to go to the coaches in helping produce and develop this quality group.
How do you now utilise the quality on show to make them a formidable relay force in the future?
The girls are in the tricky years when many athletes drop out of the sport either post-school, during their university years or when they start a full-time job. It is job of the sport to hopefully keep them on track and to retain them through those phases. To do that we have to engage with families and psychologists and for the athletes to work with good coaches out of good facilities to give them every opportunity to become an elite athlete. Competing at the World Junior Championships will hopefully fill them with the belief that they belong in such company. Then what needs to be done is the sport to get behind them to maintain their motivation for competing in athletics.
How many times have the team come together for practice and what plans have you got in terms of further practice between now and the World Junior Championships?
In the summer the squad came together five times in five cities with four of them both for practice and competition and one for practice only. Both the men’s and women’s teams competing at World Juniors will come together on Auckland's North Shore for another relay camp on June 25/26 before flying to Europe to do some further training and practise in Mannheim, Germany and then in on to Lodz in Poland before flying into Bydgoszcz. I very much see the team as a team of six rather than four and we are also working hard to ensure each runner can run in more than one position, if necessary. They are a tight relay unit and six squad members are top-class individuals.
Can much be done in terms of preparation at this late stage of development?
The most important thing is not to undo what already has been done. We need to maintain what we've done with some fine tuning. We won't be taking any risks. We are all at a good level. We are process driven, so we can't worry too much about the opposition or where we will finish. We just have to execute well on the day and see where we end up.
How excited are you by this crop of teenage female junior sprinters?
Both the men and the women's teams are ranked in the top 16 in the world and for little old New Zealand to achieve at a World Junior level is pretty good. This girls group are comparable with any relay team I've had in the past and perhaps even surpass them in terms of coach and family backing. They are like a tight whanau and everyone is excited by the togetherness and happiness within the group of athletes, coaches and parents.
What would you be satisfied with the women's 4x100m team achieving in Bydgoszcz?
It is out of season, but I'd like them to run faster than they did in New Zealand (the team of Brooke Somerfield, Lucy Sheat, Zoe Hobbs and Georgia Hulls ran a time of 45.04 in Wellington in January). Several of the squad have never been further than Australia and that is a massive challenge, but it is our task to get them to run slightly quicker. To do that at their first big meet would be a great achievement at their age. But it will be highly competitive. The fact the championships will be in Europe will mean a lot more (relay) teams will turn up than would typically attend. I think the standard will be one of the highest ever at a World Junior Championships.
Women's 4x100m relay squad
Olivia Eaton, Georgia Hulls, Zoe Hobbs, Lucy Sheat, Brooke Somerfield, Symone Tafuna'i
Men's 4x100m relay squad
Jordan Bolland, Hamish Gill, Jarvis Hansen, Ethan Holman, Jake Hurley, Jacob Matson