Kiwi Liz Wilson has grasped a dream opportunity to represent her country at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August. Steve Landells caught up with the masters sprinter to find out more about her golden chance.
It was nine years ago when Liz Wilson’s improbable journey to the Bird’s Nest Stadium began.
Her daughter, Lauren, a gifted young sprinter, was training at Athletics Taieri when a coach saw Liz jogging around the track one day and remarked “you should sprint before you get too old. I said, “If you train me, then I will,’ so that’s how I got into it.”
Despite never having never previously competed in sport, the then 43-year-old adapted quickly to the new challenge under the guidance of Jim Baird.
“I loved it from the start, although gaining the initial fitness was hard,” says Liz. “During my first season I was breaking Otago records and I was very happy to be ranked 26th in the world.”
Yet over time the improvements have continued and her curiosity was piqued by what she could do on the global stage after reading the results from the 2011 World Masters Athletics Championships in Sacramento.
Liz believed she could have qualified for the final and with the next edition in 2013 in Porto Alegre in Brazil she found the prospect of competing there too tempting to turn down.
“As I always wanted to go to South America I thought it would be pretty cool to compete,” she adds.
There she secured a brace of bronze medals in the 100m and the 200m before securing gold in her speciality – the 400m in the 50-54 age group. It was an unforgettable moment.
“It was just amazing to stand on the podium and have the national anthem play in your honour,” recalls, Liz, now aged 52.
The Sport Otago co-ordinator and pre-school teacher then set about preparing for the defence of her World Masters title in Lyon in August when she heard the IAAF were keen on introducing some exhibition masters events for the 50-54 age group as part of the schedule for the IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
Then when it was confirmed that one of the two events would be the women’s 400m (the other is the men’s 800m), Liz would not believe her good fortune.
“It was just sheer luck that it happened to be the event that I‘m best at,” adds Liz, a mum of four, whose daughter, Lauren, won 100m and 200m gold for New Zealand as a sprinter at the 2010 under-20 Oceania Championships.
To secure an invite to Beijing, Liz was initially told she would need to run a sub-63 second time for the 400m. However, such was the large number of athletes who attained the mark the standard was later amended to sub-62.
Liz describes qualification mark as “pretty tough” but last December ran a personal best of 61.35 at the Caledonian Ground in Dunedin – against athletes more than 30 years younger - to book her ticket to compete in the Bird’s Nest Stadium.
“It is exciting to be competing at the same meeting as the likes of Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce,” she adds. “It will be really cool.”
Born in Gisborne, Liz moved to Dunedin with her family aged eight but says she “never had the opportunity” to do sport in her younger days. She has no idea she was fast until first tasting the sport in her 40s, although she believes she can explain her family’s ability to run quickly.
“My great grandfather came from St Kitts & Nevis (home country of 2003 World 100m champion Kim Collins) in the Caribbean,” she explains. “I am coloured white but obviously inherited the speed genes.”
Now coached by Brent Ward, former coach to New Zealand’s two-time former Olympic sprinter Chris Donaldson, she has come on leaps and bounds in recent years.
She praises Brent for his knowledge and experience and his ability to treat every athlete as an individual and she has also thrived training as part of a top quality group of athletes which includes Daniel O’Shea, the 2013 national 400m hurdles champion, Andrew Whyte, a former New Zealand World Junior representative, as well as rising Para-Athlete Anna Grimaldi.
“I like the attitude of the people in the group,” she explains. “They are very keen and dedicated.”
Training eight sessions per week over six days (six running sessions and two gym sessions) Liz seems to be defying the sands of time and running quicker despite the advancing years.
She believes the fact she has not pounded her body for years as a younger athletes means she has sustained few injuries and the Hill City-University athlete insists she has made significant technical advances.
“If I had done the sport when I was younger I would have already had the technical know-how,” she explains. “But because I have improved my technique that has allowed me to improve.”
More recently, Liz has been working hard on improving the strength in her glutes to aid her start and been working diligently on improving her stride length.
Before Beijing, Liz would like to excel at the World Masters Championships in Lyon – where she has set herself some clear goals.
“I’d like to repeat what I did in Brazil and medal in all three events,” she explains. “I’d really like to achieve gold in all three. I’ve got to aim high.”
Moving on from central France she will fly out to Beijing to be given the chance of a lifetime to compete in the Bird’s Nest Stadium on the penultimate night of action at the IAAF World Championships.
She recalls seven years ago rushing around to her parent’s house to watch the incredible sprint action led by Usain Bolt at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the Bird’s Nest Stadium. So can she comprehend the prospect of competing at the same event as the Jamaican superstar?
“Being so much older competing in the Bird’s Nest Stadium was something I never thought I’d get the chance to do and I feel very lucky,” she explains. “I love running so much. I enjoy the adrenaline rush and the success I’ve enjoyed is an incentive as well.”
Yet what does the 52-year-old hope to achieve when given the platform to compete in the sport’s biggest event outside of the Olympic Games?
“I’m in the top three in my event, so I have a really good chance,” she adds. “Some athletes have switched events to do the 400m but I feel like I am the specialist 400m runner with the experience.”