Even the strongest competitors know the feeling of dragging their way round a tough long distance race with no end in sight. It was a feeling Niamh Emerson dreaded as a 12-year-old after two seasons in athletics.
But while this could be enough to make some young athletes stop altogether, Niamh says she went from feeling pain and being “super-nervous” to enjoying herself. Now 18-years-old, the heptathlete from Derbyshire has managed the amazing feat of being selected for this year’s Commonwealth Games.
Step by step, with the inspiration of Jess Ennis-Hill and Katerina Johnson-Thompson behind her, trying out multiple events has paid dividends. “It’s weird actually when you think about it, I literally moved (to multi-events) because I got tired of doing long distance. I carried on with the 800 and then would also do high jump…but I could never really compete in both events at the nationals and English Schools because they always used to clash.
“If you’re quite good at high jump and running it seems a bit obvious (to try out heptathlon), but I never really thought anything about it. Then I did a Midlands Schools combined events competition to qualify for English Schools and thought ‘Wow, this is actually really fun.’
The England under-20 heptathlon champion admits she still finds longer runs gruelling, despite the 800 being one of her strongest events. “I literally do dread it quite a lot,” says Niamh, “because whether you run 2:10 or 2:20 minutes, it’s still going to hurt.”
“When you’re actually running it’s fine, it’s just the anticipation of it because it’s the last event and you think I’ve just done a full two days and it all boils down to this! I feel like everyone equally gets nervous for it whether they’re good or bad at it.”
The two lap stint has been one of Niamh’s biggest weapons in a discipline full of fine margins. During last summer’s European under-20 championships, she ran the fourth fastest time in the heptathlon field. But it was a strong competition all-round, producing a “crazy” personal best of 6,013 points, with an unlikely source of inspiration.
“I didn’t expect to get 6,000 points at all, I just wanted to get 5,900 to try and get the Commonwealth Games standard. When I did the javelin though, my first two throws weren’t great…but then on my last throw I ended up throwing my PB and then it kind of just hit me that I can get 6,000 here and it was literally from javelin, which usually isn’t great!”
“Now you look back and think I scored 6,000 points and I only came fourth, but in the moment I didn’t think about it because I never actually expected to get a medal.”
After missing out on the top three in Grosseto, the reward of a trip to the Gold Coast is more than a consolation. Having won the high jump at the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa, Niamh has experienced success with Team England, as well as long-haul travelling. It will however be her first senior international competition.
“I really don’t know what it’s going to be like.” says Niamh “I’ve done youths and juniors where everyone is the same age so you kind of know everyone, so I think it’ll be really interesting.
The Amber Valley and Erewash athlete is happy to be going to Australia without any weight of expectation, with the opportunity to learn from those around her. “There’s obviously people like Katarina Johnson-Thompson going, who is at the complete other end of the spectrum because she’s competed in everything, so it’ll just be interesting to see what she does coming up to the competition and during the training before.”
— NkE (@niamhemerson) August 6, 2017
“I’ve never actually spoken to her properly, I saw her at the World Championships and she said to me ‘Well done for scoring 6,000 points’ and I was like ‘Oh my god’ and I didn’t even say well done to her after the competition I was just like ‘Thanks!’
“But there’s literally no expectation for me because it’s something I’ve never done before, so I can just go for the experience, which is what I’m really excited about.”
For someone who is still so young, it seems the Team England ambassador has come a long way since the early days of her first few years in athletics, but Niamh can now look back on them fondly as steps on the way to earning a place on the senior international stage.