How to forge world champions

How to forge world champions
By John Lenehan, Edinburgh AC

Wednesday 23rd August 2023, Budapest’s National Athletics Stadium, 9:19pm local time…

Edinburgh Athletic Club star Josh Kerr kicks hard on the final bend of the 1500m World Championship final… He draws level with Norwegian superstar and heavy favourite, Jakob Ingebrigtsen… There’s a gold medal and a world title at stake. It’s a pulsating contest, the two men right at their limits, neither giving an inch. Millions hold their breath… Can Kerr really take on and beat the mighty Ingebrigtsen…?

One year previously, Kerr’s Edinburgh AC clubmate Jake Wightman had made almost exactly the same move on Ingebrigtsen in the 1500m at the World Championships in Oregon. Wightman had taken gold. Could Edinburgh lightning strike twice?

The look of sheer determination on Kerr’s face in the final 100m left no doubt, as he stormed down the home straight to take the gold medal and 2023 World Champion title in a time of 3:29.38.

Two gold medals on the world stage, two remarkable athletes who rose through the junior ranks at Edinburgh AC to become world-beaters: a truly unprecedented achievement for an athletics club in Scotland to produce two world champions in the space of a year.

P World Champions Josh Kerr and Jake Wightman as schoolboys at Edinburgh AC. Pic: White Flyer Photography/Edinburgh AC

The Capital club has a history of producing world-class athletes: in recent years Chris O’Hare has won European middle-distance medals, 800m runner Lynsey Sharp has been European champion, and going further back in time the club has had a host of athletes competing at Olympic, World, Commonwealth and European level.

But just how exactly has this incredible success come about within Edinburgh AC?

A big Games legacy

Long-time club coach Eric Fisher has devoted a lifetime to athletics in Edinburgh, and he trained both Wightman and Kerr when they were juniors. Radiating enthusiasm for the sport, Fisher reflects: “The Commonwealth Games came to Edinburgh in 1970 and 1986. These big events were so inspiring. Kids could see the best athletes in the world competing in their city. Scotsman Lachie Stewart won the 10,000m gold in 1970 at Meadowbank, and we had 114 kids turning up to our first training session afterwards. They all wanted to be Lachie Stewart!”

These magical moments in Edinburgh’s history have helped inspire enthusiastic youngsters to join the club and take up athletics. Many of these youngsters go on to have blossoming, successful athletics careers under the guidance of club coaches, and many then continue their involvement in the sport through taking up coaching themselves, helping out within the club, or becoming officials. 

P Josh with his Edinburgh AC coach Eric Fisher after his Olympic bronze medal success. Picture: Gary J Leek (Edinburgh AC)

Fisher’s successful coaching philosophies involve purposeful and balanced training sessions, a long-term viewpoint, and, crucially, enjoyment – if athletes are enjoying their training, they are much more likely to stick with the sport in the long-term. He says: “I always try to instil the attitude that an improver is a winner. Youngsters respond well to this, when they can see their improvement month-by-month and year-by-year. They get a real sense of achievement from getting the best out of themselves.

“Our junior teams compete all over the UK and it’s so exciting for them to represent their club, city and country. They see some of the older kids going on to compete at European and World level, and I tell them, ‘You can follow in their footsteps and go on to do the same!’

“I try to give them that belief, then you see them really knuckling down, they start winning medals, and we set their sights even higher. Then you get the parents asking how they can help, and so you get great momentum building in the junior ranks. Success definitely breeds success, and the whole club is very proud of our elite athletes representing us on the world stage!”

Opportunity for all

Senior squad coach and club stalwart Alex MacEwen was recently honoured for his immense contributions to local athletics, having his name added to the Meadowbank track’s “Wall of Fame”. MacEwen has unsurpassed knowledge of the local athletics scene, and Edinburgh AC’s successes come as no surprise to him.

He explains: “There’s a great tradition of athletics in Edinburgh. Our city is big enough to have several clubs and there are so many committed athletes, volunteers and leaders, who all set the standards and deserve much credit. This drives competition in the city.”

“Edinburgh AC has a healthy and diverse membership base. The bigger the base, the greater the chance of success. Our runners all feed off each other and inspire each other. We have an ethos of encouraging participation and performance at all levels. We have always had a strong tradition of competition, of encouraging our athletes into the big championship races and really striving to be the best.

“There are development pathways in place for our juniors, as well as opportunities for seniors and veterans to compete locally, nationally and internationally. All of this is thanks to the many people who volunteer to help out in a wide range of roles in the club. It’s these people who enable everything and who set the standards.”

“From Mum to Club President”

Edinburgh AC President Yvonne Jones is just one example of those helping to set the standards within the club and support local athletics. Jones has risen through the volunteering ranks, and in her own words, has gone from “Mum to President in 20 years!”

Jones describes how she became such a key figure within the club: “My son Matthew was coached by Eric Fisher from the age of nine, so I got involved in helping out with various roles such as assisting at events, taking care of kit and equipment, I’ve been a committee member, induction co-ordinator, team manager, Vice-President and now President. The club is such a supportive community, and it’s great to see the dedication of athletes of all ages and abilities. There’s a really vibrant atmosphere that fosters athlete development and achievement.

