There were so many outstanding performances from the Australian Team at the World U20 Championships in Finland in July, resulting in the best overall U20 Team performance since 1996 when Sydney hosted.
In the final part of our series, reflecting on the Tampere Team, we speak with 800m and 4x400m silver medallist Carley Thomas, fourth placegetter in the 400m and 4x400m relay silver medallist Ella Connolly, and talented all-rounder Zane Branco who was fifth in the 200m.
In the first piece of this two-part series javelin gold medallist Nash Lowis, decathlon silver medallist Gary Haasbroek, and new Australian record holder in the 10,000m walk Declan Tingay, were featured - read here>>>.
Thomas gets top marks in Tampere
Carley Thomas achieved a superb 800m silver and anchored the Australian 4x400m relay of Ella Connolly, Cara Jardine and Jemima Russell into the silver medal position, in what was an outstanding and team performance.
For 17-year-old Thomas to race so brilliantly, including a huge 800m personal best, while also juggling study for her final High School exams, saw her be one of the most outstanding athletes of the whole championships.
Back in Sydney, Thomas was still beaming from the experience, as she got back into full study mode.
“The experience was just incredible, it’s kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Thomas, reflecting on her three weeks in Finland.
“Preparing for this massive competition was a great experience and competing in Finland definitely taught me a lot about international competition. Competing was so much fun I just enjoyed it so much!
Superb 800m Silver
Thomas, who has been coached by Penny Gillies for around two years, showed great composure and speed across all five of her races over the six-day meet. In the 800m, she cruised to second in her heat (2:08.57) and then won her semi-final in a personal best 2:03.19 the following day.
In the final, she was still full of running and couldn’t be faulted on tactics. She slotted in just behind the lead after 150 metres, was third at the bell and made a strong move down the back straight and had plenty left to hold off any challengers in the long sprint to the line.
“Being in lane 8 was a good draw for me because I could pick my position to slip in to at the merge and I think that was really helpful for me,” Thomas said.
“The first lap was quite reasonable. I expected it to be a bit faster, because one of the Ethiopians went through in 56 in her semi, so to go through in 59.0 I was happy with that pace. I wanted to stick with the Ethiopians when they went at the bell.
“I felt good throughout the race, you’re always going to end up hurting. I felt pretty comfortable and almost like I was floating. It was pretty cool.”
Thomas ran over two seconds faster than her semi-final win, to claim silver in 2:01.13. She equalled the silver won by Georgie Clarke in 2000 and ran the fastest time by an Australian at the World U20s.Diribe Welteji won Ethiopia’s first gold in the event at a World U20s in a championship record of 1:59.74.
“When I crossed the line it was almost surreal that it was over, because there had been such a big build-up. When I saw the winner did sub two minutes I knew my time would be fast and when I saw it was 2:01 I was quite euphoric.
“It’s sunk in now but I still feel weird to think about it, even standing on the podium it was so cool but you didn’t really realise at that point that you are second in the world for your age-group.”
Final leg to claim 4x400m silver
After the 800m final, Thomas had the next day free from competition before running the heat and final of the 4x400m relay on the last two days of competition.
For the relay, Thomas combined with Ella Connolly, Cara Jardine and Jemima Russell to win their heat in 3:35.38. In the final, the quartet found another gear and each Australian ran great legs to keep them in medal contention but save enough to finish strongly into each change-over.
The Aussies sat second or third throughout for most of the first three legs. Thomas took the baton in fourth and ran a sensational leg (split around 54.2) to pass Canada with 200m to go and run down the Jamaicans in the home straight to secure silver for the Australians in 3:31.36.
“My legs probably were a bit fatigued and I would have been tired, but the adrenaline and excitement of the atmosphere just kept me going.
“Even after my 800, normally if I have run a PB I am lying on the ground, but the adrenaline just kept me going and I did my recovery strategies with ice bath and massages from the physios and was still feeling great for the relay final.
“Finishing on the relay is so much fun and you’ve got this awesome team environment. You’re all of the same mindset that you want to leave everything on the track and finish the competition with a bang. We were such good friends so it was so cool to achieve that together.”
It was the second fastest time run by an Australian team at the World U20s and the first medal in this event for 10 years.
Tough training sessions pay off
“For the 800m you need speed, strength and endurance to maintain that speed in the back-end. To achieve that is a combination of all of those training sessions and the nasty long hill sessions all contribute.
“It’s really rewarding looking back and knowing that all those agonising training sessions paid off.
“I do remember a session that I did with one of the boys in my squad that we were full of lactic. It was something like - 2x800m, 1x500m, 1x400m, 1x300m and then 2x200ms.”
Biggest influence on your success?
Thomas credits the ‘amazing support and guidance’ from her parents and siblings as playing a big role in her enjoyment of the sport and achievements.
