Despite some controversial results elsewhere on the day, the picture-perfect, if rather flat, course in Chia played host to some fine running from the British contingent.
The day got off to the best of starts in the opening race. Spearheaded by Harriet Knowles-Jones, who took individual bronze, the Junior Women gobbled up the 4k course and scored a convincing team victory. Overseeing them as their team manager was eight-time Euro Cross competitor, Liz Yelling.
From the mud to the sidelines, Liz’s experience this year on the other side of the fence has allowed her to fully appreciate the importance of events like the Euro Cross in an athlete’s development. The Euro Champs is predominantly a development competition, according to Liz – somewhere you can make mistakes, gain new experience, a stepping-stone on to greater things.
‘In the days when I wasn’t making the team, I was taken to international competitions for the experience. It was those experiences that motivated me to want to be part of the team – to represent my country at an Olympics,’ remembers Liz.
From 1999-2007 – barring 2004 when she only competed at the World Cross – Liz was a leading member of the GB team at the Euro Cross.
A consistent top ten finisher, Liz took in race courses across the continent in Malmo, Thun and Tilburg – but her best performance came on her debut in Velenje in 1999 when she finished fourth, just three seconds behind Olivera Jevtic (Holland) and a bronze medal.
Team-managed by coaching stalwarts Bud Baldaro and Bob Ashworth, Liz describes these competitions as her formative years in the sport.
A full decade later and the two-time Olympian is now dispensing her pearls of wisdom on a new generation of talented athletes.
‘It was people like Bud and Bob who enabled me to compete at the level I did’ recalls Liz. ‘They were positive and athlete-centred, always knowing exactly the right things to say and when to say them.
‘That’s what I tried to bring to the role – hopefully I was as positive as they were and made an impact on the team!’
Although leaving her young children at home and being away from family for five days ‘is not easy’, Liz is keen to stress that’s it’s her way of ‘giving back to the sport I love.’ The sport needs more like her to bridge that gap between generations to help inspire – and retain – the next raft of juniors coming through.
Drop out rates and keeping promising youngsters in the sport remains a tricky question still unanswered despite best efforts. U23 competition appears to be one such method designed to make that transition easier – despite Steve Cram’s commentary on Sunday, which seemed to suggest this age group was something of a wet fish.
For Liz, it’s at U23 level that an athlete’s career can be made or broken.
‘Having the U23 age-group at European level – obviously I’m not advocating an U23 category at the Olympics – helps juniors make the leap into senior level competition.’
Just in simple numerical terms, the junior women ran 4k at the weekend, while the senior women ran double the distance. For some athletes, the transition will be easy, but others need help bridging the gap. Those that are really top-class will be fast tracked into the seniors at any rate.
The real issue from a performance aspect, and when drop out rates are highest is, according to Liz ‘when you get juniors who have been very successful at lower age group level. They struggle a lot when they don’t make it straight away at senior level and many will simply drop out.’
And at any level – from international down – you need aspects of development. It is all about making gradual steps up the ladder. Some people may never progress above club level so it’s about making sure these experiences are positive for everyone.
‘Keeping people in the sport no matter at what level is important’ says Liz. ‘We shouldn’t be scared to focus on the social, or even fitness aspect of the sport to make sure people keep enjoying it.
‘Some of my first experiences were at local cross country leagues and county champs, and that’s when I wanted to start progressing further.’
Others in the sport agree that this is a key time in an athlete’s life. Not only are the competitions and distances different, there are bigger life changes at play. Many athletes are either finishing university or going straight into work, making it harder to maintain the same level of training and motivation – and inevitably falling off the athletics ladder.
It’s clear that the U23 ‘transition’ age group in this light appears key to developing that deeper pool of talent.
Liz is most eager to stress though that, in order to bring back the appeal of running as a sport, we need to create more characters, have more fun – ‘don’t get too serious!’
‘When the public see people like Andy Butchart joking around and with a huge grin on his face it sells the sport well. He had such banter. It makes people want to take part.’
From top-class athlete to erudite team manager, Liz Yelling’s advice is well worth taking on board.
Words by Hannah Viner
Image from Liz Yelling