Hitchon aims for hammer final
“You can’t do it every day,” says the 20-year-old world junior champion, who is now preparing to take on some of the world’s finest throwers at the Helsinki 2012 European Athletics Championships. “But it’s what every athlete tries to do every time they go out to compete.”
Hitchon has enjoyed a spectacular rise within the sport since she took it up seriously in 2007 on the off chance, having filled in to earn points for Pendle Athletics Club, based near her birthplace of Burnley in Lancashire.
Her first impact on the international scene occurred in 2008, when she won the Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India. A year later she earned Britain’s first ever European junior medal in the hammer, finishing third, and in 2010 she became world junior champion in Moncton, Canada.
Last season she earned bronze in the European Athletics U23 Championships, and had her first major championship experience as she finished 13th in qualifying at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu.
Her performances over the last two seasons also tell a story of developing talent. Her performance at the European Under 23s saw her raise her own British record from 69.43 to 69.59.
This year she has broken the British record three more times, reaching 70.40 in March before registering two further marks in April within less than a week of each other while she was out competing in the United States, extending the record to 70.47 at the Mount Sac relay meeting, and then throwing 71.61 twice at Chula Vista.
Most significantly, her most recent record surpassed the Olympic ‘A’ qualifying mark of 71.50, thus ensuring that she will be eligible to compete at her historic home Games later this summer.
“Things have gone really well for me this year, and I feel very positive that I can get greater distances in the years to come,” she said.
“Helsinki will be my second major championships after going to the worlds in Daegu last year, and the experience will really help me in Olympic year. I want to get every bit of benefit I can out of Helsinki.
“I think most of the top throwers will be there, because the event is so strong in Europe. I know some track athletes may not be competing in Finland because they are worried about running all the rounds, but a lot of the field events athletes are going to go because it is just the usual qualifying and final.
“I would love to reach the final in Helsinki, and it’s a realistic goal. If I have a good performance on the day that’s definitely in my range. Being at the Europeans will give me something to aim for, and to work towards.
“The top throwers have all got different strengths, but one of the most noticeable things about a thrower like Betty Heidler is her consistency in competitions. She always seems to turn in a good performance.
“They are all great girls on the circuit. We all get along really well together. It will be the first time I have competed in Helsinki, and I am really looking forward to being in the Olympic stadium. I have heard they have a really good throwing circle there.”
Hitchon finished 26th at last year’s World Championships, and found the experience hugely beneficial.
“I'd never been to a major championships, where you're competing against the world record holder and past champions,” she said.
“I was in the athletes' village and Usain Bolt walked past. You pinch yourself and say, am I meant to be here? I loved it, but I felt a bit out of my depth. In London I know I deserve to be there.”
Hitchon’s most recent national record prompted her coach at the Loughborough High Performance Centre where she is now based, Derek Evely, to say that a throw of 72 or 73 metres “would not be out of the question” in 2012.
“I have still got such a long way to go in the event – I am always forgetting how young I am compared to most of the other top throwers. But in a few years I think I will be up there.
“Sometimes when I am in competition I am the youngest there by two or three years. There are times when I am disappointed with the results, but then I remember my age, and how far I have to go in the sport.
“There are a few younger throwers who have done 71m or better, but I like to have people who are pushing me to do better. At the highest level in the sport there is no one who is so outstanding that there is no real competition. That’s what makes hammer throwing so interesting right now because there is such a strength in depth.
“That’s why the Europeans is going to be such a great competition. There are so many throwers who could win medals."
Hitchon has something in common with one of her predecessors in British hammer throwing, Shirley Webb, a 2004 Olympian who finished 10th at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Before taking up the hammer seriously, Webb was a professional dancer who earned a living performing on cruise ships. Hitchon, while not quite at that level, was a dedicated ballet dancer for 13 years from the age of two, and she appeared in performances at a theatre in her home town of Burnley.
But while Webb, surprisingly, felt the dancing had not helped her in her sporting pursuit – she felt she had to ‘unlearn’ too much instinctive movement – Hitchon feels very differently.
“I personally found the dancing really helpful,” she said. “I wasn’t at the same level as Shirley, I just danced locally when I was living in Burnley. But I think it did a lot of good for me in terms of what I do now. Not so much on the technique side, but in terms of balance, co-ordination and spatial awareness. And doing stage performances gave me a lot of confidence in front of an audience and I'm sure that helps me not to be daunted by competing in the hammer in front of big crowds.”
Finland’s 1952 Olympic stadium awaits her, packed. She is confident she will rise to the challenge.