Heptathlete Holly Mills and her coach Laura Turner-Alleyne – the former Olympic sprinter – spoke on our England Athletics podcast about their partnership together which could see the pair heading to Tokyo 2020.
Holly Mills is an exciting young talent making big improvements in the heptathlon, who could end up competing at her first Olympic Games this year aged 21. The Andover athlete, coached by 2008 Olympic sprinter Laura Turner-Alleyne, had a brilliant junior career as a long jumper. After switching to multi-events, she won on her heptathlon debut just two years ago.
In her own words, it was a ‘pretty good decision’, but it has also required enormous dedication, willingness to adapt, and in some cases, starting from scratch.
“I had done predominantly long jump from the age of eight, until I was 18,” says Holly, who clinched European and Commonwealth youth titles, with 6.51m her furthest ever jump.
When embarking on the next step for most teenagers – moving away from home and heading to university – Mills decided to be bold. “I had probably my worst season in long jump up to that point. That was just the final push for me to say ‘it’s time for a new challenge’.”
Looking for guidance at London’s Brunel University, Holly emailed West London-based Turner-Alleyne, the 2010 Commonwealth 4x100m relay champion.
“I knew that she was a good athlete,” says Laura, who admits that she faced a learning curve as a coach. “I didn’t know as much as I needed to about multi-events at that point. I had to do a lot of reading and talking to people.”
The strategy was to start simple. Enlisting support from jumps and throws coaches Frank Attoh and Rafer Joseph, she warned Holly in no uncertain terms: “I know the level you’ve been at, I know you’ve jumped this in the long jump and won all of these medals but I’m looking at you as a long-term project. I’m going to strip everything back and start again.”
Fast forward eight months to the England Athletics Under-20 Combined Events Championships in Bedford in May 2019. A winning score of 5722 points qualified Mills for the European equivalent in Sweden where, as the British team’s co-captain, she came fourth in her second ever heptathlon.
Holly even doubled up by entering the long jump, and won bronze. Laura was quick to sing praise on social media afterwards, picking out her athlete’s “unrivalled focus, commitment, desire to learn, and attention to detail.”
Tokyo was a year away – but for a multi-events novice – it seemed a distant dream. Then, 2020 threw Holly a lifeline, and it was one she grabbed hold of.
“Although Covid has really messed up some people’s Olympic plans, it really has helped me because the past year has enabled me to develop so much further as a heptathlete and I feel that I am worthy of a place at the Olympic Games.”
If you listen to that sentence in the England Athletics Podcast, you will hear Holly emphasise the last part of it. This athlete is not short of confidence, or hesitant to get a message across.
Most of her talking is done through performances. The shot put has, at times, been where Britain’s best heptathletes including Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill have dropped points to their rivals.
But great progress has been made by the latest in this long-established line of talent. In February, Mills extended her personal best to 14.03m, just a week after her maiden 13m-throw.
A 4557 pentathlon score put her in the all-time British top five and led to European indoor selection in March, where Holly finished fifth.
However, it would be remiss to celebrate these results without paying respect to the pair’s incredible hard work behind the scenes.
“Those vast improvements, I experience very differently to the audience watching because I’m there doing the training day in, day out,”
“I see all of the really bad sessions, the really good sessions, and the tiny little increments that we improve by are so small but really significant.” says Holly.
It is sometimes said in athletics that a ‘surprise’ is never really so. Not to the athlete who believed in themselves, and the coach who instilled that belief.
“We’ve been chipping away at the same rock for so long. All of a sudden, you get a massive crack and break through,” adds Holly, who hopes to replicate her shot put success across the board.
That could spark improvement on her sensational 6180 score at the Multistars competition in Italy in May, her third heptathlon.
If not, Holly has done enough to be considered for Tokyo selection, so long as she is well-placed in the world rankings, with 24 heptathlon spots available. Beyond that, the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games could be on the horizon.
But there is no getting carried away just yet, and Laura is keen for Holly to live in the moment. “I competed for GB ten years in a row as a senior. But when you’re in it, you don’t appreciate it. I’m really keen to make sure that athletes are being present and appreciating what they are doing.
“I’m very good at keeping people’s feet on the ground,” she promises. Where those feet are next heading on their journey together, we will have to wait and see.
Coaches and Officials is one of the five key priority areas which sits at the heart of the new England Athletics’ 12-year strategy for athletics and running – ‘Athletes and runners at the heart’. We are committed to engaging, valuing, and supporting respected, expert and athlete-centred coaching and officiating workforces to create an inclusive, positive athlete experience and ensure the successful delivery of competitions. To find out more including what our other four key priority areas are, click here to read about our new strategy.
Click here to listen to the full England Athletics podcast interview with Holly Mills and Laura Turner-Alleyne.