Above: Keegan Pitcher (centre) racing at the 2017 NZ Track & Field Championships in Hamilton. Photo by Alan McDonald / Macspeedfoto.
Keegan Pitcher is a genuine podium contender in the 200m, 400m and 800m at the World Para Athletics Championships in London (July 14-23). Here Steve Landells speaks to the rising talent about his meteoric progression on to the world stage.
Keegan Pitcher may have only started formal athletics training 11 months ago, but such has been his spectacular progress the Aucklander teenager will hope to threaten the podium at the World Para Athletics Championships which open tomorrow (July 14) in London’s Olympic Stadium.
Ranked third in the world for the 200m, 400m and 800m, the para-athlete has three bites at climbing the podium in the British capital – a fact which has stunned the Auckland University PE student.
“I have shocked myself with how far I have come,” admits Keegan. “I would never have believed I would be on my way to a World Championship after less than a year of training.”
It has certainly been some progression.
Born with cerebral palsy, the former Waitakere College student in West Auckland has always enjoyed sport and formerly played both soccer and softball.
He also tried running at school but “never fast enough to keep up with the able-bodied kids” it was only when an opportunity arose to compete in Para-Athletics at the 2015 Junior Disability Games in Cambridge did a pathway open to a whole new realm.
During that competition, Keegan surprised himself to take the top overall male prize as he romped to victory in the 50m, 100m, 200m and 400m.
However, despite his unanticipated success it was not only after securing the 200m and 400m double 12 months later at the next edition of the Junior Disability Games did his formal athletics career really begin.
“That’s when I was scouted by Parafed Auckland to train for athletics,” he explains. “Running felt like something I could excel at and it made me want to pursue it more.”
Picked up by Parafed Auckland CEO Hamish Meacheam, the pair spent some time trying to find a coach for the talented young athlete. However, it was only after Keegan expressed a preference to compete as a middle-distance athlete did Hamish – himself a former middle-distance runner – opted to take up the coaching mantle with Keegan in August last year.
Initially starting out on the roads to build up his endurance, it was only after a couple of months did the Owairaka Athletics athlete fully enter a track training programme. Yet it was not something which fazed him.
“The work was really hard,” says Keegan. “But I enjoyed it. I loved the pain, it was really fun.”
In his first competition under Hamish’s guidance, Keegan impressed at January’s Capital Classic in Wellington, running 2:16 for the 800m - just one second shy of the World Championships qualification mark.
Then in March in Canberra – in what was Keegan’s first international competition - he ran an impressive new PB of 57.93 for the 400m to set himself up nicely for the following week’s New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Hamilton.
At Porritt Stadium, Keegan faced the competitive challenge of taking on two-time Rio Paralympic bronze medallist William Stedman – but in an outstanding display for such an inexperienced athlete he finished second behind Stedman in the T36 400m and the 800m smashing his PB in both events with times of 56.42 and 2:12.02, respectively. Then he claimed 200m victory in a New Zealand record of 25.84 to bank selection for all three events at the IPC Athletics World Championships in London.
“We went into nationals trying to treat it like any other competition because we didn’t want to feel any additional pressure,” explains Keegan. “It was daunting to face William because he was a Paralympian, but I really had to treat him like any other racer. When I finished the 800m and I looked at the time, I was ecstatic. The next day I the qualified for the 400m and although I know I am not quite fast enough for the 100m my coach and I said let’s see if we can qualify for a third event (the 200m).
Keegan duly achieved his ambition, but in the wake of success he was delivered the news from his coach that the 800m had been removed from the programme for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
This was unquestionably a blow to the man who originally wanted to feature as a middle-distance runner but since the pair have focused their efforts on the sprints (the Tokyo Paralympic Games will have a 100m and 400m on the schedule) and the move which has gone exceedingly well.
“We have since changed our training to focus on blocks, power work and lots of 40m and 80m sprints,” he says. “It was a difficult mind shift but since I started training, my sprint technique has improved and my speed has picked up to the point I think, I might now be a sprinter.”
Training six days a week, Keegan also praised the efforts of Hamish, who has worked hard to gather as much information as possible on sprint coaching, and last month the rising para-athletics talent insists he could feel the benefit of their time working together.
“It all seemed to happen at once, but suddenly my legs started looked bigger and I was more powerful in training,” he explains
His instincts proved correct when at the Oceania Championships in Fiji in late-June and early-July, the 19-year-old blitzed to victories in the 100m, 200m and 400m smashing his PB’s in all three events with times of 13.24, 25.32 and 55.33, respectively. Significantly he is now ranked third in the world for the 200m and 400m (he is also third in the world for the 800m) and his performances in Suva has, quite rightly, filled him with confidence and belief.
“To run a second faster than my PB for the 400m, hasn’t sunk in,” he says. “I was looking for 12 seconds something for the 100m but to run 13.24 into a 3.6m/s wind was understandable.”
Yet like any athlete worth his salt he is still far from satisfied and believes there is room for improvement ahead of the World Para Athletics Championships in London.
“I watched the race (400m) back and I didn’t get out of the blocks that well or run down the back straight so fluently,” he explains. “There are things I can improve upon and the aim now is to run 54 seconds in London.”
Yet wisely ahead of the biggest competition of his fledgling career, he is attempting to release the pressure valve.
“I would like to go there and run a bit faster than I did in Suva,” adds Keegan, who can’t decide whether he prefers the 200m or 400m. “If that means a medal, then that is a bonus. That is the mindset I am adopting.”
Beyond the World Championships he hopes to combine training for athletics with wheelchair rugby – a sport he also hopes to represent his country at on the international stage.
In the longer term the ambition is to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, where he will be hunting podium positions on the track.
But why does the Henderson-based athlete love running?
“It gives me something to do rather than just sat at home playing video games,” he says. “It gets me out in the sun, meeting new people and socialising but, if I need time out, it also gives me time to myself.”