Ones to watch: A dream year for European champion Keely Hodgkinson

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Keely Hodgkinson at the 2018 Northern Cross Country Championships. Photo: Woodentops

Nobody could have predicted the heights that Keely Hodgkinson would reach in 2018.

The Leigh Harrier took gold in the 800m with an impressive 2:04.84 European under-18 championship record, along with victories at the national under 17, under 20 and English Schools Championships to cap off a year she will never forget, banishing the injury struggles and competition setbacks she had suffered not long before it.

It all seemed to come together very quickly for 17-year-old Hodgkinson last season. So quickly in fact that she can still pinpoint the exact moment that her future began to seem possible, after one significant race closed out an otherwise bittersweet 2017 season.

“I’d had a bit of a disappointing English Schools” says Hodgkinson “I’d finished third the year before but then finished fourth in 2017 so I really wasn’t happy. But I managed to turn it around and win the national title which was huge at the time and really changed things.

“It was only after the nationals that I then said to my dad ‘I’m going to try and get a GB vest next year at under 18 Europeans’, so it ended up being a huge confidence booster. I also think if I’d have medalled at English Schools, I might not have put as much effort in at the end of the season, so looking back it did all happen for a reason.”

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The victory proved to be Hodgkinson’s first ever national title despite competing in the sport since she was nine years old. Her path since she came into the sport therefore has taken quite a long time to deliver success, with Hodgkinson also having to overcome significant injuries when she was only 14, which left her out of the sport for almost a year.

“About three years ago I ended up with ‘runners knee’,” says Keely, “but I’d also had an operation on my ear, so I couldn’t run for three months because it was quite fragile. But then when I was coming back into training after the ear had healed I ended up getting injured. I did one knee and then the other knee, so that put me out for six more months.

“But it just shows that when you don’t train for that amount of time it takes so long to get back. It was annoying but I made some little improvements and had three solid years of training without injury and it’s paid off.”

Of course Hodgkinson could never have thought it would pay off quite so well, as a very strong start to her 2018 season saw her quickly become one of the favourites for European gold. However, even when she approached the final of the competition it was still hard to predict which way it would go.

The final saw a very mixed field promising a huge clash of styles, with Keely’s more ‘old-school’ cross country in winter and track in summer background going up against athletes with sprint endurance styles such as eventual bronze medallist Gaël de Coninck from Sweden.

While the actual race ended in a convincing win for Hodgkinson, the race itself was far from comfortable for the young Brit. “I can’t even remember it now,” says Hodgkinson “it was really tough but I just remember my adrenaline pumping so much after the race because I was so relieved it was over. Mine was the last race so I’d been awake all day just waiting for it to be done.

“It was definitely mentally tough as well as physically tough. I’m quite good at turning nerves into positive energy, but it’s definitely mentally tiring and I was knackered when I got up the next morning.”

The race was also part of a huge day for Britain’s youth squad, with Dominic Ogbechie, Sam Bennett and Kane Elliott also grabbing gold. It was over Keely’s victorious run that the ecstatic British atmosphere reached fever pitch.

“I remember Sam Bennett got his gold about 20 minutes before mine,” says Keely “then when I crossed the line Dom (Ogbechie) cleared his winning jump which meant we got three golds in half an hour so it was just mental. You could see all the people in the GB squad just banging on the sides of the stand so it was a really good atmosphere. I met loads of new people there so to be around everyone and to have my parents there as well was great.”

It proved the pinnacle of a hugely dominant season for Hodgkinson, banishing all the disappointments from the previous year to take victories at the England Under 17s and Under 20 Championships in Bedford despite still being younger than all of the Under 20s.

“I probably enjoyed that race the most out of all of them.” says Keely, “it was new (to race under 20s) but it also felt like there was no pressure on me and it was a bit unexpected for me to win because I was the youngest, so they probably didn’t know who I was which doesn’t surprise me!

It was also only the second time I ran 2.04 that season and was only my second national title, which probably changed a lot of things in terms of the confidence I had before Europeans.”

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However, the biggest surprise of all for Keely didn’t come at the Europeans or the England Under 20s. Instead it was her last race of the season when she made the trip to Loughborough and won the UK School Games with another 2.04 time.

“I don’t know how I did that,” says Keely, “honestly that race killed me. I had end-of-season lactic acid because it had been really long. Also I was racing Isla Calvert and didn’t know what kind of shape I was in because I’d been on holiday, so I just went out hard, tried to maintain it and kick at the end.”

What the race did show was a new-found ability to still run at the same level even when not feeling at her best and now leaves the former Under 17 in a very good spot to kick on as she makes her step up to an under 20 level that has already seen her taste victory.

“It was a bit of a surprise to see I’d got 2:04 (at the School Games) and it was a good way to end the season. It shows that I was a lot stronger then than the year before so hopefully this year will be the same.

“It’s going to be a different experience this year going into the season with a bit more pressure. But we’ll see how it goes!” If last season is anything to go by, there could be a few more nice surprises on the way.