Above: Oli Chignell on his way to the 2017 New Zealand Under 20 cross country title in Auckland Domain. Photo by Alan McDonald / Macspeedfoto.
After enjoying a memorable winter with U20 gold at the New Zealand Cross Country Championships and U20 Road Race silver, Oli Chignell has emerged as a future star in the making. Steve Landells chats to the Dunedin teenager about his development in the sport and exciting prospects for the years to come.
It is perhaps little surprise that Oli Chignell’s role model is Ethiopian distance running legend Haile Gebrselassie. For just like the two-time former Olympic 10,000m champion, Oli is diminutive in stature (he stands at around 1.70m, Haile is 1.63m) and very much like the man who also set a remarkable 27 world records during a stellar career, the Hill City -University AC athlete is developing a reputation as an athlete with the never-say-die spirit and tough competitive nature, which also marked Haile out as such a special athlete.
Born into a running family, it was little surprise Oli also tread this same path. His mum and dad are both ultra-marathon regulars – with his father formerly a middle-distance runner in his youth. Oli’s three elder siblings all ran and aged just six he joined the Hill City club.
No stand out sprinter, the boy from Dunedin from a young age always craved distance.
“From grade seven through to nine the longest event you do is the 400m, but all I wanted to do was run longer (distances),” he explains. “I’d be quite happy to go down to the track and run lap after lap.”
Aged “eight or nine” his natural endurance paid dividends as she started to impress in primary school cross country races in the Otago region.
Under the patient guidance of coach Dave Stinson he made his national debut at the 2013 New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships in Christchurch. Yet hoping for a top five finish the youngster was given a rude awakening.
“I had a shocker of a race,” he admits. “Back then I was only about 1.29m tall. I was pushed around quite a bit leading into the first corner and I was tripped up.” Oli, however, refused to throw in the towel and revealing a resilience which has served him well throughout his career, the John McGlashan College student battled back up the field to place a creditable 18th.
Describing himself as “being in tune with his body” and with great pace judgement, Oli bounced back and later that year claimed his first national medal with a bronze medal in the junior road race at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Hamilton.
Then in his final year at school he managed to sign off with what was his first national gold medal in the Road Race at the 2015 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships by an impressive victory margin of 28 seconds.
“It was a great moment for me to win the medal in my final year,” says Oli, who surprisingly never competed on the track at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships always preferring to opt for the road. “That was probably one of the first races I went in completely confident I was going to win.”
In 2016 he began a PE degree at the University of Otago but the significant changes in his life unquestionably compromised his approach to the sport. Describing the experience as a “huge wake -up call” for the first time in his athletics career he lost focus.
“I got hit by the full force of uni and it was probably the time I became least interested in athletics,” he explains. “Towards the end of the year I hadn’t really been training that much and although I was not close to throwing in the towel, I thought about a break for a few months.”
Luckily that did not eventuate and once the New Year dawned, Oli’s attitude changed.
“I thought, I could very possibly be going to some very cool places through athletics,” he explains. “I just need to get stuck in and stop being an idiot.”
He then vowed to himself he was going to win the cross country nationals in 2017 and he set to work on the goal. On the track, he performed well winning national under-20 silver medals for the 1500m and 5000m but he knew to deliver his future ambitions he needed a change and left long-time coach Dave Stinson to be guided by Chris Pilone at the beginning of the winter.
Oli fully acknowledges the huge debt of gratitude he owes Dave for career development but felt a move to a more experienced international coach was a must.
“Everyone knows his (Chris’) pedigree,” explains Oli. “He has coached some brilliant athletes like (2004 Olympic triathlon champion) Hamish Carter and (New Zealand international triathlete) Ryan Sissons. “I also saw the benefit of his coaching Sam Bremer (the 2017 national senior 1500m silver medallist), who went from zero to a hundred and has turned into an amazing athlete.”
Oli’s training under Chris has remained at around 105-125km a week, but there have been some subtle differences, which the 19-year-old believes has been hugely beneficial.
“The main thing that has changed is the systematics of the training programme – it is all very thought out and processed,” says Oli who trains some of the time with Sam and Caden Shields, the 2017 national senior road race silver medallist.
“I never have two hard days in a row,” he says. “There is lots of recovery and I really focus on taking my recovery runs slowly. I have actually dropped in the amount of sessions I do, which my body seems to have responded really well to. The biggest thing about being coached by Chris is I never have any doubts as to what I am doing in training because he has coached at the highest level.”
Come the junior race at the New Zealand Cross Country Championships at Auckland’s Domain, Oli was fully prepared. Adopting a different approach to his typical front-running style he decided to tuck in and let others carry out the donkey work before planning to unleash a bid for victory with 3km remaining. To a tee this is how the race played out as he emerged to the front with around 3000m of running left and slowly extended his lead to claim a comprehensive 24-second win from Joseph Clark.
“It was definitely a new feeling,” he says of winning a race of this magnitude. “I was confident going into the race, but I never thought I would – for the want of a better word – win it so convincingly.
Since his memorable win at Auckland’s Domain, Oli has further garnished his growing reputation by winning a silver medal behind Theo Quax in the junior race at last weekend’s National Road Race Championships in Christchurch.
For the future, Oli hopes to improve his track PB’s in the forthcoming summer season with his first race of significance December’s Bay’s Night of 5s in Auckland. A natural on any surface, further down the line he is looking at qualification for the 2022 Commonwealth Games and 2024 Olympic Games.
Yet before that he just hopes to fully embrace the sport for all its positives.
“There is no better feeling then winning a race – whether as a six-year-old down your local club or taking a national title,” he insists. “It is really enjoyable. I love the fact the sport gives me the chances to travel around New Zealand and Australia and I’ve made so many friends all over the country. It really is a cool sport.”