Above: James Mortimer (260) on his way to victory over 200m at the Capital Classic in a new PB. Photo by Jo Murray.
At the age of 32 evergreen James Mortimer has just posted a lifetime best for the 200m. Steve Landells chats to the multiple winning New Zealand champion about a long and successful career in the sport and just why he is currently an athlete re-born.
Aged just three-and-a-half at the time and inspired to give athletics a go by his older sister, James fondly recalls his first athletics memories running at the Torbay Athletic Club back in 1986.
“It was up at Long Bay College and I was told to run to the sticks, which they called lollipops, at the other end of the track some 50m or 60m,” he reminisces.
Time has not dimmed the memory of those initial athletics experiences and now some three decades on James Mortimer is still going strong as both an athlete and coach and is showing no signs of divorcing himself from a sport that has given him so much.
“It is something I have always wanted to do,” he says of athletics. “In all my time I have never had one season away from the sport.”
Born and raised on Auckland’s North Shore, James competed at rugby and surf lifesaving but athletics was always his primary passion. He describes himself as an “athletics nut” regularly soaking up results from around the world and queuing up to grab the autograph of US sprint-jump legend Carl Lewis when he competed in Auckland in 1997.
Competing for the North Harbour Bays Athletics Club from the age of five, James admits because of his tall, lanky frame he was “never the fastest kid at school” and attracted to the technical elements of the event later switched to the hurdles.
The Aucklander went on to forge an impressive schoolboy career and in his final year at Rangitoto College completed the 110m hurdles and 300m hurdles double at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships.
Injury denied him a crack at qualifying for the hurdles at the 2002 World Junior Championships in Jamaica, but showing the first signs of the versatility that has been the hallmark of his long and distinguished career, he switched events to qualify for the 100m and performed with pride to reach the semi-finals courtesy of a 10.55 clocking, which still stands today as his second fastest time for the distance.
The meet was made famous for the emergence on to the international scene of 15-year-old Usain Bolt and the Kiwi describes his memories of the event as “incredible.”
“Each day the huge crowd were amazing,” he recalls. “Jamaica was such an interesting place to travel to and without athletics I surely would never have experienced a city such as Kingston. I remember the crowd were breaking into the stadium to watch Usain win his 200m. I raced in the 100m against Darrel Brown of Trinidad, who the next year won a World Championships 100m silver medal. Athletes such as Allyson Felix and Bershawn Jackson competed there. It was a great championship.”
As the 6ft 2ins tall athlete progressed into the senior ranks he built a reputation as New Zealand’s premier 110m hurdler, capturing seven-straight New Zealand sprint hurdles titles from 2003-09. He posted a national record of 13.71 in 2007 (a mark only surpassed last year by Josh Hawkins) and he also tasted two unforgettable international experiences at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and World Cup in Athens.
His memories of running for the New Zealand 4x100m quartet inside the cavernous MCG were “bittersweet” as a fumbled baton exchange on the final changeover cost the Kiwi team - which also included Matthew Brown, James Dolphin and Chris Donaldson - a shot at a medal.
Yet later that year James experienced the highlight of his athletics career competing for Oceania at the World Cup.
“I got to race Allen Johnson, Dayron Robles and Liu Xiang - three Olympic champions (in the 110m hurdles). I was in the middle of it all in lane five. It was pretty amazing,” he says of the race where he finished seventh in 13.94.
Sadly, James' high hurdles career was to come to an abrupt end in 2010.
A condition called Haglund’s deformity - which led to small bone growth in the back of his heel - caused a painful tendinitis in his achilles. He was forced to undergo surgery and on his return opted to take up the 400m hurdles to ease the potential strain on his legs.
He enjoyed some success in his new event. Winning back-to-back national 400m hurdles titles in 2011 and 2012, before a repeat of the Haglund’s deformity in his right leg led to a repeat bout of surgery in the countdown to the London Olympics.
Aged in his late 20s, many would then have walked away from the sport, but the sport manager at Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls felt he still had unfinished business and he returned for the third phase of his senior athletics career, re-born as 100m and 200m sprinter.
“I just wanted to come back and run in what I thought were the two easiest events for me,” he explains. “Many athletes as they get older go for the longer distances, but I wanted to stay involved in the sport and enjoy it without putting myself through the pain of a 400m or 800m.”
It was also at this point of his athletics journey that he left long-time coach Elena Brown to hook up with Athletics New Zealand coach Matt Dallow – a move which has unquestionably reinvigorated his career.
“I have learned so much from Matt and he has put a programme together to suit me as an older athlete,” he explains. “He looks at the whole picture, my injuries, the way I run and he has really worked on my efficiency, which, for me, has been key. He is so passionate about athletics and is more about holding that technical form, which has worked very well for me in the 200m. Since joining him I’ve been injury-free, which is amazing. I’ve really figured out the areas I need to work on.”
Concurrent to his personal athletics ambitions, James has also stepped into the coaching realm in more recent times and guides a small training group, which includes national women’s 400m hurdles champion MacKenzie Keenan and rising teenage schoolboy sprint star Jordan Bolland.
He enjoys coaching, passing on his athletics wisdom and watching his athletes grow as people and coaching has taught him several valuable lessons.
“It has taught me to be patient and to study athletics in more detail,” he explains. “What I’ve learned is that there are certain things you don’t need to do. Sprinting in this country is a lot about volume, but I don’t think you need to do that. I’ve learned that from Matt.”
James himself works under a five-day-a-week training programme, in which almost each session is broken down into focusing on the various phases of the sprint, including power development, acceleration and top and speed. The results of this approach started to come to fruition last year as he landed his maiden national sprint title in the 200m – a moment he describes as “pretty cool.”
Yet it was his form at the Capital Classic earlier this month where he slashed 0.30 from his lifetime best for the 200m, recording 21.02 to clinch victory just over a month out from his 33rd birthday, which caught the eye.
“I am surprised by the time, especially this early on in the season,” adds James, who also recorded 10.61 in Wellington for his fastest 100m time for ten years.“ The goal has always been to run under 21 seconds and a time of 20.80 is now not out of the question.”
With so much of the current season remaining he “would hate to set a limit” on what times he can achieve in the future and he has very simple aims and ambition in the sport for the future.
“I just want to have fun,” he insists. “I don’t go chasing targets these days as qualification is quite tough in terms of Olympics and Commonwealth Games. The more pressure you put on yourself to reach those times the less likely you are to run them. I’m just trying to be the best I can on the day.”
Which begs one final question; how much longer can the Remuera-based athlete compete for?
“I was looking at this maybe being my last year, but as I keep running fast times, I’m not so sure,” he adds. “When you see athletes like Kim Collins (the 2003 World 100m champion) running well aged 39, it is hard to give up just yet.”