Whanganui Collegiate School produced an outstanding performance to pick up 13 medals at last month's New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Wellington. Steve Landells speaks to their Director of Athletics Alec McNab and a very special crop of teenage female sprinters to find out the story of their success.
For many years Whanganui Collegiate have defied a modest school roll to consistently excel on the national track and field stage. Former students who have thrived under his inspirational coaching include Olympian Lucy Van Dalen and her twin sister, Holly as well as the Beamish brothers, Hugo, Joseph and Geordie, the latter of whom won the 2019 NCAA Indoor mile title.
Yet the school’s finest ever performance at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships, came at the most recent edition at Wellington’s Newtown Park when a team of 45 (from a school of 450 students) climbed the dais 13 times during the three-day event.
Liam Back was one of their star performers, grabbing senior boys 1500m gold and 800m silver. Medals were also taken in the race walks and the jumps but it was their outstanding six medal haul (three gold, three silver) in the girls’ sprint events, which perhaps most caught the eye. At the heart of their success were Sophie Williams, Genna Maples and Tayla Brunger – who formed three of the fastest five U18 100m sprinters in New Zealand last year and three of the six fastest in the 200m.
But does such a small high school tucked away in one of New Zealand’s more modestly populated regions engineer such success? To identify Collegiate’s long-standing athletics prowess, it is impossible to ignore the presence of their charismatic Scottish-born Director of Athletics, Alec McNab. Relocating from the UK to Whanganui in 1973 to work as a teacher at the school, it has been Alec’s tireless passion and enthusiasm for the sport which has proved critical. During more than 45 years at the school, he has guided dozens of athletes to national titles, personally coached national junior teams and served as both a Board member and President at Athletics NZ.
“It would be true to say we (Wanganui Collegiate) have a pretty active athletics programme,” explains Alec, 71, who was made a life member of Athletics NZ in 2015. “It is a school that values the sport. It is good we have a group of athletes, particularly our female sprinters and male middle-distance runners flying the flag for the team.”
Alec believes several factors have contributed to the school’s ongoing success. He insists they are very lucky to be part of a strong and vibrant Athletics Wanganui club and also to train out of top-quality facilities at Cooks Gardens – the venue for Sir Peter Snell’s world record-breaking mile record in 1962. Although, Alec is also keen to point out that not only Collegiate but Wanganui High School have also benefited from such support, and they themselves won a hugely impressive six medals at last month’s New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships from a team of 22.
Formal club nights take place every Tuesday, with Alec also introducing a circuit session on a Monday in addition to Wednesday, Thursday training and Saturday training or competition. Alec believes training five times a week aids their athletics development, without pushing young bodies too excessively through their teenage years.
“Sometimes the kids think they should be doing more (training) but it is important they have room to develop later,” insists Alec. “I have coached several athletes who have gone to on to win athletics scholarships in the US and the coaches there said it was really great they were able to add 10 per cent on to their training each year (since leaving Whanganui Collegiate).”
Alec insists, however, that while a strong structure is in place none of the school’s sprinting success would be possible without the “innate talent” of the girls or their positive attitude. He has also placed great store in a strong relay programme. The school won senior girls 4x100m gold and 4x400m silver at last month’s national Secondary Schools Championships, and he believes this serves a twin purpose.
“Many people say athletics is an individual pursuit but we have always believed in the importance of relays,” he explains. “It offers the athletes the incentive of performing in a team and it makes training more exciting and more fun because you are completing the work with other athletes.”
Sophie Williams made a huge impact in Wellington, winning the junior girls 100m and 200m sprint double and also smashing the 46-year-old junior women’s 100m record by running 11.86 in the quarter-finals. The 15 year old, who also landed a third gold as part of their triumphant senior girls 4x100m team, believes Alec’s passion for relays has proved a huge plus.
“Alec makes athletics feel like a team sport because he emphasises relays. During competitions, he gets everyone from Collegiate to support the athletes. He creates such a good environment. He also doesn’t always put the best sprinters all in one team, because he wants the younger athletes, who may not win an individual medal, to have the chance to chase a relay medal” Sophie explains.
Genna Maples, who won two gold (long jump and 4x100m) and two silver (100m, 200m) medals in the senior girls events at December’s national Secondary Schools Championships, is another to have profited hugely under Alec’s guidance. Coached by the former Wanganui Collegiate schoolmaster since she was a year eight student, she describes Alec as both a friend and coach and praises his nurturing style, which extends beyond the running track.
“He is interested in my life outside of athletics and encourages me to keep up my singing and acting,” says Genna, 16. “He supports me in everything I do. He’s interested in everyone in my family and is my number one supporter.”
Tayla Brunger who has been coached by Alec since late 2015, is not only the 2018 national U18 400m champion, but also won a 4x100m gold at Newtown Park last month, is another to have excelled under Alec’s tutelage. Believing he has equipped her with the confidence to achieve in the sport, Tayla believes the success of the sprinters can be attributed to another factor.
“Training on a club night every Tuesday is national class and training alongside other quality athletes does help push you to better yourself and push harder,” says the 17-year-old, who set PB’s of 12.19 for the 100m and 25.02 for the 200m and 55.40 for the 400m in 2019.
Genna echoes this viewpoint by identifying the strong culture within the training group. “Wanganui Collegiate has a strong community, like a family where everyone supports one another,” she explains. “We always drive one another to be the best we can be and this brings the best out in each other.”
Unfortunately, following the group’s outstanding accomplishments in 2019, Sophie and her family have since relocated to Auckland where she will continue athletics development under the coaching of leading sprint coach, James Mortimer. However, the talented speedster will never forget her time at Whanganui Collegiate and fully acknowledges the debt of gratitude she owes Alec.
“Throughout my time with him, he made me the best athlete I could be,” she explains. “I could get quite nervous (ahead of competitions) but he would tell me to stop worrying. He wants you to be confident but not cocky or brag about your achievements.”
Alec himself has been proud of the crop of sprinters, which has added yet more gloss to the rich athletics heritage of the school. He is impressed by Tayla’s single-mindedness and determination to succeed. He is also excited by the “natural power” of Genna and the growth and development of Sophie during her two years at the school.
“Sophie was quite shy and timid when she arrived but has become more confident. To break a (national secondary schools) record which has been there since 1973 and to be just 0.06 away from qualifying for the World U20 Championships, at the age of 15, gives an outline of her absolute class. I’m very sorry to lose her but it has been nice to see her confidence grow" Alectells us.
Of course, the success of the school’s athletics programme and the current group of national-class sprinters is down to far more than one person. Alec is ably assisted by Richard Kosinski and a strong group of teacher and student helpers. The school have further bolstered the athletics programme with the recent recruitment of a strength and conditioning coach, Gill Barnett.
“Gill will be taking over a lot of my role and as I move sideways to being the Director of coaching,” he explains. “Hopefully, I’ll find a few good coaches, but I am really lucky I work some great people.”
As Alec moves into his sixth decade working at the school it would appear the Whanganui Collegiate athletics juggernaut just keeps rolling on.