Former World Championship multi-eventer Portia Bing has re-invented herself as a national record-breaking 400m hurdler in recent times. Steve Landells charts her rollercoaster athletics journey over the past few years.
Some athletes after enjoying a dream 2018-19 domestic campaign, which has gleaned a remarkable ten PB’s, two national records and a World Championship 400m hurdles qualification mark, would be forgiven for taking their success for granted.
Yet that is 100 per cent not the case for the versatile and multi-talented Portia Bing, who is once again firmly back in love with athletics following some challenging times.
A fifth-place finisher in the heptathlon at the 2012 World U20 Championships, the Aucklander was earmarked as one for the future and two years later featured in the New Zealand record-breaking 4x400m quartet at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
Aged just 22 she then competed with distinction to place 16th in the heptathlon at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, seemingly on the cusp of an exciting future in the sport.
“I had so many fond memories (of Beijing),” recalls Portia. “I had no real expectations and just really enjoyed the moment. I pulled out some good performances because of that (I was so relaxed). It was special to pull on the Black Singlet and have a couple of brothers (Portia is one of six siblings) come over to watch me.”
Buoyed by the thought of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Portia connected for a spell with Bertrand Valcin, the French coach who guides Kevin Mayer, the reigning world decathlon record-holder.
Basing herself in Montpellier in Southern France she learned much about the professionalism of being a top athlete and the amount of time they devote to recovery.
However, she was frustratingly denied the opportunity of making the most of training in such a high-class environment as she struggled with a nagging Achilles tendon issue which later developed into a calf problem.
“I struggled with it because I became so immobile,” explains Portia, who turned 26 earlier this month. “It was the kind of injury which made me feel like I was 90 years old getting out of bed. It was really degrading. I couldn’t even do normal things with friends, because I struggled to walk.”
Falling some way short of the Olympic qualification mark, her bid to make the Rio Games was officially abandoned after managing to complete just one event in a heptathlon in Arona, Spain.
Heartbroken to miss out on the Olympics and nursing an injury caused Portia to go into a period of self-reflection, which crystallised some thoughts.
“Regardless of how it panned out I was grateful for the experience,” explains Portia of her spell living and training in France in 2016. “It helped me figure out what I wanted to do away from the track.”
She took some time out of the sport to focus on an attractive job in banking while continuing to study for her Law degree.
Basing herself out of Australia for a stint, Portia, who originally hails from Kumeu just outside of Auckland, carried out some casual training and competed largely for fun in 2017, completing just one heptathlon.
Unsure as to whether she would return to the sport it was only after chatting to people within the larger athletics network and reconnecting with her long-time coach, Russ Hoggard, in the winter of 2017 did the thought of switching events become an option.
During her time in France in 2016 she had completed casually in a couple of inter-club 400m hurdles races; recording a respectable 58.89 in her first outing. At the time Russ had “half-joked” about her taking up the 400m hurdles and after “falling out of love with the heptathlon” and having learned to hurdle on the opposite leg as a means of managing the stress on her injured calf – the 400m hurdles suddenly appeared an attractive proposition.
“I still wanted to compete, so I started doing some general fitness by running 10km routes in the Waitakere,” explains Portia. “We looked at stepping up to the 800m but it would be a tough event to compete at in New Zealand because we have some top girls. I noticed a little bit of a gap in the market for the 400m hurdles and decided the event combined lots of things I was quite good at. So from that point on we started running over hundreds of hurdles each week.”
Quickly building up her fitness under Russ’s training regime and also connecting for speed sessions twice a week under the coaching of James Mortimer, coach to national 100m and 200m champion Zoe Hobbs and national 400m champion Georgia Hulls, has proved the perfect elixir.
New event progress
In her maiden season competing as fully-fledged 400m hurdler, Portia secured the national title in Hamilton and later that year ran a PB of 56.84 during the French Championships, where she competed as a guest.
“I couldn’t have been happier (to win the 2018 national title),” she says. “It felt like it was the first time I’d enjoyed success since the 2015 World Championships. It was a big milestone for me. After the hard years and the injuries, it make me appreciate the little successes even more.”
Last winter Portia continued to develop her fitness under Russ, who celebrates his 90th birthday in November, and James’ guidance. Yet it is not just the physical gains she has made but also the technical improvements, which has stood the North Harbour Bays athlete in such good stead.
"I’m starting to understand more about stride patterns and how to race the 400m hurdles strategically,” she explains.
“I’m understanding more about my strengths and how to race people. The biggest mistake I made when I first started (400m hurdling) is I that I couldn’t change my speed to overtake an athlete between one hurdle. You have to make adjustments and change the rhythm and speed over time.”
After winning her opening two 400m hurdles this year in Timaru and Wellington, Portia then chipped 0.24 from her lifetime best with a 56.60 performance for second behind Australian Olympian Lauren Wells. Her next outing in Auckland she went 0.04 quicker before racking up a third PB in a row – and this time lowering Rebecca Wardell’s 16-year-old national record - with a 56.04 clocking in Sydney to avenge her defeat to Wells in the Australian capital.
“I was so stoked,” she explains of the mark, which came just 0.04 shy of the World Championships qualification standard. “I’d never set an individual national senior record before. It was a massive achievement.”
Setting six PB’s in total over the 100m (11.69) and 200m (23.57) this season she retained her national 400m hurdles title in dreadful conditions in Christchurch before earlier this month at the Australian Championships in Sydney enjoying the run of her life to record a new national record of 55.86 and also, significantly, dip below the 400m hurdles World Championship standard.
“I was over the moon because a national record is a group effort and it is like a medal for the people behind-the-scenes who have also put in the hard yards – coaches, team mates, medical supports, she explains. “Having broken it (the national record) twice in just over a year of committing to 400m hurdles is a huge achievement and gives me full confidence that I made the right decision to change events.”
Hoping to gain more confidence to respond to “changes in pace” and any consequent lead leg adjustments which are needed during the heat of competition, she will now move on to the Oceania Championships in June followed by a stint racing in Europe before her big date with the World Championships in Doha, which begin in late-September.
Most importantly, however, Portia is once again back in love with the sport and enthused for the what the future will bring – just like she was post the warm afterglow of the 2015 World Championships.
“I’m loving the sport and doing more things that I really want to do,” she explains. “I have a really good set up and I train with lots of people who are great friends both inside and outside of the sport. I’m in a real good place at the moment and setting PB’s across a range of events, which makes me more enthusiastic for the future.”