WITH more than 1,700 of England’s top young athletes from 45 counties competing over two days, the English Schools’ Championships is the fourth biggest athletics competition in the world.
Therefore, the gold and bronze medals won by Stratford AC shot-putter Lewis Byng and long-jumper Jack Sumners respectively are worthy of much celebration.
The championships, this year held in Birmingham, are an amazing spectacle and run with military precision, with hardly a minute passing over the two days without something happening bang on time.
Achieving the stringent entry standards and gaining selection for the Warwickshire county team is tough, but this year a record number of Stratford AC juniors were selected in the squad to represent Warwickshire schools and Mathew Millward-Brookes competed in the long jump for Gloucestershire schools.
Nerves on such a big stage can play a big part in an individual performance and, while the Stratford contingent went away with varying degrees of satisfaction, all gained invaluable experience.
Fresh from representing Great Britain at the European U18 Championships in Hungary, Byng was determined to go one better than his silver from last year in the intermediate boys’ shot.
After two cautious opening efforts, he gradually stepped up the pressure on the other competitors and waited until his last throw of 17.89m to win the gold medal by more than a metre.
Afterwards Byng was smiling from ear to ear, having earned selection to represent England schools in the Home Countries International in Scotland.
Hurdles specialist Sumners opted to compete in the senior boys’ long jump and, despite a bit of panic at the start when his run-up was not working, it soon fell into place and he jumped a big personal best of 7.26m to take the bronze medal.
Afterwards Sumners was bubbling with excitement at not just winning the medal but jumping such a big PB and club record. Winner Shandell Taylor from Essex jumped 7.78m – just short of the championship record.
Ollie Cresswell qualified comfortably for the senior boys’ 110m hurdles final – arguably one of the highest-quality contests of the championships – by finishing second in his heat to newly-crowned European U18 champion Sam Bennett. Berkshire’s Tade Ojora, meanwhile, broke the championship record in the other heat.
An initial faulty start in the final did not unsettle Cresswell, who got away to a flyer and was in the mix for the medals until the final flight of hurdles, eventually finishing fourth in 14.19 – just 0.08 shy of his lifetime best.
Combined-eventer Millie Leighton justified her selection in the junior girls’ 75m hurdles. She looked anxious as she went into her blocks but, by having a bullet start and maintaining her form throughout the race as the other girls played catch-up, she finished in a big PB of 11.48 to qualify for the semi-final.
The semi-final was not such a smooth run and, after hitting the crucial first hurdle knocked her out of her rhythm, she missed out on reaching the final, but the whole experience left her a with a satisfied grin on her face.
Another new competitor at this level was intermediate Georgie Campbell who has dominated her domestic club races this year, but the ESAA is a different ball game altogether. In her typically dogged style, she paced her heat well to run a three-second PB of 4:44.01 but it was not quite good enough to get her into the final.
Imogen Sheppard, who has moved down to the longer sprints this year, finished fourth in her heat of the intermediate girls’ 200m in 26.25, just outside her PB.
Her sister Jess was next on the track from the Stratford contingent in the senior girls’ 400m and, despite clocking 59.85 to finish fifth in her heat, she was slightly disappointed.
“My legs wouldn’t go as fast as my brain was telling them to,” she said.
English Schools’ debutant Adam Farrow competed in the junior boys’ triple jump. Farrow, another combined-eventer, has been nursing a persistent troublesome ankle but was determined to compete. With some adjustments by taking off on his opposite foot, he did remarkably well to finish 15th with a best of 11.74m.
The high jump has been a strong event for Stratford athletes in recent years and senior girl Emily Madden Forman and junior Faye Gourlay were in the heat at the height of its intensity, which obviously did nothing to help any of the jumpers with so many competitors in both events.
Madden Forman finished 11th with a best of 1.66m – the second-best jump of her outdoor season. Gourlay was one of 27 girls who had the misfortune of having to sit around in intense heat with no shade.
The sheer number of competitors meant none of the jumpers could establish any rhythm and many fell out of contention early on. Gourlay finished with a best jump of 1.55m, while the winner finished her competition after two-and-a-half hours in the sun.
Another debutant, Millward-Brookes, competed for Gloucestershire in the intermediate boys’ long jump and, although he was short of his PB, he finished 13th with 6.07m – the second-best jump of his life.
A year ago Ollie Wear had hardly thrown a javelin, but his ability has been nurtured over the past 12 months. In an intense competition in Birmingham, he threw a 2m PB of 46.27m to finish ninth.
Jess Sheppard, Madden Forman, Sumners and Cresswell all ran legs in their respective relays as the girls and boys reached their respective finals.