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22 April 2022 • General

Izzy overcomes setbacks to enjoy stellar season

Izzy Neal in action at the 2022 New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Hastings (Photo: Alisha Lovrich)

Kiwi one-lap star Izzy Neal has had to face her fair share of challenges both on and off the track, but the 20-year-old has emerged stronger for her experiences to enjoy the best season of her career this year.

A winner of silver (400m) and bronze medals (200m) at the 2022 Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships, Izzy has also taken more than a second from her 400m PB this year to climb to number eight on the New Zealand all-time lists for the one-lap distance and capped a wonderful year with 400m gold at the Australian Championships.

Yet her road to a successful 2022 has been far from easy. Injuries and illness during her school years caused much anguish and frustration. Meanwhile, the tragic death of her father due to cancer when she was aged just 11 naturally brought further heartache.

However, through it all her sunny and upbeat nature has shone through and her passion for the sport has remained undimmed – a fact which has enabled her to touch the heights of 2022.

“I love the sport and I have some very big goals as an athlete, but I think you have to go through those hard times in order to reap the rewards and when you do, they are so much sweeter,” explains Izzy.

“This year has been so much fun, but my journey has proved it is worth hanging in there. It teaches you more about both yourself in both sport and life. If you have that passion and that internal motivation, it is worth it.”

Born in Hong Kong to British parents, Izzy’s family re-located to the small township of Mapua about a 20-minute drive west of Nelson when she was five. From a sporty family – her mum, Sue, was a former 100m hurdler and her father, Phil, an ex-Great Britain basketball international – she was encouraged to try athletics and at the age of eight joined her local Richmond AC.

“I loved the atmosphere of being part of a big group of girls who got on really well,” she explains. “From the age of about ten I started to enjoy a bit of success, but it was only after winning the 100m, 200m and 400m at the Colgate Games when I was aged 12, did I think maybe I’m not too terrible at this.”

The previous year, however, her world was turned upside down by the death of her father from cancer. Aged in his early 50s for the previously fit and healthy man to have passed left the family shattered.

“He was such a healthy bloke, he was into cycling and his death definitely came as a shock to the family,” she explains. “It was devastating but even today it is motivating to make him proud. Mum was probably the one who wanted me to start athletics, but dad was the one that used to take me to every meet, which was cool. I think of him every race and I also wear a necklace with his thumbprint on to that was given to me after he died – I wear it every race.”

The next phase of her athletics career took her to Motueka High School, where she came under the coaching guidance of the Tony Aikenhead. Izzy had previously carried out some training sessions with Tony prior to attending the school, but there is little doubt it proved an inspirational decision.

Part of a top-quality sprint squad which also included Camryn Smart, the 2021 senior women’s 400m champion, the school regularly enjoyed national secondary schools 4x400m success and massively punched above their weight for a school of around 700 students.

“He’s been the most incredible influence not only from a coaching perspective but also away from the track because since the death of my father I’ve looked up to Tony as a father-figure,” she explains. “Over the years we have developed a strong bond. He’s always encouraged me to keep on running despite the injuries. He knows the sport inside out and he has been very supportive. But he not only wants us to be better athletes Tony also wants us to be better people, which is really important.”

As a Year nine student she tore her ATFL ligament in her ankle but later that year bounced back to strike junior girls’ 400m gold at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Timaru. The following year she tore the ATFL in her other ankle but still went on to win 400m junior girls’ silver at the New Zealand Secondary Schools before returning 12 months later to regain the gold.

Yet why specialise in the 400m from a relatively young age?

“I think if I could have chosen the 400m I probably wouldn’t have because it is a nasty race,” she explains with a smile. “I just think I chose the 400m because I’d experienced those injuries, which meant I struggled to complete speed blocks on training. For that reason, I took on the 400m because I was travelling at a slightly slower speed and my body could get away it. I also used to do cross country during primary school, so I did come from an endurance background.”

Glandular fever wiped her out of the sport for up to eight months during 2018 season and although she returned to finish fifth in the senior girls 400m final at her final New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships the following year, it had been a tough couple of years for the Motueka High School student.

“Many times, I’ve said I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m sick of it. But thankfully I’ve had great support and I’ve learned to love the sport.”

In 2020 she headed north to relocate to Auckland to study towards a degree in Sport and Exercise Science and Nutrition at AUT and during her first year in the ‘City of Sails’ she continued to be coached by Tony remotely.

