They say that all the best sports teams contain just the right blend of youth and experience, and that’s something that England have noted as they prepare for the inaugural Nitro Athletics series which starts this Saturday 4th February in Melbourne.
The team captain for the three meets could hardly be more experienced. 32-year-old Christine Ohuruogu is a veteran of four Olympic Games and six World Championships and returns to the scene of her first international title, her 400m gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
While at the other end of the experience scale, 19-year-old Adam Hague, fresh from becoming the first English athlete to record a qualifying mark for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, competes against some of the world’s best pole vaulters in the country he hopes to return to next year for what could be his first senior championships.
Nitro Athletics, the new team-based competition set to revolutionise track and field, sees England take on Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan, as well as team spearheaded by arguably the greatest athlete of all time, Usain Bolt and Ohuruogu is excited by the prospect of being part of something innovative and, most importantly, fun, at a location that she knows well:
“As soon as I was told about Nitro Athletics I agreed to be part of it straight away,” she explains.
“It was a chance to come back to Australia as I’ve not been back in more than 10 years. The last time I came I had such a good time at the Commonwealth Games back in 2006. I heard ‘fun’ and I heard ‘sun’ and I thought, ‘that’s me’! In athletics, we don’t really get chance to just enjoy our sport as we’re so busy chasing qualifying times, trying to stick to gruelling training regimes, sort out races, warm weather training. You don’t get a chance to enjoy everything as there’s always pressure and I thought this is a great opportunity for all of us to come out and have great competition, because it is really good competition, but at the same time we can enjoy being a team and enjoy ourselves in what’s going to be a challenging year for all of us.”
Having produced at the highest level for more than 13 seasons, Ohuruogu is keen to tap into the approach she took back in 2006 when her sport felt a lot simpler: “Melbourne was one of my best ever championships,” she recalls. “When you’re young, you don’t have any preconceived ideas. I’d gone to the Olympic Games (in 2004), but this was a championships where I was focused on competing but I still had a very pure outlook on the sport. I just wanted to run and enjoy and win. I suppose as you get older and more experienced, everything gets a bit more crunch timish and you get more pressures. That’s why I enjoyed Melbourne. I did everything I wanted to do, I went shopping, to the beach, those things that later on you’d think twice about.”
The 2008 Olympic champion is, perhaps, the perfect person to take on the captaincy role in what is a genuine team event, and Ohuruogu has some words of wisdom to impart to her young colleagues: “It’s important that I impress on the rest of the team that they do enjoy themselves and to remember why they got into the sport in the first place and hopefully, as a relatively young team, if they can create good memories, it will stand them in good stead.”
“The youngsters should really take the opportunity to learn from the elite athletes around them. Not just myself, but the likes of Kerron Clement, who was an Olympic gold medallist last year, and many others. Watch how they work and observe. That’s how I learned.”
Ohuruogu is also inspired by the high energy feel of Nitro Athletics, which explains her enthusiasm. “We need these new events,” she grins. “Typical athletics can get a but staid at times. It’s great to be positive about an event and we’re all excited. There are some slight nerves, which is good, as we want to be nervous. I’m slightly nervous, which is great. It’s all part of the spirit.”
It’s a view shared by 2015 European Junior Champion Hague, competing in his first senior England international outdoors.
“The format is different, it’s not like a regular pole vault competition,” says Hague of an event where all athletes attempt three predetermined heights, with the fourth attempt at the athlete’s discretion.
“It’s unique, there’s not many events like this around,” he smiles. “It’s the first Nitro event and I want to be part of it. When it grows into something big I can say that I was there to help build it.”
“Nitro’s different, with the four jumps and things like that. Plus, you meet a lot of other vaulters and you get to compete in front of a great crowd. From what I hear it’s going to be really good.”
It promises to be a busy year for the Yorkshire athlete, as he looks to build on a season-opening indoor clearance of 5.50m, which was a Commonwealth qualifier and yet more evidence of the promise that saw him ranked world junior number one in 2015.
“5.50m was kind of a surprise for the first competition,” he concedes. “But it’s made me realise that I need to be realistic in what I aim for. There’s plenty left in the tank and I just want to keep improving.”
“European under 23s is a big target, but also possibly London, as I feel like I’m in great shape to jump a qualifier or near a qualifier (5.70m). I know I’ve only jumped 50, but with new poles and things like that I feel I have a chance.”
For now though, Hague’s attention is firmly on Nitro.
“It’s awesome competing for England. It’s always good and I’ve never had a bad experience. I can’t wait to do it again.”
Nitro Athletics will be broadcast on BBC 2 in the UK at 14:45 on Sunday 5th February.