New Zealand has qualified its first relay team at a major championships for eight years at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. Steve Landells chat to the women’s 4x400m national coach Chris Williams to discover more about their journey to Glasgow in four legs.
Athletics NZ launched a programme in May last year with the backing of high performance director Scott Goodman in an attempt to qualify four relay teams for Glasgow 2014. Chris Williams, who guided his daughter Monique (Dell) to the New Zealand 200m record, led the women’s 4x400m group as national coach and was convinced the group could meet the qualification mark of 3:36.50 (an average of around 54 seconds per leg).
“I was quietly confident the girls would qualify,” Williams said. “It was all about planning and preparation. I took a low key approach and it paid off. When I first started in the role I wanted to do something every weekend with the squad, but I quickly realised what I needed to do was to sit back, keep cool and let the girls focus on what they needed to do. I had to give constant support and belief that the times would come, persistence in always being positive even when the athletes believed the Commonwealth Games were out of their reach.”
In the middle of last year the squad came together for the first of what would be a series of regular monthly training camps organised by Williams, introduced electronic timing gates to sessions. This had a twin impact, according to the Tokoroa-based coach.
“This gave me a lot of information on Louise (the athlete I coach) and helped me track where the other athletes were at,” he explained “Secondly, it also created a lot of internal competition within the group which helped spur them on. The information then went back to the athletes’ coaches and this created more competition. I started out with the girl's timed through gates at 70m and then later 150m. As we got closer to the (start of the) season we went up to 300m to monitor speed/endurance.”
Chris also had another reason to be more confident the team would meet the requirements – his athlete Louise Jones was in the form of her life.
“Louise started firing and everything started to click,” he explained. “I knew we needed a cornerstone to the team and with Monique out (she is now based in the UK but a 51.88 400m runner at her best) Louise became that cornerstone. We were starting to gel. Coaching is as much an art as a science and I could see that Louise was starting to have total trust in me.”
With all four athletes needing to run an average of around 54 seconds per leg, Chris saw no need to expose the one-lap athletes to a qualification relay attempt too early. He played a patient approach. It paid dividends. At the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in late March the three podium placers in the women’s 400m final lowered their respective PB’s – Jones (53.53), Zoe Ballantyne (53.92) and Brooke Cull (54.59). One week later at the Australian Championships in Melbourne Jones (53.29), Cull (53.85) and Kristie Baillie (55.11) ran their fastest ever one-lap times.
“The girls were ready,” added Williams
Williams believed the Easter weekend – two weeks after the Aussie nationals – would provide the perfect competitive opportunity. Any earlier and fatigue after their exertions in Melbourne would have blunted their edge any later and the peak the squad had reached would start to slide.
He sought a favour to find five A grade officials to attend the Porrit Stadium in Hamilton to legitimise their qualification attempt. They kindly agreed to give up their Easter weekend to support the team’s bid.
However, Williams’ heart sank when the night before race day – April 19 - his wife told him thunderstorms were predicted for race day.
“The morning of race day (April 19) it was thunder and lightning,” he added. “The weather was abhorrent. It was still pouring down by the time we arrived at the track at 2pm. Yet this was our one and only chance. If it would have been a week later, I don't think the girl's would have done it.”
They had a 30min window between 3-3.30pm that day to race. The weather thankfully eased. The team of Ballantyne, Cull, Baillie and Jones were good to go at 3.10pm (Note, the rain started to pour again by the time of the anchor leg).
Chris filmed the race by video but did not have a stopwatch on the race “I was too nervous.”
The race went by in a blur, although instinctively he knew the woman had performed well and when the time was confirmed as 3:35.60 – they had not only attained the required standard they had dipped 0.30 under the 15-year-old New Zealand record. Unfortunately, because the quartet had not raced anybody the mark won’t stand as the national record but the combination of Ballantyne (54.99), Cull (53.76), Baillie (54.33) and Jones (52.49) had achieved the primary objective of a qualification standard for Glasgow.
“Louise was so transfixed she said to me, ‘all I could see was Scotland in front on me,’” he explains. “I celebrated that night with a big, fat Cuban cigar, four bottles of pilsner and a smile as wide as my big, fat backside.”
The NZOC backed the nomination lodged by Athletics NZ to include a women’s 4x400m team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Five athletes - Zoe Ballantyne Portia Bing, Katherine Camp, Brooke Cull, Louise Jones – were selected for the squad with Monique Dell confirmed as a squad member subject to form and fitness. Kristie Baillie and Ellie McCleery will be relay reserves.
Williams has been named a team coach and will travel over to the Gold Coast for a 4-5 day get together before flying on to Cardiff for the pre-Games holding camp. Competitive opportunities are still to be finalised in the UK but he insists “the fastest four members” will be selected for the team.
In Glasgow his aim is clear. “I would like to think we could reach the final and run a New Zealand record,” stated Williams.
Yet he hopes the Commonwealth Games will not represent a full stop.
He is ambitious and he hopes his young squad – four of the five selected squad members are aged 22 and younger – can kick on and qualify for the 2015 World Championships in Beijing and then on to the Rio Olympics.
“I hope with more internal competition we can run even faster,” he said. “I would just like to say a big thank you to Scott Goodman, who put his faith in the relays. We have some talented 400m runners coming through and the future looks bright.”