Mission to Moscow for next breed of British athletes

The absence of Jessica Ennis-Hill may have deprived Yorkshire of a true medal contender to follow over the next week in Moscow, but the county is not without its fair share of emerging talent to keep an eye on in the Russian capital.

The 14th world athletics championships represent the pinnacle of the burgeoning careers of both Hull sprinter Annabelle Lewis and Leeds distance runner James Wilkinson.

It is the kind of high-calibre event the two have been striving to reach, and one they hope will give them a taste for the standard of competition they hope to feature in regularly over the coming years, particularly as thoughts begin to turn to the Rio Olympics in 2016.

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Wilkinson, 23, is a cross-country runner at heart, who has progressed considerably on the track this season. He faces the formidable force of the Kenyan runners in the 3,000m steeplechase, the heats of which are on Monday.

Lewis, 24, represents the best chance of a medal from the two, given that she is part of the women’s 4x100m relay squad which broke the national record at the Anniversary Games in London two weeks ago.

“I don’t think any of us are really thinking about the medals, what we did in London was really good but it was just a stepping stone because it was the first time we had worked together in a race situation,” says Lewis of her partnership with Dina Asher-Smith, Anyika Onuora and Ashleigh Nelson which clocked 42.69 in winning at the Olympic Stadium.

“It bodes well for us and we’re ranked fourth in the world, but we have to do it in the heat and then again in the final.

“It will be a completely different situation for us. Anneka has been to a worlds before and Ashleigh when she was younger went to an Olympics but didn’t compete, so for three of us it will be completely different to anything we’ve done before.

“We can’t go in there just thinking we’re going to get a medal. We’ve got go out there and see what we can do, keep working hard together and keep moving forward.

“If we can run fast, then great, and we’ll be in contention for a medal. But there is a lot that goes before that, with the heats etc. So we have to focus on what comes next, not what is potentially down the line.”

The London experience was a real eye-opener for Lewis, and thoroughly merited given the strides and sacrifices she has made in the past 12 months.

Conscious that she wasn’t making the requisite progress as the Olympics came and went without her getting near them, the Kingston-upon-Hull Athletics Club member changed coaches and told her friends she would have to give up the trappings of young adulthood.

“I’m really happy,” says Lewis, who still trains in Hull despite her coach Roger Walters being based in Birmingham.

“Last year I knocked 0.2 seconds off my PB and this year I’ve knocked 0.2 seconds off again (down to 11.36 seconds), so I can’t really complain.

“2012 was a weird year because of the Olympics. The European championships got overshadowed, but being a part of them was a stepping stone for me and gave me the confidence to think actually I can make something of this.

“So this year I have trained harder, I’ve looked at doing things more specific, the thought process has been a lot sharper and that has been evident in how I’ve been competing.

“I put my trust in my coach, he knows me really well, what I can manage and what I can’t manage. It’s been quality over quantity with the sessions and this year has gone really well for me.

“I don’t really go out (socialising) any more. This year I’ve been staying in and making sure I get up early for sessions, and eating right. But I still like to have fun.”

Lewis’s first major global event is one overshadowed somewhat by the recent drugs revelations in sprinting.

Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell are in the dock for failing tests, as is 4x100m gold medallist Sherone Simpson of Jamaica.

Lewis says the news is disappointing, and cited the fact she was woken by drug testers at 6.30am on Monday at Britain’s training camp in Barcelona as a positive sign that the problem is being tackled.

“It’s upsetting for the sport as a whole, because the public doubt what they are watching,” she says.

“But look at people like Jess Ennis; she’s Olympic champion and she’s worked incredibly hard to get to that status, and there’s never been any speculation and I can’t see that she would have ever done anything like that.

“She’s just a girl who wanted to do well and she worked for years and years to get to that.

“You can say the same for Mo Farah, Robbie Grabarz and many others – so there are a number of athletes out there that are role models, that you can say have worked really hard to do amazing things.

“Instead of putting a downer on things because of the negative things people in the limelight have done, we should be looking at what the positive people have done, and we should admire them.

“Ennis is one of many people I want to emulate. She has such a great attitude which is something a lot of young girls look up to.”

For Wilkinson, the Moscow world championships are the bi-product of a major rethink about his priorities.

A cross-country runner at heart and a seasoned competitor at national and international level, he went to the UK Indoor Championships in Sheffield in February, ran well, and decided to concentrate on the track.

“I decided I wanted to do more indoors to work on my speed,” says Wilkinson, who now lives in Loughborough, dividing his time between training and teaching in a local college.

“There was a race where I ran a 5,000m track personal best and that was the turning point, when I realised finally that I was getting somewhere. Two or three weeks later I had my breakthrough steeplechase and that qualified me for the worlds.

“So it was a feeling that something just clicked after waiting for a good few years. I have no idea what I can achieve in Moscow, it all depends on who else is in my heat and how they run really.

“I want to come away with the knowledge of what I have to do to be competitive with these guys on a regular basis – that will help me get to Rio and the worlds in London.

“It’s about getting onto that international stage and being competitive.”

Wilkinson performed in London but fell well short of his personal best of 8.28:24 which he set in the Czech Republic in June.

In the field at the Olympic Stadium were three Kenyans, all of which dominated the race, but none of whom have qualified for the world championships.

“That just shows what we have got to contend with because those guys are just so good,” adds Wilkinson.

“I need to set a personal best to make the final, so hopefully I’ll be able to do that.”