She is also full of praise for Gillies and her big training group which includes 800m runner Laura Storey and Joanna Cubis, plus plenty of boys and sprinters which she also does sessions with.
But it is her first coach, John Atterton who passed away in 2016 aged 82, who has had the biggest influence on her athletics career to date.
“He instilled a love for running in me and an appreciation for how enjoyable it can be and that’s where the focus should be when you are running because that’s what is going to drive you at the end of the day.
“He made enjoyment the focus and made training fun. He was such an awesome person and he was a big part of my running.”
Advice for young athletes
“Make sure you enjoy it, because if you enjoy it you’ll put the effort in a you’ll receive rewards. Soak up all of your experiences and soak up all of the advice that people in the athletics arena can offer you and there is so many knowledgeable people out there, who are will to help.
“A big thing for me when I was younger was always making sure you don’t do too much. Even now I probably do the minimum training load. A lot of kids these days get a bit carried away and they feel as though (training) load directly equates to results but I think it’s important to value speed and to have quality over quantity.”
Taste for international success.
“It was such a great result for me. I found it very rewarding and getting to know the team was one of the real highlights. Everyone was so like-minded, it was a lot of fun, and I guess everyone bounced off each other’s top performances.”
This was not the first international meet when Thomas had excelled. She won the 800m and was part of the 4x400m team that won gold at the Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas in 2017.
Once she finishes her exams she’ll refocus on the summer ahead where she plans to race a lot and keep chipping away at her personal bests over 800m and 400m. Tampere 2018 took her international experience to the next level and she has a real ‘taste for it now’.
Connolly consistently delivered in Tampere
A hamstring injury early in the 2017/18 season ruled Ella Connolly out of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games trials which she said was ‘a bit heartbreaking’, to miss the chance of competing at the Games in her home state. However, the outstanding talent focussed on her rehabilitation and got herself back into great shape for the World U20 Championships in Finland in July. She has a fantastic meet to finish fourth in the 400m and lead-off the 4x400m relay for the silver medal.
After a small break in Europe post Tampere 2018, the 18-year-old was back into hard training and finished the season off with a strong run in the mixed 4x400m relay for the Asia-Pacific team at the Continental Cup in the Czech Republic, earlier this month.
Already in her career she has won silver in the 400m (setting her personal best of 52.72), bronze in the 200m and gold in the 4x400m mixed relay at the Commonwealth Youth Games in July 2017. She then competed in the 4x400m at the senior 2017 World Championships in London, where she ran a flying split of 52.2 as the team just missed the final. After performing again on the world stage at the U20s, running five great races in six days, she confirmed she has a bright future ahead.
Reflections on fantastic fourth in the 400m
I was confident going into the championships that I was fit and strong and just really wanted to give it my best shot,” Connolly said.
“I’m really proud of the results. I kind of went in with no expectations really. Just to get through the rounds and do my best. And I made it through to the final so I was stoked, and to get fourth I was really happy with.”
Connolly won her heat in 52.99 seconds and then backed that up with a semi-final win and 52.78, for a second season best in two days.
“It was my first time running a semi-final and because it was the World Champs I didn’t really get a chance to take it easy in the heat or the semi. So by the time I got to the final I was feeling it a little bit but once you get out there all the adrenaline takes over and all your focussed on is racing.”
Connolly was drawn in lane 5 with the Indian favourite, Hima Das on her inside and American Taylor Manson on her outside. Manson went out hard and Connolly went with her to put her in podium contention.
She entered the straight just behind Manson and then Das found another gear and surged away from the field to win in 51.47 seconds. Romanian Andrea Miklos produced the only personal best of the final to claim silver (52.07) and Manson was too strong for Connolly in the closing stages to take bronze (52.28).
Connolly was understandably proud with her run of 52.82 for fourth placing once she had time to reflect.
“To start with I was a bit disappointed to just miss a medal and be slightly off my PB. But then after sitting down and thinking about it and going through the race with my coach (Gary Patterson) and after backing up well race after race and all in 52 seconds, I was really proud of myself.”
Silver birthday present
Connolly had a day off between the 400m final and the heats of the 4x400m, and it just happened to be her 18th birthday. There was no celebrating though, just plenty of recovery as there was still a big job to be done in the relay.
She had three hard rounds of the 400m in her legs, Cara Jardine came in fresh for the second leg, Jemima Russell had run a strong heat and semi in the 800m and Carley Thomas had run three rounds of the 800m, winning the silver medal.
The Australians won their heat in a strong showing over Canada in 3:35.48, and knew they were in medal contention if they executed well in the final.
“We wanted to go in to that final and give it our all. We ran a pretty good heat so we were like ‘girls we really need to go for it, we could get a medal here’.