The arrangement brought about success as Izzy secured the national U20 title that year and in 2021 she won the national senior silver 400m medal – finishing one place behind her good friend and flat-mate Camryn Smart. Yet Izzy felt a change was needed.

“I did struggle not having a group to train with and with Tony not being there for the technical side of things,” she explains. “I found it wasn’t so bad for winter training, when I just had to slog it out, but I really struggled being on my own (during training) for speed work sessions. That’s when I suggested it was time to join a squad in Auckland with a coach present all the time and to train with girls faster than me.”

In April last year Izzy joined the crack training group led by coaching guru James Mortimer. Containing such stellar names as New Zealand 100m record-holder Zoe Hobbs, national 200m champion Georgia Hulls and New Zealand 400m hurdles record-holder Portia Bing the group is dripping in quality.

“James is a very humble coach with a calming presence, who is very technically aware,” she adds. “He is always eager to learn and implement that new knowledge. He knows how to cater to each of us individually, I couldn’t speak more highly of him. He’s been an incredible support not just within athletics but in life away from athletics as well.”

Her training has also undergone a transformation under James’ guidance.

“Previously I’d complete a lot of 600m repetitions and long runs and focus on speed towards the end of the season,” she says. “But with James there is a lot more emphasis on speed all year round. I don’t do any long runs anymore and when we do training everything is high quality. I definitely think I’ve benefited a lot from this training model, and I’ve seen big improvements in my maximum speed.”

Besides James’ influence, Izzy can also draw from the inspiration of being a part of such a quality training group.

“I am so lucky,” she explains. “Portia and Zoe are that step ahead and it is cool to be able to see them train every day. I really look up to Portia. She is slightly older than me, but she has become a good friend. She is really very supportive and when I was in Australia (for Aussie Champs) and James wasn’t there due to flights for the heats Portia acted as a coach for me. She is a wonderful friend and inspiration. “

Possessing good natural endurance and now with the benefit of enhanced speed under James’ coaching, Izzy started her season with her fastest ever opener – a 54.35 clocking at Potts Classic in Hastings. Encouraged by the performance she then wiped 0.19 from her PB to record a swift 53.75 to win over one-lap at the Cooks Classic in Whanganui.

“It was fun to run at Cooks, it is always a nice track and conditions were good. I’d spoken with James about race tactics, and I decided to work that second bend and try to kick with 150m to go,” she adds.

Her season then took another giant leap forward at the Sir Graeme Douglas International in Auckland in February when she once more took a scalpel to her lifetime best, recording 53.37 for second behind Rosie Elliott.

The Cantabrian got the better of Izzy at the 2022 New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Hastings, but Izzy was far from upset after once again shattering her PB by posting a stunning 52.79 for silver.

“I was ecstatic to have gone sub-53 seconds,” she adds. “Some athletes might have not liked Rosie stepping up to the 400m (she has previously specialised as a 100m and 200m sprinter) but it couldn’t have come at a better time. We needed a fresh face who could push us. Rosie produced an incredible race at nationals and afterwards I said thank you. It was an honour to run with her and it was combination of James’ training and Rosie pushing that allowed me to go sub-53 seconds.”

In an effort to find more speed in 2022 she has also stepped up her 100m and 200m racing. It has worked as she has registered PB’s in both the 100m (11.82) and 200m (23.94) and also snared a half-lap bronze at nationals too.

To help build further experience she climaxed her season by competing at the Australian Championships and bloodied the noses of the top Aussie sprinters by striking 400m gold with an inspirational display, clocking 52.86. With her training partners Zoe Hobbs (women’s 100m) and Georgia Hulls (women’s 200m) also grabbing gold medals in Sydney it was some performance by the women’s New Zealand sprint squad.

“It was a really nice way to end the season,” she explains. “There are some very talented runners in Australia and it filled me with a lot of confidence knowing New Zealand sprinters are at least on a par – it shows we are doing something right over here.”

Izzy’s next big target will be a strong showing in the 400m and 4x400m relay at the Oceania Championships in Mackay in June. There Izzy will look to further lower her personal best and also look to once again be among the medals – and she is also excited about the prospect of featuring as part of a strong 4x400m quartet which could also feature the likes of Portia, Rosie, Camryn and Georgia Hulls.

Yet her goals stretch beyond the Oceania Championships and as he rapid improvement this year proves, she is justified to feel confident for the future.

“I’ve love to rep at those big competitions – World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Olympics. I’m still quite young at the age of 20 and I have time to develop my speed and strength. I look forward to what is coming and hopefully one day I’ll get those standards to qualify for those incredibly prestigious events.”

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