Chris Jones headed to the south coast to see a club night and meet the club’s volunteers.
The club has had a long history of success and there were a wide range of activities getting underway when Chris arrived with Club & Coach Support Officer Christine Benning.
Aside from its successes the club’s history makes interesting reading, club chair Richie Pearson joked, “The history of the club is very complicated.”
Southampton AC was formed as the result of a merger between Team Southampton and Southampton Running Club in 2010. Team Southampton itself was formed as the result of a merger between Southampton City Athletics Club and Team Solent back in 2004. There were more mergers before that - these clubs had previously evolved from Southampton and Eastleigh AC and before that from the joining of Eastleigh Athletic Club and Southampton Amateur Athletic club.
Richie came from Southampton Running Club, he said, “We won the Southern Six Stage a couple of times. I was always interested in the 12 and six stage road relays but came to see we would not have the athletes coming through.
“I thought we should combine with the athletics club. We just wanted to progress and I always felt we had to merge in order to get the distance runners coming through. Decent distance runners always want to run on the track.”
He said there were a number of situations in the past that had made clear there was much to be gained from clubs in the area joining forces and resources rather than replicating each other’s set-up. One example was when two teams of young athletes from two clubs in Southampton both went to compete at Ealing in a league match with one coming third and the other fourth.
The club has more than 500 members, 300 of whom are part of the senior section. There are 47 coaches in the club including several who are part of England Athletics’ National Coach Development Programme. They also have 32 officials.
Southampton AC competes in the British Athletics League, UK Women’s League, Youth Development League, Southern Athletics League, Vet’s League, Wessex League, plus road and cross country leagues.
It has several up and coming juniors, including Oliver Bromby, Freya Jones, Mo and Zak Mohamed, and Sophie Merritt. In the past the clubs that now make up Southampton AC have had many highly successful athletes. Mike Smith, the 400m coach who was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011, coached Donna Hartley, Todd Bennett, Roger Black, Kriss Akabusi, and Iwan Thomas out of Southampton.
The influence his athletes have had is still felt. Iwan Thomas is involved as an ambassador for Hampshire Youth Games and has plenty of words of encouragement and support for the young athletes.
Richie said, “The one we miss so much is Todd Bennett.”
Todd, who the sport lost to cancer in 2013, did a huge amount of work with the youngsters at the club, in schools and in other roles in the sport. His honours on the track included a silver medal in the 1984 Olympic 4 x 400m relay, European Indoor titles in 1985 and 1987, a silver at the World Indoor Championships in 1985 and being World indoor record holder for 400m. Instead of hanging up his spikes when he retired from international competition they found a place alongside his clip board and tub of pins in his team manager’s bag and he would pull them back on to jump into a range of events to earn valuable points for the club whenever needed. Todd was involved with the Great Britain Junior athletics team and for four years was their team manager. It is no surprise his outstanding and friendly contribution is both missed and continues to leave a legacy.
The club’s work with young athletes remains a real strength. One of volunteers Richie introduced to Chris was Andy Fisher who is the head coach of the club’s academy.
The academy meets on Wednesday nights and is made up of the Fundamental Academy (for school years 4 and 5), Foundation Academy (school years 5+) and Multi-Event Academy (school years 7+).
Andy explained, “We have got about 200 children. We take a multi-events approach. We keep it fun and then progress them when they are ready.”
The mix is that about 60% of the academy are girls and 40% boys. They are supported by 16-20 coaches. Andy said, “We place an emphasis on the team. Although it is an individual sport we feel that is important to them.”
Andy who came into athletics from a rugby background explained how the academy focuses on developing the skills of the young athletes, “We have running, jumping and throwing going on all the time.
“It’s about skills and a lot of the skills they learn are not just specific to athletics. We do lots of skipping because of the rhythm and balance that develops. The girls are often better at that than the boys.”
The athletes then progress into the main club training nights and event groups. “When they are ready, they are ready, be it at 12, 15 or 16. Then it is a transition. They do a bit with the other group and a bit with us. We keep the parents engaged.”
Andy said at times parents may be eager for their children to make the switch earlier but that they work to make sure it is done at the right time and with a suitable transition period. Richie explained that the young athletes get used to doing multi events and often want to keep doing that when they move on from the academy.
Another success story from the academy has been on the volunteering side. An asylum seeker, Shinghi Mpfuni, came along to the club wanting to do some voluntary work as he was not able to get paid employment. Andy explained, “He came down and started helping with the academy. He was very enthusiastic.”
As a result of the work he did he was able to build up his experience, get a reference and then got employment. He applied to study at university in London and now is involved with a club in London. Andy and Richie feel this shows the wider benefits that the sport and a club community can provide, “Working in an environment like this can do this – people feel part of something.”
It is easy to see why athletes can feel ‘part of something’ at Southampton. Among those in action were Peter Haynes who coaches with John Tilt, Tony Fern, and Ray Needle and has athletes including Mahamed and Zak Mahamed who have won national titles at English Schools, National, and Inter Counties cross country championships over recent years.
Peter said that their successes lift the endurance runners. He said “It encourages the rest of the group, they look up to them and think that ‘If we train like them we can improve’.”
Pole vault coach Richard Humby was working with his group of athletes and spoke to Chris about their plans for the season. Over in the shot circle David Callaway was working with athletes including Sophie Merritt who is an English Schools and England Athletics U20 indoor shot champion as well as having won silver in last year’s Commonwealth Youth Games.
As you would expect from a club with a tradition of great sprinters there were a good number of sprinters in action. One of the squads in action was the Speed Academy group where coaches including Gary and Sara MacDonald-Gray work with developing athletes to help them to get the fundamentals of sprinting right before they then move to the next group.
But not all the athletes were from Southampton AC. Other clubs such as Lordshill Road Runners, Hedge End, and New Forest Runners had athletes at the track as part of the squads or doing their own sessions.
Richie explained, “We have exclusive use of the track on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. But we have got agreements with a number of local clubs there they pay us and then can come and use the track.”
One challenge the club faces is that of facilities. A number of portable units are at the track but the club would like to see these replaced.
There are plans for a new unit to be in place by the end of the summer but the club would like a more permanent and functional solution. Richie explained the latest situation to Chris in more detail.
Chris commented, “I would like to thank everyone at Southampton for the friendly welcome I received and all those people I spoke to for taking the time to share their insights and experiences with me.
“It was inspiring to see a club that has a great sense of its own heritage combined so well with a real vision for the future. There is clearly a great deal of excellent work going on at Southampton, seeing and hearing about it is a very valuable experience in understanding how we at England Athletics can work to support the skills and dedication of volunteers who work so hard within the sport.”