Connolly ran a strong first leg behind USA and Jardine crossed over in second place.
“After I ran my race I wasn’t even relieved, I was still nervous for the other three girls running their legs.
The Jamaican flew Jardine down the back straight but hadn’t timed her run well and the Australian passed her as she handed the baton to Russell. USA had cleared out, but Russell ran a great leg to keep the Australians in contention. Thomas got the baton in fourth, before moving to third with 200m to run and into second in the final 40 metres.
“When Carley finished in second I think we were just shocked at first and then really happy.
“We were literally screaming, ‘hold on for third, hold on for third’ and then when she passed the Jamaicans, we couldn’t believe we had just got silver at the World Championships – it was crazy!”
“We couldn’t have asked for any more in the final, we finished the championships on a really great note.”
More motivated than ever for future success
‘I’m more motivated than ever to get training for next season. It’s really motivating coming back from a team atmosphere like that.”
The World Championships in Doha and the Tokyo Olympics are the big goals for Connolly.
“I guess they are everyone’s major goal, I’ll keep working hard and see what we can do. Next year I want to break that 52 second mark. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before that, so I think just keep chipping away at the training and getting better each comp and just racing well would be my goal. I think at the end of the day times don’t really matter it’s about how you perform on the day against the other girls.”
Connolly, who works as a teachers’ aid and is studying teaching at Griffith University, has learnt a lot from the Tampere experience. Being able to run five races in six days in Finland has given her a lift.
“It was definitely a confidence booster. The year got off to a rocky start and after running in Tampere I know I can run those times again and let’s build from here.”
“Next season I really want to run some more 200s and work on my speed to get my times down in the 4.”
Any session that you think was key to your success?
“Anyone who knows me knows I hate anything over a 400m at training. So my coach has got me doing more 600s and 500s to get fit.
“It absolutely drains me but if it’s something you’ve got to work on you’ve just got to suck it up and get it done. I am definitely more the 2/4 runner than 4/8 but the part of my race I need to work on the most is my finish, so it needs to be done.”
“My coach and my family have been the biggest influence on me. They are very supportive and before I was driving they were always getting me to training. My mum (Laurel) and dad (Mike), Gary and his wife and son were all in Tampere cheering for me, which was pretty cool that they could all make the trip.”
Connolly started training with Gary Patterson in 2013 and that’s when she started running 400s. Before that she focussed on the 100m and 200m. He was impressed by her speed competing for Deception Bay Little Athletics north of Brisbane and encouraged her to give the one-lap event a serious go. She now has personal bests of 11.90, 23.66 and 52.72.
As well as a fantastic coach, she has big wraps for her main training partner.
“I have an awesome training partner in Gary’s son, Cooper. He is a really big influence and helps me a lot. He just really trains and doesn’t compete. If training was at the Olympics he would have the gold medal. He trains hard and is a really good athlete because of that.”
Talented Branco at home on world stage
Talented Noosa athlete Zane Branco was selected for the 200m and long jump for the World U20s in Tampere, and after a 10.33 in the 100m at a small meet in Finland he was offered a spot in this event.
However, after a long 18 months re-building from a serious hamstring tear while long jumping, which cost him his place at the Commonwealth Youth Games, the 18-year-old decided to focus on making the 200m final in Finland – a big enough challenge.
Branco really only considered the 200 as an event he could do well in when he equalled the Australian U18 record in September 2017. Branco ran 20.90 to equal the mark of Olympians Darren Clark and Paul Greene’s. He then ran 20.68 in March at the Australian U20 Championships to become the fourth fastest Australian junior in history.
At Tampere 2018 he handled the rounds like a seasoned campaigner and almost sprinted his way on to the podium, placing fifth in 20.86 seconds and just 0.07 off bronze. It was the best placing by an Australian in this event at the World U20s for 10 years and his semi-final time of 20.81 and his time in the final (20.86) are the two fastest times ever recorded by an Australian at these championships.
For the next few seasons the 200m will be his focus but like Clark and Greene the 400m could eventually be his calling. Unless of course he chooses to try and join the eight-metre long jump club (PB 7.61m).
Tampere competition insights
“I was stoked to show up on the start line in one piece and ready to race,” Branco explained. “I had a great hit-out in the heats and felt like I just kept everything in fourth gear. I couldn’t believe I ran a 21.04 feeling that easy.
“Later that evening I had the semi and I could definitely feel the heat run a little bit more than I thought I would. I was super pumped to be able to get through the semis in a decent enough time, still feeling like I didn’t leave it all on the track. So, I was pretty happy with the 20.81.
“The finals berth is really what I went there for. I definitely felt the two rounds from the day before so I guess at that stage going into the final I wasn’t expecting anything huge timewise, I knew I was in good shape and just went out with the attitude to leave it all on the track.
