Above: Tessa Webb leading the Senior Girls race at the NZ Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships in Rotorua.
Tessa Webb stormed to an eye-catching victory in the senior girls' race at the New Zealand Secondary Schools' Cross Country Championships in Rotorua earlier this month. Steve Landells caught up the emerging athlete to find out more.
If some people are “born to run” then perhaps Tessa Webb would fall comfortably into this category.
A regular winner of her primary school cross country races as an eight and nine-year-old, back then she was genuinely perplexed as to why her fellow students struggled so much.
“They would talk about how sore they would get (during races) and I didn’t understand what they were talking about,” she explains. “For me, it always really appealed to me - the prospect of running as fast as I could for as long as I could. It is a really pure sport.”
Born and raised in Feilding in the Manawatu, Tessa was always an active child. She played cricket, basketball and hockey, although she admits she was “never the most co-ordinated person” at ball sports. She also practised ballet for the best part of a decade – a background which has given her an ability “to peak and focus” ideal for the demands of running.
If her primary school years were highlighted by consistent cross country success, however, she received a rude awakening after moving up to intermediate school, where for the first time she was up against “faster and stronger” girls.
“It was at this moment, I thought I should get into running more,” says Tessa, who up until that point never trained for athletics save for the occasional jog with her father.
In an effort to find out more about the sport and to train in a co-ordinated fashion she contacted the Feilding Moa Harrier Club – it was a decision which opened up a whole new world.
“Until I joined a club I never really realised I could do running like a sport,” she explains. “It was really cool to find out about this other world of running, where I didn’t have to catch a ball (to play sport) and that other people were also interested in running.”
There it was also her good fortune to meet Rob Dabb her first and so far only coach in the sport. For four years Rob has skilfully and passionately guided Tessa in her athletic journey and the Feilding High School student thoroughly appreciates his efforts.
“He's been amazing,” she explains. “He is all about running for as long as you can, but also about enjoying the sport the whole time – and I think that is really important.”
“I'm really glad Rob coaches me, as I think I'd struggle to find a better coach.”
Starting out at the club by running two or three days a week, she enjoyed some local track and cross country success, but ahead of the 2014-15 season she decided to step up her training to six days a week and her hard work started to reap the rewards.
That summer she swept to the Manawatu 3000m title “still one of my favourite races” and she also hacked 30 seconds from her school record for the distance. Later that season she made her mark outside of the Manawatu banking a bronze medal in the youth women's 5000m at the National Championships – a moment of huge pride to the teenager.
“It was special to win my first Athletics New Zealand medal,” says Tessa. “It was a big breakthrough into the national scene.”
Training up to 50km a week – which includes one long run on a Sunday and five other runs of anywhere between 5-10km – Tessa has continued to make progress. Last winter she impressed to place second in the under-18 race at the North Island Cross Country Championships in Taupo – even though the quality of her performance was not immediately clear to her.
“The girls in the two age groups were all mixed together, so I went all out,” she admits. “I got passed by a few girls (who were older girls) in the final 100m, and it was only after the race I found out I’d placed second in my age group.”
The past track season also brought more positive results. She finished third and sixth in the 3000m and 1500m, respectively, at the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Championships in Timaru but her highlight of the track season was racing the Classic series and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nick Willis and the other international performers.
“It was an awesome experience,” remarks Tessa. “I loved being around people, I’d only previously seen at the Olympics or on the news.”
Continuing to stick diligently to her training programme, Tessa, who trains alongside the boys and women at her club, knew she was in decent shape leading into the 2016 New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Cross Country Championships after an impressive recent outing in a tough club handicap event.
“I managed to pass a few people ahead of me and that was the moment I thought, I’m getting my racing legs back for cross country,” she recalls.
Tessa's instincts proved correct.
On a flat 4km course at the Agrodome on Rotorua “which was not hilly enough” for the endurance embracing Tessa, opened up a significant gap on the field. Her margin of victory had diminished to two seconds by the finish line, as Amelia Persson of Christchurch Girls' High School mounted a strong challenge, but Tessa clung on to strike gold.
“It was a relief at first,” she says of her initial emotions. “I'd worked so hard for this race. It all come down to the day and it happened to be the right race for me that day.”
Celebrating her race win on the journey back to Feilding with a trip to the Noodle Canteen, Tessa could also toast an additional bonus – a place in the New Zealand team at August's Australian Championships in Canberra.
“It will be my first time competing overseas,” says Tessa. “I think it comes at a perfect time for my development and I'm very excited,” she says.
With a genuine passion for track, cross country and road (note, Tessa has also ran a 1:26 half marathon) she has no preference for any particular surface. She has dabbled with the steeplechase and would one day like to compete in longer distances but in reality the 15-year-old has some refreshingly straight forward ambitions in future.
“I just love to run,” she adds, “so to be a professional athlete would be the ultimate goal.”