“What’s more, it’s fantastic to see athletes like Josh and Jake giving back to the athletics community in Scotland and inspiring the next generation. When you see them coming back to the track at Meadowbank or Saughton to show their medals and share their experience with the kids, or when you see them pulling on their Edinburgh AC vests and racing locally, it’s very powerful – what better role models could our juniors have?”

Meeting the returning heroes

P Jake shares the delight of young runners during a visit to Meadowbank. Picture: Gary J Leek (Edinburgh AC)

Both Wightman and Kerr have recently brought back their World and Olympic medals to club events in Edinburgh, showing them off to excited crowds of young (and not-so-young!) club members. They also took the time to answer questions, pass on advice and pose for photographs. In what has become an ongoing cycle of growth and development within Edinburgh AC, both men are keenly aware of the importance of giving back to the club, and of inspiring others in the same way that they themselves were inspired as juniors.

It was fitting that Kerr was able to meet and congratulate Edinburgh AC juniors who had recently won the Forth Valley Young Athletes League Division 1 title – Kerr himself started out as an Under-11 athlete in this same league.

P Josh with brothers Robbie and Danny and their Forth Valley Young Athletes League trophies. Picture: Gary J Leek (Edinburgh AC)

A pathway to the elite levels

Jamie McDonald, a Club Development Officer with the sport’s governing body Scottish Athletics, elaborates on this legacy of “giving back”, remarking: “Many of our elite stars are very generous with their time at club training sessions and events. For many of them, their first experiences in athletics were as juniors on the club scene, and they like to stay involved and compete in Scotland when they can. They’ll often turn out to race in our local events alongside all the other club runners, and this is great to see! For example, Jake led the Edinburgh AC senior men’s team to gold medals at the Allan Scally 4 x 5km Relays, competing alongside hundreds of other club runners on Glasgow Green.”

P Jake and his victorious Edinburgh AC teammates with the Allan Scally Memorial 4 x 5k Relay trophy. Picture: John Lenehan

McDonald went on to describe some of the work that Scottish Athletics does behind the scenes: “We know that athletes can only reach the top if there is a pathway to take them from those first junior experiences all the way through to senior success. Our 150 clubs across Scotland are vital to this, and we work hard to support, empower and inspire them.

“Also key to this development pathway is providing quality coaching and competition opportunities, and we organise a full calendar of fixtures across all age groups. Our ‘Club Together’ initiative, launched in 2011, is a great example of the way we’ve aimed to empower clubs in recent years – we have athletics clubs, local authorities and leisure trusts working alongside Scottish Athletics, helping our sport grow and thrive. Combined with our accessible and relatable elite athlete role models, all of this fires the imagination of the next generation and gives them something motivating to aim for.

“With major recent events such as the London Olympics in 2012 and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014, the interest in athletics has continued to increase, and so many people have stepped up to support this, from grassroots level all the way up to the world stage.

“The volunteer commitment at Edinburgh AC is incredible. Their tireless dedication to excellence is inspiring, and this is being replicated in athletics clubs all over Scotland. Athletics is about people, and we have so much respect for all our people, however they contribute. At Scottish Athletics, our role is very much about supporting people to be the best they can be.”

“Like a big family”

The man of the moment, world champion Josh Kerr, took the time to reflect on his achievements and his career path to date. Although Kerr is now based in the USA, he certainly hasn’t forgotten his roots and where he was forged. He was fulsome in his praise for Edinburgh AC.

“Coming through as a junior, the club felt like a big family, and it was good to be surrounded by such inspiring people. There have been highs and lows, and having support from Edinburgh AC and from Scottish Athletics kept me in the sport when it was tough,” he affirms.

“From a grassroots point of view, the effort and commitment of the club’s volunteers and coaching staff is amazing. This is why we achieve the success we do, and the club should be so proud.”

“Those from the club that have reached the big stages before me have showed that it can be done, and in turn we can show it to the next generation. We need to say to them, ‘This is how we do it, and if you follow your heart, you can do it too!’ We’ve got to be an open book for them, so that others can follow in the footsteps of what we are doing. This conveyor belt of producing gold medals on the world stage is something we need to continue!”

Kerr also refers to the sacrifices involved: “It’s an insane level of commitment from myself, my team, and everyone around me. The preparation is so meticulous. I’ve been running since I was eight years old, so sixteen or seventeen years of dedication and honest effort went into that final 200m in Budapest. I know how much has gone into this, and so I really wanted to bring the world title home!”

When Kerr crossed that 1500m finish line in first place, it became clear just how much it meant to him – the emotion written across his face was obvious for all to see as he realised a lifetime ambition of becoming a world champion.

A golden era

With a number of Scottish athletes currently prominent on the world stage, and more on the verge of breaking through, we are privileged to be witnessing a veritable “golden era” of athletics in Scotland.

It’s no surprise that Edinburgh AC has contributed significantly to Scotland’s success at the very highest levels of the sport, considering everything that is in place within the club: the structures and development pathways that have been built, the club coaches and volunteers who give so much of themselves, and the spirit and pride throughout the club.

All of these elements act as a springboard for the inspired young athletes working hard to step up and make their mark. Given this proven winning formula, it seems almost inevitable that the club can look forward to ongoing success.

First published in the Edinburgh Inquirer, 

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