British 800m champion tells AW about her Olympic dreams and why she has unfinished business at the Euro U20 Champs
As Keely Hodgkinson returns to training this month after her short yet sweet 2020 season, things aren’t quite how she imagined them to be. After starting student life at Leeds Beckett University, a coronavirus outbreak in her accommodation means she has already gone home – to just outside Leigh in Greater Manchester – and is self-isolating in her family’s house. Luckily, though, she has a treadmill and she is still sweating as I chat to her moments after she’s banged out one of her first hard sessions of the winter.
“I’ve only had two lectures and it’s all a bit messy so far as everything is online,” she says on the early days of her criminology with psychology degree. “You can’t do the normal uni stuff,” she says. “And now there’s a 10pm curfew people don’t even see the point in going out anymore.”
Still, the 18-year-old knows she is hardly alone and with her mild northern accent she says she’s determined to “crack on”. Indeed, that is certainly what she has done this year.
In February she broke Kirsty Wade’s long-standing British indoor under-20 800m record with 2:01.16 in Vienna. A few days later – and still aged just 17 – she took the British senior indoor 800m crown in Glasgow. After battling through the uncertainty of the spring and early summer, she then won the British senior outdoor title in 2:03.24 in Manchester in early September.
You could argue Hodgkinson was destined to be an athlete from the moment her mum took her to watch the track and field action at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester when she was just five months old.
Her parents do not have any notable athletics ability. “They like to think they have,” Hodgkinson grins.
Her mum has always been “sporty” and trains with Leigh Harriers at the moment, while her dad has run the London Marathon in the past. Hodgkinson Jnr did not show amazing talent to begin with either. In fact, she has never won an English Schools title, although she has come quite close.
In 2016 she took bronze in the 800m and finished fourth the following year, whereas in cross country she won silver behind Ella McNiven and just ahead of Olivia Mason at a bitterly cold Temple Newsam in Leeds a couple of years ago.
“I was doing shot put one minute and then cross country a couple of months later,” Hodgkinson says of her early teenage athletics days.
Coached by Margaret Galvin at Leigh Harriers, she progressed steadily with the exception of 2015 when, aged 13, she was forced to spend time on the sidelines after a mastoidectomy to remove a growth on her ear that had spread into her skull.
“When I won my first English Schools medal when I was 14, I realised I wanted to take it more seriously,” she says. “The following year I didn’t win the English Schools but won the national (England Athletics) title. I heard about the European Youths (under-18) Champs being held the following year (2018) and thought ‘I’d like to go there’ and it really spurred me on.”
Around that period Hodgkinson began to specialise at 800m after previously focusing a little more on longer races like 1200m and above.
Initially she simply wanted to make the GB team for the European Under-18 Championships, which was held in Gyor, Hungary, but she front-ran her way to gold ahead of Sophie O’Sullivan, the daughter of the legendary Irish runner Sonia.
In 2019 she ran a PB of 2:03.40 in the final of the European Under-20 Championships in Borås, Sweden, as she took bronze in a race won by team-mate Isabelle Boffey. Still a teenager, she then truly came of age in 2020 with British senior titles indoors and out.
“I really enjoyed the British Champs,” she says, of the September event, “especially after thinking we wouldn’t have any races for part of the year. I even got the chance to race abroad (in Sweden and Italy), which was exciting.”
Itching to make her mark further, she adds: “I’d really like to race some of the older girls.”
This was despite a difficult year due to the coronavirus. “Lockdown came a week before we were supposed to go to a training camp in South Africa,” she remembers. “It was a long four or five months but it was worth it in the end.”
With no races initially on the horizon, she lacked motivation and often left her training all day until finally putting her running shoes on at 7pm to go for a workout in a nearby trail park. To add to the problems, her A-level exams were also cancelled.
During the past year she has been coached by Jenny Meadows, the 1.57.93 800m runner from nearby Wigan, plus her husband Trevor Painter. Together they have helped steer her through the notoriously tricky late teenage years.
“If I’m in a certain scenario then Jenny has done it all before and always has good advice for me,” says Hodgkinson.
Her early years were spent focusing on building stamina and she also did a lot of swimming. She still swims once a week – and is secretly hoping the Leeds-based triathlon coaches don’t hear about her swimming background – but otherwise Meadows and Painter (pictured below) are keen to develop her basic speed.
Hodgkinson says: “My coach always says I’m naturally quite strong and my speed is my weakness so that’s what we’re trying to work on more while I’m still young. I’d probably do all right at 1500m, for example, although I don’t particularly want to do one!”
There are obvious comparisons with Max Burgin – a fellow northerner who also won a European under-18 title in Gyor and is only two months younger than Hodgkinson.
“I know Max quite well,” says Hodgkinson. “He doesn’t live that far from Leeds so when I get back there we’re going to tag up together in gym sessions. We went to European Youths together and he won that year too although he has a few more world records than I do!”
So what are Hodgkinson’s goals for 2021? First of all she says she has unfinished business at the European Under-20 Championships and wants to go for gold in Tallinn in July.
The rescheduled World Under-20 Championships in Nairobi in mid-August next year is another natural target. But what about the Olympics in Tokyo? If it happens, of course.
“There’s no pressure on me,” she says. “I’m only 19 so I’d go into the British Champs (and trials) and if I make it then fabulous but if I don’t it’s not the end of the world as I’ll still hopefully have another 10-15 years to go to an Olympics.”
Most of all, though, her immediate goal is to break the two-minute barrier for two laps. “It’s definitely a big motivator. I’d also like to win the European Juniors because I only got bronze last time,” she adds.
“In the back of my head everyone wants to go to the Olympics, so if I’m in contention then it’s a huge aim for anybody to try to get there.”