Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Keely Hodgkinson: I feel like this is the best I’ve ever been

Keely Hodgkinson could emulate Jessica Ennis-Hill as one of the transcendent British stars of an Olympic Games and, ahead of her first championships of 2024, has revealed how the London 2012 heptathlon changed her life.

Aged only 10 at the time, Hodgkinson had already shown considerable promise as an all-round athlete, mixing cross-country with some dabbling in track events, but had switched her focus to swimming in the early months of 2012.

“I just fell out of love with it [athletics] – I didn’t like it for a period of time – I was doing all right but just didn’t really want to go training,” she says. “I was swimming a lot… and then watching 2012 I saw Jess competing. She was like the golden girl, everywhere, and that really inspired me to go back, to actually want to do the heptathlon. I did dabble in the javelin. But then I was like, ‘I’m just going to stick to the 800m’.”

It was a choice which, within six years, was rewarded with the European under-20 title and, within nine years, had seen her stand on an Olympic podium in Tokyo with a silver medal around her neck. Hodgkinson has since followed that with two World Championship silvers and will be an overwhelming favourite in Rome, where she starts on Monday, to win her fourth European gold.

It is no wonder then that she begins by saying, with a smile, “But I haven’t let you down so far, have I?” in response to a question about whether we will see an even faster runner this summer. She began her outdoor season last month by emphatically beating the Kenyan world champion Mary Moraa and believes that her Olympic preparations may actually have been boosted by a significant winter injury.

It was previously known that Hodgkinson had suffered a set-back that forced her to miss the World Indoor Championships but it has now emerged that tears to a knee ligament and tendon, which extended into her hamstring, forced her to miss nine weeks of running between November and January. “For the first two weeks I couldn’t do any cardio because I couldn’t bend my knee,” she says. “Then I was on my bike and the cross-trainer. It was torture. I had to be patient. It wasn’t ideal. It was a freak accident.

“My physio thinks I twisted my ankle [training] in Font Romeu and the damage from it went up to my knee. I kept running on it thinking it was something else and then it ripped. I had to trust the process.

“That was a blessing in disguise – it allowed me to put together back-to-back weeks of getting my endurance, getting stronger in the gym, and getting my speed. I really feel like this year is hopefully the best I’ve ever been. Coming into the Europeans, I’ll always respect the competition but I am four seconds clear of the next person. So how do I keep the motivation high? I want to attack every race… to see how much I can push myself.”

It will probably all add up to something of a procession in Wednesday’s final but it is refreshing to see Hodgkinson taking the chance to win another major title at a championships that has been diluted somewhat this year by its proximity to the Olympics in Paris.

The sporting sands in this country have undoubtedly shifted in recent years to leave athletics facing a considerable challenge to cut into the mainstream consciousness, particularly outside of an Olympics.

Hodgkinson thinks that recent initiatives by World Athletics to introduce gold medal prize money at the Olympics and launch the lucrative new biennial World Ultimate Championship event are encouraging steps.

“I don’t think anyone will turn down $50,000 [£39,400 for a gold],” she says. “I think it’s great. I know the Olympic motto is about competing as amateurs but we’ve got to the point now where, if you’re competing at the Olympics, you’re not an amateur. You are a professional. That’s in every sport.

“Athletics has been known to be quite unstable if you’re not winning the top medals. It should start at the top but hopefully drain down.” Hodgkinson, who went to school with the England Lioness Ella Toone in Manchester, then cites the example of women’s football. “They have put so much money in since the Euros, it’s going through to the clubs and helping the grass roots now. Hopefully we can do something similar.”

Still only 22 herself, Hodgkinson could conceivably be joined in the Olympic 800m team by the 17-year-old Phoebe Gill, who produced a phenomenal run of 1min 57.86sec last month but opted to miss the European Championships to focus on her college exams. Gill will race later this month in the British Championships, which doubles as an Olympic selection race.

Hodgkinson says that her jaw dropped when she heard about Gill’s “insane” time, which was within three seconds of her British record, and the best ever by a European under-18.

“She’s still so young – I wouldn’t put any pressure on her at all,” says Hodgkinson. “She just has to take her time, not get carried away and keep doing what she’s doing. It’s obviously working. She should just have fun.”

Credit: Jeremy Wilson