Ryan Gregson (AUS) (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News

‘Next stop Amman’ for Australia’s junior distance running revolution

It all started on the 10 November 2007, and took just over eight minutes and one second. There had been signs of an imminent distance running rebirth - a few juniors bunched around the 8:15 mark over 3000m, and the odd 5000m performance. But when Ryan Gregson broke Craig Mottram's under-20 national record over 3000m, aged only 17, the flood gates were officially open.

In the space of two months Gregson had claimed national records in the 1500m, 3000m, and 5000m, qualified for the World Junior Championships in two events, and kick-started a revival of distance running in Australia's junior men.

By the time the current track season came around, there was an army of boys ready to take a share of the national attention Gregson had been receiving.

Cameron Page, 17, was first out of the blocks, recording an 8:05 for 3000m in November last year. Richard Everest, 18, was next to cement his position as one of Australia's top runners when he broke Gregson's (and previously Mottram's) under-20 3000m record - the same record that began the revolution. Everest ran 8:00, one second faster than Gregson; and followed it up with a 13:59 performance over 5000m a week later.

As the anticipation for the 37th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Amman, Jordan (Saturday 28 March) heats up, the Aussie boys may well pose the biggest threat to the Africans in the team events the latter dominate. 

While both Gregson and Everest are on the team, Page was unlucky to be sick during the Cross Country Trials. Another person unlucky to miss the team was James Nipperess. At 19, Nipperess was the surprise winner of the NSW state 500m championships, beating many more experienced runners. His time of 14:04 was made all the more impressive given the sweltering and windy conditions. He then continued on to record successive personal bests over 1500m, most recently reaching 3:44.

Harry Summers, 18, is a NSW athlete who prefers the cross country surface. His 5000m personal best of 14:15 belies his ability over the grass, evidenced when coming third at the Trials. His training partner Joshua Johnson won the ACT state championships over 800m, running a solo 1:50 - a feat made all the more incredible given he is only 16-years-old. Then there's Ben Ashkettle, 20, who is currently at the Northern Arizona University in the US, and recently ran 13:55 indoors.

Brett Robinson and David Ricketts, both 17, round out the Australian team for Jordan. Robinson has run 3:47 over 1500m, and 1:51 for 800m. Both have demonstrated their ability over cross country, and will be looking to best ensure the Australian team's chances. "I'd like to run as smartly as possible, and run the best I possibly can," says Ricketts. "As long as I feel I ran the best I could have, I will be happy."

He opened the door for everyone, raised the bar

Getting to that point hasn't been easy. Success by the top open level athletes has helped spark the growth in the junior levels, something which has developed over a number of years. These junior runners are being inspired by the current crop of Australian distance running stars.

"There is a great deal of respect for Mottram," says Johnson. "I truly believe he started the Australian running boom. He showed people by example that Australians can still mix it with the best in the world."

Besides Mottram, juniors like Johnson and Nipperess look up to accessible international representatives: "I'm always inspired by my training partner Jeremy Roff," says Nipperess. "He's a 2006 Commonwealth Games 1500m finalist, who is a real hard worker and a genuine good bloke."

Then there's Ryan Gregson himself. "Gregson is doing amazing things," says Ricketts. "He opened the door for everyone, raised the bar, and everyone's followed him."

This boom at the junior level has motivated everyone, and doesn't look to be slowing down.

"I think we have some great juniors coming up through the ranks," says Summers, "good competition keeps everyone on their toes, focused to keep improving for a better PB and maybe win a race." Ashkettle agrees: "The state of the junior ranks in Australia has boomed over literally the last 6 months or so," he says. "First there were a few crazy performances and now a whole flock of followers bringing some depth to our community. It's fantastic and I can only hope it brings some recognition to the sport."

Full circle

The cycle that Gregson began that fateful night in late 2007 came full circle at the Sydney Track Classic last month, when Ryan Gregson, now 18, recorded a 3:37 1500m personal best, and IAAF World Championships B qualifier.

A new year, and Gregson had again set the benchmark. But the others were quick to respond. A week later at the opening leg of the IAAF World Athletics Tour in Melbourne, Everest beat Gregson in the 5000m, recording 13:49.

Ashkettle will soon step onto the tartan when the US Collegiate outdoor season begins, and will no doubt have both Gregson and Everest's best times in sight. Back home, Nipperess and Summers are just waiting for a perfect 5000m race to delve well into the 13 minute territory. And Johnson has his sights on the very same under-20 3000m record currently held by Everest. "It's seen as one of the most sought-after junior records," says Johnson.

In the meantime, however, solid runs from the Australian team in Jordan later this month may go close to securing a team medal, and would help further motivate the Aussie juniors.

Risk of burning out too young

These runners are certainly on the road to becoming successful international athletes. The question will be whether they can make the transition from bunching around the 14 minute mark for 5000m, to moving towards the low 13 minutes as they reach the open ranks. If they are to do so they will have to avoid succumbing to the many pitfalls which face junior athletes: plateauing, injury, and burnout - problems which athletes are well aware of.

"Some juniors, who take it all much too seriously, risk burning out too young," recognises Nipperess. "If coaches, governing bodies and the athletes themselves are smart about development, the current depth will translate into more distance athletes on Australian teams in the future, with more guys pushing each other to quicker times."

This looks to be Australia's best opportunity in a long while to improve and nurture its distance ranks. "It takes one athlete to stand up and show people it can be done," says Gregson. "The next thing you know all these other athletes now have the belief that they can do it too. It means that if the good juniors are supported well enough that they choose to continue the sport, Australia could one day become a force on the world stage again, like we were in the 1950s and 60s."

The squad for Amman

The Australian team for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Junior Men's 8km event is Ryan Gregson, Richard Everest, Harry Summers, David Ricketts, Joshua Johnson, Brett Robinson.

Edward Ovadia for the IAAF