Above: Hannah O'Connor on her way to the NZ U18 3000m title at the 2017 NZ Track & Field Championships. Photo by Alisha Lovrich / TempoShot.
It is little wonder distance running prodigy Hannah O’Connor is unsure of the number of medals she proudly displays in her bedroom.
As a multiple winning New Zealand Secondary Schools’ track, road and cross country and winner of a raft of Athletics NZ and regional titles the answer lies to the question lies somewhere between a lot and very many.
Yet perhaps her inability to answer the question bests reflects the sheer dominance shown by the rising 16-year-old endurance star in recent times.
Hailing from New Plymouth, Hannah first became aware of her running talent aged ten. From a non-athletic family and having finished 24th in the previous year’s Taranaki Schools Cross Country Championships, she entered the event as a Year Six student with few expectations, but after claiming a shock victory that day it opened up a whole new world of opportunities.
“I won it and it was a pretty big deal,” says Hannah of that unexpected cross country success. “I was very surprised and very happy – that (victory) started my running career.”
Aged 12 she joined Egmont Athletics and initially competed across the full range of athletics events. Yet her appetite was further whetted after placing third in the 3000m and fifth in the 1500m at the 2014 North Island Secondary Schools’ Championships. With a naturally competitive streak, Hannah wanted more and sought out Taranaki athletics coaching legend Karen Gillum-Green for coaching.
“She (Karen) is known as one of the best coaches in Taranaki,” she explains. “Karen was managing the North Island event and, although it took all of my courage, I went up and asked her that I wanted to do better and would she coach me?”
Karen agreed and the pair have formed a winning combination ever since.
Within just two months of the birth of the coach-athlete relationship, Hannah won a silver medal as a Year Nine student at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships in Palmerston North. At the end of the year she claimed victory in the Year Nine Road Race at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track, Field and Road Race Championships in Wanganui.
“We discussed whether to do the road race and the track but we decided to focus on just on the road race,” recalls Hannah. “It was my first national secondary schools title and it was pretty amazing. I felt proud after all the hard work I had put in with Karen.”
Hannah is hugely praiseworthy of the role Karen has played in her development. Describing her as a patient and sympathetic influence, she believes one of her coach’s strengths is an ability to develop her athletes gradually.
“She brings the best out in me but without pushing me too hard, which could lead to burn out,” explains Hannah. “She is understanding and doesn’t mind if I play other sports. I guess she is quite happy for you to live the life of a teenager and have lots of other things going on.”
A former basketballer and netballer for Sacred Heart Girls’ College in her native New Plymouth, Hannah still competes in surf lifesaving today and last year landed the national under-16, under-19 and open titles for the 2km beach run events.
A regular surf lifesaving patroller on Fitzroy Beach she has no intention of quitting the high-energy role.
“It is not as important as my athletics, but I enjoy giving back to the community by patrolling the beach,” she adds.
Since her breakthrough 2014 campaign she has sucked up titles with all the efficiency of a Dyson vacuum cleaner.
In 2015 he secured gold in the junior race at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships in Dunedin before later that year completing the junior 1500m and 3000m double at the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Track, Field and Road Race Championships in Timaru– narrowly missing out on the 3000m championship record in the process.
“To get the double was really good because as a year nine student I had watched all the (track) races, because back then I didn’t think it was fast enough to run them,” she recalls.
In 2016 the success continued when she stormed to U18 and U20 gold medals in the 3000m at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships and also landed the national U18 5km crown on the road. Over the cross country she retained her junior secondary schools title in Rotorua and she ended the year by successfully defending her junior 1500m and 3000m crowns on the track at the secondary schools’ championships in Auckland –destroying the previous championship record in the latter event by 15 seconds.
Last year, Hannah – who has an older non-running twin brother, Ollie – also enjoyed her first taste of major international competition by placing sixth at the ISF World Schools Cross Country Championships in Budapest.
“It was a great experience and my first time in Europe,” explains Hannah. “We had six girls in the New Zealand team and it was cool to meet them and find out more about them. The race went well. The start was pretty hectic and although the language barrier was hard, and the race was started in Hungarian rather than in English, it was a fun experience.”
Training six days a week but with training for no more than one hour of running per day there is clearly much further scope for improvement in Hannah. This year she has swept up three further New Zealand titles in the U18 1500m and 3000m and U20 3000m and posted PB’s for the 800m (2:17.33), 1500m (4:28.85) and 3000m (9:25.42). Yet she is most proud of lowering the New Zealand U17 and U18 2000m steeplechase records with an impressive 6:32.38 outing at the Taranaki Championships at Inglewood in February.
“I was pretty excited to break the U17 record of Kelsey Forman and U18 record of Rosa Flanagan and it was only for third ever race over the distance,” she explains.
Which brings us to another question. As an established championship performer over a range of distances and events, does she have a favourite?
“Probably the 3k and 1500m on the track would be my favourite,” she admits. “During the track season I really enjoy it but then when the cross country season comes around I really enjoy that as well. But I think in the future the steeplechase is the event I would like to do more.”
As a Year 12 student she will attempt her first New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Cross Country Championships as a senior in Christchurch later this month where she has slightly modestly set herself the target of a top six spot.
In July she competes over 1500m and 3000m at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Bahamas and beyond that she would one day like to combine running with studying at university with the US a potential destination.
With a trip to the Caribbean on the horizon and with a target of competing at the 2018 World Schools’ Cross Country Championships in Paris next year there is little doubting the opportunities running has brought the teenager so far.
Yet, arguably, her greatest buzz came last year going on a 40-minute jog with 2016 Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen during her time in New Plymouth competing at last year’s ITU triathlon event.
“Jamie Turner, coach to Gwen, who is originally from New Plymouth, was at my school when I was given an athletics prize,” she says. “I went up to Jamie and told him how much I would love to meet Gwen. He then replied, ‘do you want to go for a run with her’ and I was like, “yes, please’.”