“I gave it everything to get on that podium and it was just one of those great experiences to be able to show-up and get everything out of my body that I had.”
His coach Michael Hooper, who has guided him right through Little Athletics, was pleased with how he executed their plans in Tampere and how Branco compares to all the Australians that have gone before him.
“He ran the fastest time ever for an Australian in the 200 at the world U20s, and the first to run under 21. He hung on well in the final, he gave it everything and I couldn’t get be prouder. He’s done something quite unique at a young age,” Hooper said.
Lessons from the experience
“Biggest thing I took away from Tampere rather than what happened on the track was being in that team environment for three weeks and experiencing what its like to be a full-time athlete with no other commitments besides keeping on top of your nutrition, training, physio and just getting ready to race. Different experience to anything I’d ever had in the past.”
“I’ve been to camps with U17 and u19 squad before which I really enjoyed but this just took it to another level and I think that’s the kind of thing that keeps you hungry in the sport. When you work hard at something and you get some luck along the way and your gifted the opportunity to go away on a team like that. It makes you want to come back.
“The junior experience is really the start of your career, like the end of being a kid in the sport. It gives you appetite for what going to a senior world champs might be like. It definitely was that first taste, that’s got me hungry and ready to look forward and try to make the next few teams coming up.
Australian Team environment
“It was one of those team environments where we just got really lucky and everyone just got along and gelled and we got to see some of our friends but together great performances on the world stage.
“I remember there were several of us watching Carley Thomas in the 800m, shouting at the TV back at the hotel. Some of those moments really were the most fun. We did have some stand-out athletes that really killed it on the world stage and it was so great to be a part of.
“I’ve been enjoying the training for the 200, getting faster and stronger and staying injury free. I’ll definitely keep focussing on the 200 for another year or two and see how I am going.
“I didn’t really start taking the 200s seriously until I equalled the U18 record and now after the World U20s, going forward the 20.48 record from Fred Martin may or may not happen. It is probably the main goal I have now but with 200s a lot of it is good conditions and we’ll see what happens.”
What about a move to the 400 in the future?
“On the track I can see maybe the 400 being my event of the future when I get to 22, 23 or 24 years old. I can’t see myself enjoying the 400 as much as I do the 200 in competition, but I don’t mind hurting in training and it could be the best event for me. But we’ll wait and see in a few years.
“If I refocus on long jump I would start again from the ground up to reconfigure the way I jump. I guess if you can be competitive on the world stage in 200 or long jump, why would you run 400s?,” Branco laughed. He jumped 7.61 metres for the long jump in January 2018.
“If I can get an individual berth in a senior team in the next two years for the 200 or squeeze into the 4x100, that would be awesome.”
Hooper knows he has an athlete with enormous potential.
“Zane in the last 12 months has run under 21 eight times and he is probably five years younger than when Rio Olympian Alex Hartmann ran under 21 eight times in his break-out year. So his potential is huge and he still has a lot of growing to do.
“If history is right and he keeps himself healthy and accumulates the training over the next few years you would certainly think he would be able to run an individual qualifier for the Olympics or Comm Games in the 200.”
“If Zane can keep improving and make senior teams then after a while you need to look to see what it will take to make the final or win a medal. By that stage you would need to be getting down to near Peter Norman’s 20-flat, and to even be competitive at the 400 he would need to be running around 20.3.
“So speed is the key for now in the 200 and 100, and no point rushing out to the 400.
“Tokyo will be the main goal. We’ll look at one preparation going into the Australian Champs this year and see what happens in terms of Doha (world champs). He has a lot of improvement to come in terms of his start, accelerations, technique and getting stronger so if it happens earlier it does for Doha but if it doesn’t you are just in a better position to aim for Tokyo. There is no need for him to rush at his age.”
Branco will decide whether he goes to university in Noosa or somewhere else in Australia. He was born in San Diego and his father’s family are all still in the USA so a college scholarship could has some family appeal. He is quick to point out that he is very happy with the support from Athletics Australia and the strength of men’s sprinting in Australia is another reason he is likely to not make any changes and keep working with the other guys to all keep improving.
Branco credits Little As for his love of the sport
He started athletics when he moved to Australia when he was nine and he joined Little Athletics. He tried all the events and didn’t have a lot of success early on but he credits the friends he made and friendly environment as the reason he loves the sport.
“The ‘family, fun and fitness’ was so great. Samantha Johnson who was also competing in Tampere, and I, came through Little As together.”
This two-part series where six athletes were profiled, compliments the extensive coverage during the meet which also included a feature on decathlon champion Ash Moloney. See all Tampere 2018 coverage here>>>
Andrew Reid for Athletics Australia