World and European 800m medallist Jenny Meadows reflects on the final race of her competitive athletics career and her decision to retire
On Thursday July 7, 2016, I was hopeful that I would qualify for the European Athletics Championships women’s 800m final in Amsterdam. I had comfortably won my qualification heat the previous day and when I saw the line-up for my semi-final round I felt confident that I could qualify in the top two positions in order to earn me a place in the final on the Saturday evening.
I had never not made a European final within my career! As an interesting sub-plot, my performance in Amsterdam could earn me a ticket on the plane to represent Team GB at the upcoming Rio Olympic Games. In direct contrast, a sub-par performance would result in me deciding that, aged 35, I cannot continue to devote my life to being a full-time athlete anymore.
I have “been there and done it” at the highest level on both a European and world level, therefore making the semi-final stage of a European event just isn’t enough for me to finance a career in the sport any longer or to gain the personal satisfaction from performing.
There was a lot at stake for me at these championships!
Prior to the race it did enter my head that this may be the last time I warm up for a race, it may be the last time I enter a call-room, it be the last time I stand on the start line, it may be the last time… no, I wouldn’t allow myself to think it. Yet these thoughts continued to pop into my head throughout my preparations for the race.
“There was a lot at stake for me at these championships!”
Emotions are such a strange thing. Handled well, emotions can give you an overwhelming sense of power and determination, yet the human mind can also perceive situations to be a threat and therefore emotions can be quite negative and leave you feeling powerless. In the couple of hours leading up to the race my mind fluctuated between both emotional states.
The race itself went like a blur. I got out well, sat in third position but then decided the pace was too slow so I hit the front just before the 400m mark. I felt extremely comfortable as we approached the 600m mark and vividly remember giving myself a mental pep talk at this stage, “you have so much energy, wind it up now, you can do this!”
At the 650m mark, the Ukrainian athlete, Nataliya Lupu, passed me but then immediately slowed in front of me. I instantly reacted to this by pulling a little wider into the outside of the lane so that I could sit on her shoulder and look to pass her on the finishing straight. At this point however I felt a jolt as my hamstring muscle in my right leg experienced a twisting sensation. This has never happen to me before, especially not mid-race, so I was immediately shocked about the situation. I had been battling a knee injury all week (as well as a cold) which I guessed the hamstring problem was related to, nevertheless I tried to make my move and surge however it was clear that my hamstring would not let me generate any extra power from the leg.
My heart instantly sank as I had to endure the sight of several athletes whom I had repeatedly beaten on the European circuit this season come running past. As I saw them running away from me towards the finish line I gained an immediate sense of perspective. Here these girls were, running to the finish line like their lives depended on it, each of them wishing and hoping that they would be one of the select few who manage to reach the top of this sport. Strangely I could enjoy that last 50m of the race. While I didn’t like the injustice of not being able to perform to my best, I knew these would be my final few competitive metres. My very last race!
“While I didn’t like the injustice of not being able to perform to my best, I knew these would be my final few competitive metres”
The sun was shining, the stadium was a sell-out, and I could see the 50 member state flags of Europe flying high in the stadium. As I walked, or rather limped off the track, I turned around to find where the Great Britain & Northern Ireland flag was and felt such a sense of pride when I saw it. I had had that flag draped over me so many times throughout the past 19 years of my international career and had the pleasure of completing victory laps all over the world with the Union Flag held proudly above my raised arms. What memories!
I had not spoken to anyone other than Trevor, my husband and coach, about the significance riding on the result of the race. As I went to recover my items of clothing from the kit boxes however, it seemed that other people knew this might have signified the end of my career. I received some heart-felt words from a couple of the girls who finished ahead of me in the race and felt so proud when they told me that I had inspired them for a number of years and that they had great respect for me and what I had done for the sport. I recognised exactly what was playing out in front of my eyes, it was the changing of the guards with me duly handing over to the next generation.
Since my retirement announcement I have been truly overwhelmed with the amount of support and well-wishes that people have given me and have enjoyed both reading and talking amount so many memories that people have chosen to share with me. I am astounded by the positive impact that I have been able to have on so many people’s lives and feel privileged that I have been able to contribute so much.
I leave the sport with my own memories, some of course good and others not so, however I appreciate the journey that I have been on. It was a long way, it lasted some 28 years, but as I embark on the future I hold such optimism about my own future and really hope that I can continue to contribute towards a positive future of the sport.
» This blog post can also be found on Jenny Meadows’ website at www.jennymeadows.co.uk