Frankie Johnson and Sophie Ashurst, the daughter of 1986 Commonwealth champ Andy, set English Schools championship bests on a ‘field finals Friday’ in Birmingham
A total of 93 Olympians at the 2016 Games in Brazil began their road to Rio at the English Schools Championships – in either track and field or cross country – when they were teenagers.
These included athletes such as Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Sophie Hitchon, but also triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, hockey gold medallists Maddie Hinch and Lily Owsley and rowing champion Helen Glover.
Some English Schools gold medallists from yesteryear even went on to compete for other countries at the Olympics last year, such as New Zealand middle-distance runner Nikki Hamblin and Zambian sprinter Gerald Phiri.
Since it was first staged at Crystal Palace back in 1925, the English Schools Championships has been a springboard for future success. But who from the class of 2017 will ultimately make the grade as a senior?
Judging by his pole vault skills, Frankie Johnson (main image) is a good bet. The Bedford athlete has now won three English Schools golds on the trot and in Birmingham he broke Joel Leon Benitez’s inter boys’ championship best of 4.71m with 4.86m. “I started as a high jumper but pole vault appealed to me more,” said Johnson.
Runner-up Glen Quayle won the Isle of Man’s first-ever medal at the English Schools. Until 2017 the Manx athletes had always competed as part of the Merseyside team, but this year they had their own six-man squad. “We flew over together to Birmingham Airport,” said Quayle, “although my coach brought the poles over in a car and by boat.”
The pole vault also produced one of the best stories of the day when Sophie Ashurst took junior girls’ gold with a championship best performance of 3.55m to beat Jade Spencer-Smith’s best of 3.35m.
“I’m a proud dad and coach,” said Ashurst Snr, who during his competitive days graced the cover of AW and who now hopes his daughter will do the same one day soon.
The 14-year-old winner (pictured below), who represents Greater Manchester, has a background a variety of sports such as gymnastics and hockey and is not surprisingly coached in pole vault by her dad. “I’ve done long jump and hurdles, too,” she said, “but pole vault is my No.1 event.”
With all the track finals taking place on Saturday, the opening day of these 87th English Schools Championships was a ‘field finals Friday’ where throwers and jumpers enjoyed all the attention.
Shot put winners ranged from senior boys’ victor Dan Cartwright, a local Birchfield athlete who recently taught himself to switch from slide to spin technique, to the raw talent of Andre Parker, a Londoner who loves basketball and football and says he’s hardly done any shot put training all year before winning the junior boys’ gold in Birmingham.
On the triple jump runway, Josiah Wilson-Kepple won the junior boys’ event and Joel Townley the inter boys’ event – and both say they would love to follow in the giant footsteps of Olympic champion Christian Taylor.
The high jump area was also busy with Temi Ojora of Buckinghamshire taking the inter girls’ title with 1.77m, while Sam Brereton’s long trip up from Cornwall was worthwhile as he won the junior boys’ crown with 1.87m.
With 2000 athletes and 300 team managers, this was the largest English Schools ever and, the organisers reckon, the biggest track and field meeting in Europe. The stands were not absolutely packed but it felt busier than the previous weekend’s British Team Trials and at 10am there was a lengthy queue at the box office for tickets, all of which must have pleased New Balance, who are sponsoring the event for the second year.
The huge entries meant hurdles heats had to be accommodated down the back straight and a number of throws finals took place just outside the main arena. The throwers and their coaches weren’t thrilled by this, with some complaining that they were being treated as second-class citizens, but the organisers claimed there was no way to hold every event inside the arena and, thanks to an enthusiastic crowd, the atmosphere remained pretty vibrant.
One of the throwers competing outside the main stadium was Sophie Mace, who took her fourth English Schools gold medal in the senior girls’ discus with 42.23m. “I’ve just finished A-levels,” said Mace, who hopes to study maths at Loughborough, “so my training hasn’t been great lately, but I was really happy to win.”
» Full coverage of the New Balance English Schools Championships in the July 13 issue of AW