As the 2012 Olympic 50km race walking champion and multiple winning World Championships medallist, Jared Tallent may today be a superstar in his art but back at the 2002 World Junior Championships his status was quite different. Here the Australian reflects on his underwhelming experience in Kingston, Jamaica and, crucially, what he learned from his Caribbean adventure.
To pick Jared Tallent out as a potential future Olympic champion at the 2002 IAAF World U20 Championships would have taking a big leap of faith.
After all the whippet-thin Australian finished a distant 19th out of 25 finishers in the men’s 10,000m race walk four minutes and more than two laps down on the gold medallist that day in Kingston’s National Stadium.
It was a disappointing display for the teenager who grew up on a potato farm near Ballarat, Victoria, but one which helped forge the resolve to train hard and one day scale the race walking heights on the global stage.
Introduced to race walking in his early teens, Tallent quickly established a natural flair for the discipline. In 2001 he made his international championship debut competing at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Debrecen and he has many fond memories of the event.
“I had a great time there,” he recalls. “We had an Olympian on the Australian team in Georgie Clarke (aged 16 she competed in the 1500m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics) and I remember she seemed like a superstar to me. I made a lot of friends from the competition and it was exciting to compete against kids the same age from all around the world.
On the track, Tallent performed with pride finishing seventh in the men’s 10,000m race walk and took many positives out of the experience leading into the World U20 Championships in Kingston 12 months later.
Enjoying a natural improvement in early 2002 he posted a 10,000m race walk lifetime best of 43:36:03 in Canberra – in a race he fondly recalls as it was his first competing against his countryman Nathan Deakes, who would go on to win 2004 Olympic 20km bronze and 50km gold at the 2007 World Championships.
Yet his preparation received a jolt after the Australian team gathered in the Bahamas for the pre-event training camp.
“I found it a hard place to train,” he says. “It was not a great location for a walker. I didn’t always want to train at the track and I found the roads were really busy and the footpaths quite uneven. I ended up doing a lot of work on the treadmill, although training in an air- conditioned gym didn’t really help me get used to the climate.”
Additionally, the Australian team were housed next to the casino which proved an unwelcome distraction.
“The hotel probably wasn’t in the best location,” explains Tallent. “In the Bahamas, you only need to be aged 16 to go to the casino and I lost 100 bucks playing roulette – I don’t think I’ve ever told my parents.”
Enduring a far from ideal preparation on the day of his 10,000m race walk he then suffered further stress after hearing that the plane carrying his parents from Australia had been delayed. As his parents only intended to fly into Jamaica on race day, this led to unnecessary agitation for the then 17-year-old.
“I remember getting stressed out that I had not seen my parents and that they may not make the race,” he recalls. “The first time I saw them was taking their seats on the back straight as I was being led out to the track.”
Given pre-race advice from his coach to take up a good position in the race the inexperienced Tallent then took this a little literally be quickly tucking into second place and going through the 1km marker in the lead.
“I really shouldn’t have been worried about my position so early as it is a 25-lap race,” he recalls.
By halfway the Australian had dropped off the lead pack and then in the second half of the race with his pace dropping and his brittle confidence waning he found the experience tough.
“I was lapped twice by the gold medallist, but I think I approached the race in awe of many of these athletes who were two minutes quicker than me (in terms of PBs). I was thinking negatively, that I couldn’t get near these guys.
Crossing the finish line in 45:41:19 in 19th was not what he desired and he finished the race in a despondent mood.
“I was disappointed with my performance after spending all that time away from home,” he says. “It was a good experience, but not the result I wanted.”
On the plus side, he recalls the thrill of watching a 15-year-old Usain Bolt strike 200m gold in the front of his passionate home supporters and he fondly reflects the home fans “climbing the walls” to squeeze into the National Stadium for the final day of action.
The result may not have gone how Tallent wanted but the knowledge he accrued from the experience should not be undervalued.
“I came home very motivated to train hard and prepare for my next championship,” he recalls. “I’d seen what other athletes were doing in terms of their training and this made me think of ways I could improve.
“It also taught be the value of being in a good training environment before a championship. In recent years, for example, I have not attended the pre-World Championship training camp for Australia because it has not suited the needs of a race walker. I have found a different location – which is something I learned from being in the Bahamas.”
Next month in Finland the latest edition of the IAAF World U20 Championships takes place in Tampere, in which the planet’s finest teenage talent will once again come together for six days of exhilarating competition.
For Tallent the action will be intense and exciting, but the 33-year-old passes on some wise words to all those competing athletes.
“The World U20s are a stepping stone for bigger and better things in the future, so I would say to the athletes (in Tampere) to enjoy it and don’t get too hung up on your finishing position. It is much more of a learning experience.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF