“It’s been amazing”, says Jemma Reekie. “Very tough mentally and physically, but I’m so glad it worked out.”
That’s incredibly modest analysis from the 20-year-old Scot after a season in which she has improved dramatically, tirelessly chipping away at her personal best, and exceeding most expectations by wearing a Great Britain vest at the European Championships.
You won’t find a seed of doubt in her mind. We’ll start our story twelve months ago when Laura Muir’s young training partner had high stock already. She clinched the 2017 European junior 1500m title in Italy, having run the tournament qualifying standard over three separate distances (800m, 1500m and 3000m).
But Jemma began 2018 restless to unleash more of her potential. “I knew in myself I could run faster. I ran 4:12 (for 1500m), which is a big improvement because the previous year I ran 4:24. I was so excited to get going.”
What happened next was a sign of things to come. Reekie set lifetime bests on five consecutive weekends in May and June, travelling every which way in the process. I watched on at the first three in Manchester, Loughborough (above) and in Watford, before she continued the hot streak away from our live streams in Glasgow and Poland.
Then, a training camp in St Moritz. A chance to recoup and reflect on a stellar season start. “It all seemed to be coming together. Last year, I missed training because of asthma, but this year things worked out and my confidence has come on a lot.”
“Every session in training I was working towards the British Championships and thinking I can medal. Even in January, I was thinking ‘I am up here with the senior girls!’ It gave me the realisation that I was a good junior and can be a good senior now. Everyone else could see my development and was telling me I could do well.”
Spearheading the encouragement was her coach Andy Young, the man who has helped Laura Muir break Kelly Holmes’ British 1500m record and challenge at the sharp end of major international championships. “If you ask me, I’d say Andy is the best coach in the world. He is realistic and honest.”
On top of that, who would you rather have as a training partner than one of our best ever middle-distance runners? “It’s been three years now and I’m a whole lot better from seeing what Laura does. I don’t think you could ask for someone better to learn from and be friends with. You can get carried away and think you’re the best athlete ever and have your head in the clouds, but when Laura and I were away together, people were asking us what we do and we just said ‘we run a bit’. We don’t like to brag!”
Back in the UK – now in July – the scene was set for one of the strongest national championships of recent years. “I ran the heats, felt really relaxed and knew what I was capable of. Andy told me what to do and I’m a big believer in what he tells me! My mum and dad were down for British Champs this year. The last couple of years it hadn’t quite worked out because of the timing. They were so excited!”
Come final time, Reekie ran the race of her life to come a brilliant second behind the experienced Commonwealth and European medalist Laura Weightman, taking some big scalps in the process. Obviously, Jemma being Jemma, there was a PB too. “It was a big breakthrough. I hadn’t told anyone how I was going to run the race. I knew I could get a medal in my head, but still, to get silver and then get your first GB selection (at the inaugural Athletics World Cup in London) was amazing.
“When I crossed the line, obviously there was complete disbelief. Then Laura turned round and said “you need to get the (European Championships qualifying) time!”. It’s great because the other girls all want me to do well. They can see I’m up there.” Wise words from Laura Weightman as Reekie prepared for the toughest pages of her 2018 chapter, an audacious quest for the 4:07 time needed for the Europeans.
Could she run another two seconds quicker than her new 4:09 best? Could she really improve by five seconds compared to the start of the season? It’d be seventeen seconds in just over two years. “It was an exhausting time. I was flying from country to country. Everything was going wrong. In Dublin, I flew last minute on the day of the race and my flight was delayed. I arrived 15 minutes before my race started. I ran 4:09 without warming up. Actually, the clocks were wrong so I crossed the line thinking I’d run 4:06!
There was no questioning her desire, but you’d have thought that energy levels were beginning to wane. “I was so determined but physically and emotionally so knackered. It got to the Anniversary Games with the deadline looming closer. I didn’t care if I crawled across the line”, says Jemma, alluding to the fact that in a mile race, her split time at 1500m would be accepted by the selectors. “Andy said ‘even if you walk across the line, it’s fine.”
“With 90m to go, I saw the time and was like ‘oh my god, I need to sprint!’ Then I died and took about 20 seconds to come down the home straight. It took half an hour to find out and it was the longest half hour of my life!”
A brilliant 4:06.11 split time in London stunned fans and blew away any doubting her immense talent. “I felt complete relief. Happy those two weeks were over. Then all of a sudden I realised I had to come back down to go to the holding camp! I was absolutely knackered but I had to tell myself ‘it’ll be fine’. I’d peaked at British Championships, I’d raced into the ground, got the time, and knew it’d be a huge experience at the European Championships.”
“I came into them hoping to make the final, but I’m still happy”, she says, reflecting on the experience that came with the prize of being in Berlin. She finished eighth in a heat won by her friend and eventual gold medalist Muir.
What seems remarkable is just how much has happened to Jemma Reekie, but how little she has changed. She’s driven to the highest level and considered all kinds of opportunities when looking to take the next step a few years ago. “When I was 16,17, I had amazing coaches at Kilbarchan, but I knew I needed to push myself. You start looking elsewhere. I was looking at Loughborough and going to college there, America, all different things. You’re thinking you have to move away to achieve something but I’m a very home person.”
Therefore, without moving away from Scotland, her career journey has flourished at home. A part of wanting to stay – even at such a young age – is her desire to give back to the community. As she told us at the start of the year, Jemma loves being a role model for local children.
“I felt like I needed to start telling them it can happen. People think you need to be someone in order to achieve something – not just athletics, but football, rugby, dance, whatever. Kids come up to me in the street and they tell me they’ve started running and it’s great to hear, even if they are just doing it for fun.”
It’s a wonder she finds the time to visit schools. Perhaps boundless energy is a trait that we should associate with this bubbly young Scot? “Everyone says to me “you’re so tough”. At the European under-20s last year, I had a disappointing time in the 800 and came back to win the 1500 on Sunday. James Thie, who was one of the coaches working with us, said to me “you are so tough” and that really stuck with me. Not many athletes would’ve bounced back to win after that. I’ve started using those words as a mental boost.
“Next year is going to be hard, but I know I can cope with it. Andy’s never been soft with us. If we get a ‘well done’ we are like ‘can you repeat that?’ I’ve had to get used to being away from home. Andy and Laura have become like a second family and I’m just doing everything without realising.
“I am putting myself first and having to make life decisions. For example, if everyone’s staying out until 12 at the cinema, I have to just think that’s not a good thing to do. Even when you go away for training, you know you’re going away to work hard and get faster.” I get the feeling 12 at the cinema is Jemma’s equivalent to Theresa May’s ‘fields of wheat’, but then again there’s no replacement for a good night’s sleep.
“I’m so grateful every single day. To be doing it as your job…I don’t like saying that because I don’t think of it as a job at all…I’m doing all the things I’ve dreamt of. It’s not a sacrifice if it’s for doing things you love.”