Aimee Pratt: World-leading form leaves British steeplechase champion gunning for Tokyo

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A fantastic 2019 saw Aimee Pratt picked for the World Athletics Championships and earn a place on British Athletics’ elite funding programme. Photo: Melissa Gresswell/@Lissgphotography

Last year was the definition of a breakthrough season for Aimee Pratt. The 22-year-old set personal bests over five different distances, winning England and British Universities (BUCS) titles on the way to her senior Great Britain debut at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha.

What is more impressive is that the steeplechaser has continued her amazing upward trend despite reduced opportunity to compete in 2020.

Her 9:30.73s clocking to win the 3000m chase at the British Athletics Championships was a world-leading mark which places her fifth on the national all-time list.

The Manchester-based athlete produced one of the performances of the event to eclipse the competition record in her home city – and finish fifth in the 800m – in the same afternoon. Now seems like a good moment to catch up and reflect on how far she has come.

How did you get into athletics and the steeplechase in particular?

“Growing up I played every sport I possibly could but I didn’t specialise in athletics until I was around 17. I got into athletics through the Diane Modahl Sports Foundation when I was 13, which is where I met my coach Vicente Modahl (the husband of 1990 Commonwealth champion Diane).

“He watched me run a lap against some boys and told me I could be world class, I replied with ‘okay’ and that was literally it! I had just turned 14. I was incredibly lucky to have had this interaction, as I definitely wouldn’t have started running without it. He has a massive background in international athletics and has progressed me to a point where I can be good as a senior athlete, not just as a junior.

“He just threw me into it when he recognised that I was naturally unafraid of the barriers, which I think is a big part of being good. You can always improve your technique, but if you find the barriers daunting it’s going to be difficult to enjoy the event!”

What do you like most about it?

“I really enjoy the fact that the distance is broken up and there is something else to focus on, and the added element of uncertainty. So much can (and does) go wrong!”

Why do you think last season went so well?

“In 2018, I set myself a goal to qualify for the European Championships in a Berlin, but illness mid-season meant I was unable to show my full fitness.

“I decided I would make sure I did everything my coach set to make sure I didn’t miss out in 2019. I think athletics is quite a simple sport where if you train, recover right, and are able to stay healthy you will have tough days, but you will eventually see the results.”

You are pretty much Mancunian through-and-through! You set a sensational BUCS championship record to win gold for the University of Manchester last year, taking nine seconds off the previous best.

What do you love about the city and what did it mean to do so well in that race?

“Everyone who knows me knows how much I love Manchester. I just love how welcoming it is. There is always something to do but it is never as busy as London. And the weather, we always have good weather!

“Winning BUCS for my university was great. They were definitely proud to see one of their students win the 2000m steeplechase in a new British under-23 record.”

After that you must have felt great going into the European Athletics Under-23 Championships.

How would you describe the experience and how did it compare to previous international call-ups as a junior?

“This was the first time I was going in as a medal contender, so I felt I had a much bigger purpose being there and was a lot more excited.”

“I actually felt the best I have ever felt so far in my sporting career going into the final. I was so determined to run a fast time and medal that I definitely overran the race. I hurdled a lot of the water jumps (like the Kenyans do) just because I was only focussed on running fast, and not thinking about the fact that there were actually barriers on the track! I hurdled the final water barrier whilst in second place and ended up fully submerged in the water pit.

“It was tough to take at the time but I’m grateful to have experienced it at an age group championship and not in the future. I learnt a huge amount and was lucky enough to still have the opportunity to qualify for Doha.”

I was commentating on the race and remember expecting you to cross the line for the silver medal and not being sure where you had gone!

What were your thoughts going into the national trials knowing you weren’t too far from the World Championships standard?

“I was really confident I could qualify but had a few days feeling run-down leading into the weekend, so was just hoping I wouldn’t be too affected by it. I was happy I was able to run an okay race but disappointed to be feeling so flat.”

You came away with a bronze medal and then in the days before the cut-off date for selection you clocked 9:39:60s in northern Italy, just inside the required 9:40.00s.

What was that like and how did those close to you react?

“Everything I had done in training showed I could run the time so I knew as soon as I was feeling 100 per cent, I would do it. My coach was extremely happy. Most of the people closest to me didn’t have any idea what it meant but they were happy I was happy!”

With only two spots guaranteed, you hoped your third place would be enough to get picked.

What was the wait like and how confident were you?

“Waiting was not enjoyable but I just put it to the back of my mind and told myself I had done everything I could. I would have been proud of my efforts either way!

“I did think I’d be selected as every other event will have three athletes selected if they have achieved the standard. But I also didn’t allow myself to believe it as I know British Athletics have historically been well known for being unpredictable in their decision-making processes.”

Tell me about Doha, the camera caught you smiling ear-to-ear lining up for your heat!

You were alongside world junior champion Celliphine Chespol and the defending world champion Emma Coburn. What was going through your head?

“Racing in Doha was amazing! I don’t actually follow many athletes, but I am unashamedly a big fan of Emma Coburn. I met a lot of people but when you are among them you just realise they are all quite normal people. It is nice to see that for someone like me, being on the team for the first time.”

What advice did your coach give you and what did you learn?

“My coach told me to make sure I didn’t get caught in the pack if it was ridiculously slow. I wanted to give myself the best chance of running a PB and not allow other people to affect my race.

“I was probably a bit too excited and definitely didn’t focus 100 per cent for the whole race, but I just loved every second of it! It was a goal I had set myself that had taken a huge amount of effort to achieve, and I decided I was going to run as fast as I could while enjoying the experience.”

It has been an unusual season this year. You have come away with a set of personal bests, a world lead and a British title after an incredible solo run.

How would you sum things up?

“2020 has been very strange and with the pandemic cancelling the European Championships and delaying the Olympic Games until 2021, I found it very hard early on in lockdown.

“But together with my coach we decided to focus on the journey towards Tokyo 2021 and just get a short season in. It helped me greatly to stay for six weeks in Sierra Nevada (California) and at altitude.

“I was just so excited to see the season opening up and that’s just got me back on track.

“I think I’ll only improve in the next few years as I get older and stronger. I’m fully focussed on 2021 and will do my all to reach my goal in Tokyo.”

To finish off, how would your friends describe you?

“I think I’d be described as a huge dog lover and extremely sarcastic.”

The following is a video by Vicente Modahl recapping Aimee Pratt’s 2019 season.

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First published on: 3 September, 2020 7:57 pm

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