All the hard work pays off as Briton springs a remarkable 1500m surprise, with coach and father Geoff announcing it in Hayward Field
“It all started on a bleak day in Lanark,” says Jake Wightman with a wry grin. The Scottish National Short Course Cross Country Championships may seem like an unlikely stepping off point, but it was on a muddy former horse racing course last November where the first steps were taken on a journey which has led to him becoming the new 1500m world champion.
Finishing 10th in the Tokyo Olympic final had made the 28-year-old take stock. He knew he had the finishing speed, but he needed to build more of the strength which would deliver him to the right position to take advantage of that kick right when it mattered.
And so it was that the European and Commonwealth medallist found himself finishing 14th over 4km on the turf at the start of last winter. “I was terrible,” he admits. Coming eighth at the Ribble Valley 10k just after Christmas was hardly the stuff of legend, either, but it was all part of a bigger picture.
A couple of outings over 3000m indoors in the new year provided some encouragement the plan was starting to work, and the evidence was clear that the right recipe had been found after wins at the Rabat Diamond League and the British Championships.
On both occasions, Wightman had made sure he was in the right place to engage the rocket boosters at the right time and blast away from the competition. It was a very solid strategy, but he was the first to admit that he couldn’t ever have envisaged it working so perfectly in a World Championships final.
Approaching the closing bend at Hayward Field, Wightman couldn’t believe how good he felt and how the stars were all starting to align. He found himself perfectly placed with 200m to go, on the shoulder of leader Jakob Ingebrigtsen, and went for it. It was a now or never moment.
The Norwegian is the Olympic champion for good reason and has, for some time, carried an air of invincibility. Wightman fully expected him to respond and come surging back into the lead but instead the 21-year-old was looking over his shoulder and concentrating more on making sure of silver.
The Briton’s face said it all as he crossed the line at Hayward Field and his jaw dropped.
High in the stands, father and coach Geoff – who also happens to be the stadium announcer – maintained an astonishing level of professionalism as all hell broke loose. The camera was turned on Wightman senior and his image appeared on the big screen. “He’s my son,” he offered by way of explanation. “And he’s the world champion.”
His wife Susan – Jake’s mother and first coach – was also on hand to share in the delight of a plan coming together in quite spectacular style. Both she and Geoff were international marathon runners – with bests of 2:31 and 2:13 respectively – but there really is no doubt now as to who owns the family bragging rights.
The winning time was a world-leading 3:29.23 and only Hicham El Guerrouj (3:27.65) has ever run faster at a World Championships. Ingebrigtsen clocked 3:29.47 and Spain’s Mohamed Katir came through for a surprise bronze in 3:29.90. Surprise was the theme of the race, mind you.
At the firing of the gun, Kenya’s Abel Kipsang went straight to the front and planted himself there, pursued by Stewart McSweyn, defending champion Timothy Cheruiyot and Wightman as they arrived at the 400m mark in 55.41. Ingebrigtsen was happy to sit back in fifth while British Olympic silver medallist Josh Kerr sat in ninth.
Kipsang and his fellow countryman Cheruiyot then tried to dictate matters from the front, but the Kenyan hold was broken when Ingebrigtsen – on the search for his first world title – took the lead around 700m.
The 800m split was 1:51.94 as the pack roared along and still the European champion was at the head of affairs when 1200m was reached in 2:48.28 with Cheruiyot and Wightman occupying the other medal spots.
It was time for the Scot to surge. First he moved into second and, just a few strides later, called on that kick to make the fateful break for home. He is now Great Britain’s first world 1500m champion since Steve Cram won in Helsinki back in 1983.
Behind him, the late charging Spanish duo of Katir and Mario Garcia thwarted Kerr’s medal hopes – the Scot having to settle for fifth – while Cheruiyot and Kipsang wound up sixth and seventh respectively.
All the focus, however, fell on the victor. There have been times when he has questioned just how much the sacrifices of being a top athlete have been worth it. On a hot night in Oregon, Wightman got his answer.
“I’ve always been someone who’s thought about how much sacrifice I’ve put into this and how much is it worth it,” he said. “I don’t love going for a run – this sport for me is all about competition and how well you do – so I feel like I’ve missed a lot of my younger years when I could have done something completely different with my life. I’ve sacrificed a lot.
“Especially after Tokyo, I thought ‘how many more years am I going to do this and still get the same enjoyment?’. The lows in the sport are pretty bad, but when you get a moment like this you realise that every sacrifice has been worth it. There’s a lot of people I need to thank, too. Hopefully I can pay back their hard work with this.
He added: “To be a world champ is beyond words. I always felt I could do something in the sport but for that something to be a world champion is unbelievable.”
As for the proud father, it didn’t take long to get back into coaching mode.
“Was it his perfect race? Well, he’s won a world title but he was around half a second outside the British record (3:28.81),” Geoff grinned mischeviously. “That would have been great but that’s for another day.” Already, the next plan is being hatched.
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