CEO club visit - Thurrock Harriers AC

England Athletics Chief Executive Chris Jones visited the Essex club to see one of their training nights, meet volunteers and find out more about the club’s activities.

Meeting him to talk him through some of the work being done by the club were the Club Chair, Geraldine Heapy and Dave Staines who as well as his involvement with Thurrock Harriers is also the Chair of Essex AA.

Both took time out from their normal club night coaching activities to show Chris around and introduce him to some of the club’s athletes and volunteers. Dave works with senior athletes including masters as well as some young athletes. It was no surprise to hear that Geraldine coaches across a range of events. As a young athlete she was a national combined events champion as well as winning national medals shot and medal. Having initially qualified as a coach when she was a teenager Geraldine moved away from athletics to play football for a few seasons when she stopped competing as an athlete before returning to the sport and now taking on a number of volunteer roles with the club.

Thurrock Harriers AC has a tradition of successful athletes. It was at Thurrock that former javelin international Margaret Whitbread saw the potential of a young 13-year-old called Fatima who would not only become her adopted daughter but also a European and World Champion, and World Record Holder.

Another world record holder, and Paralympic Champion, Danny Crates is another to have come through the ranks at Thurrock. Commonwealth Games silver medallist and 1992 Olympian Gowry Retchakan was also a member.

A world record breaker who forms a big part of the club’s heritage is Mel Batty. Mel, who passed away in 2011, was a larger than life personality who set a 10M world record and took silver at the International Cross Country before taking to coaching. His most well-known success as a coach was with an athlete who competed for nearby Basildon AC, Eamonn Martin, who Mel saw take a national 10,000m record, compete at three Olympic Games and win the 1993 London Marathon.

The volunteers at the club are working hard to maintain the club’s strong traditions for athletes and coaches across a range of events. Among the endurance coaches is Brenda Stone whose group of athletes includes Gemma Holloway – an England International at cross country who last winter won the Southern title as well as taking silvers at both the ECCA National Cross Country and UK CAU Inter Counties before claiming bronze over 1500m at the Senior England Athletics, AAA and UK CAU Championships. The distance runners are able to mix training on the track with using the grass which lies behind the club’s pavilion for their sessions and the endurance athletes’ work for the winter was well underway.

In the stadium groups of younger athletes were involved in a range of activities. Part of the task of ensuring all the groups are able to be coordinated in their use of the facility falls to Jon Metcalfe. Jon explained there are five multi-discipline coaches working with the young athletes on the training nights and as well as the other coaches. He and Dave explained how over the summer the club introduced an approach for the younger athletes where the youngsters could choose do some more specialist work in an event of their choice once a month and that they are looking at how to refine that for next year. They said that it had been beneficial where young athletes were looking ahead to trying a different event in a league competition and in helping them prepare for that.

Jon himself also competes. He was recently crowned British Masters Over 55 400m hurdles champion and took the 800m silver. He has been with the club eight years. Jon was involved in the sport as a schoolboy but stopped due to shin splints. Then after an injury while skiing he took up swimming, cycling and triathlon. This led to a path back into athletics. “I didn’t realise there was masters’ athletics,” he said. But he is now part of a strong group of masters at the club. This group includes thrower, Sue Lawrence, who regularly wins medals at national and international level.

Also training at the track was Karl Sumun’s group. Dave told how Karl’s initial involvement was one common to many volunteers, “Karl came up with his daughters… he ended up coaching a national champion.”

Theo Adesina is among the athletes in Karl’s group. Theo won the Under 15 England Athletics Indoor Combined Events title this year as well as taking a silver at the ESAA combined events championships. He also medalled at both the long jump and 80m Hurdles at England Athletics Under 15 Championships. Another in Karl’s group is William Adeyeye who has also medalled at national combined events championships as well as being second in the long jump at this year’s England Athletics Under 17 championships and fourth in the shot.

Karl’s enthusiasm for the sport and love of coaching as a volunteer was obvious, “The joy you get is priceless. If you were paid you wouldn’t get that.”

Amidst all the activity at the track an essential volunteer at Thurrock is Stuart James. Stuart puts in many hours to look after the track facility in a volunteer capacity. The club operate the stadium themselves, totally independently from the local authority. Stuart’s work ranges from setting the stadium up for competitions and other groups who hire the venue, through to cutting the grass and other maintenance work. This is in addition to his activities on many weekends through the year as a qualified official. His wife, Cathy, also coaches at the club.

Dave said that while the young athletes work on a range of events there can be challenges with coaching capacity, particularly for older athletes. He said, “We are not getting enough specialist coaches through, especially for technical events such as pole vault.”

Geraldine explained, “The way we have trained coaches here is that they have done a bit of everything. That works nicely to a point but it means when the children want to specialise we have not got enough specialised coaches.”

Chris was able to speak with them about ways in which changes to coach education can potentially help enable clubs to have more coaches able to support athletes as they specialise, including in the more technical events. He also heard about some of the challenges the club face regarding the facility and suggest ways in which England Athletics could support them with these.

Chris said, “It is important for me to see the work done by volunteers, hear about their successes and also learn more about the challenges they face so that we can discuss those and look at how best England Athletics can seek to address these. It was good to meet a range of volunteer and athletes at Thurrock who are doing such excellent work and find out more about the club.”