Having won gold in the 800 metres at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Buenos Aires 2018, Australia’s rising middle-distance star Keely Small had her sights firmly set on qualifying for Tokyo 2020. Here, she reveals how she is staying positive about the the postponement of the Games and how it will give her an extra year to prepare.
How much have you been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
“It's been hard. In uncertain times like this, it's hard to know what to do, especially with the postponement of the Olympic Games, which I had been putting so much work towards. For me, it was ever since the Youth Olympic Games – after that, my focus straightaway shifted to Tokyo. The time I spent in Buenos Aires made me really want to have another Olympic experience. So I’d put two years of work into making the Games and now it has been moved back another year. I’m lucky that because of my age I can hopefully compete at multiple Olympic Games, so what’s an extra year? It just gives me time to reset a little bit and refocus. Then hopefully I’ll have a better season next season and can make it to the Games next year.”
You’re obviously still making the transition into senior competition – do you think having an extra year to prepare for the Games could actually benefit you?
“I definitely think so. I think it's going to give me time to mature a little bit more in the way that I run. It gives me more time to practise when I'm in racing and things like that. It gives me a whole year to do base work and then hopefully my speed and my endurance next year will both be even better than they are at the moment.”
How was training going for you before everything was impacted by COVID-19?
“It was really good. I was having a really good season. I had a few really good races where I was continually and consistently finishing in the top three, which put me in a really good position. Then everything sort of came to a head when the national championships and everything else got cancelled. But my training has been going really well. I'm actually the fittest I've ever been at the moment, so I'm just trying to maintain that and then hopefully no injuries or illnesses come off, and I can actually hit the season off on 1 December when it's going to start and hopefully get a qualifying time. That's what I'm really aiming to do. I think my training is proving at the moment that I'm ready to run fast when I get the opportunity to do that.”
How have you adapted your training to the current situation, with most facilities closed and social distancing measures in place?
“It's been hard especially because we have a really tight group and we always train together. There are about 10 of us in the core group who train pretty much every day together and we can't really do that at the moment. I just did a session with my coach Philo Saunders in the back of a bushland area away from people where it was just two of us. So we’ve been able to do things like that, but it's been very different when you're so used to being around the same people and then suddenly you can't go and you can't use the gym and you can't use the track with everyone. It's definitely different and I think we're still all getting used to it, but I think we've just got to deal with it at the moment. Everyone's sort of in the same position, I could imagine, with their training groups as well. So, we've tried to keep in contact as well, see how everyone's going. My coach tries to touch base with everyone, which is really good, and he just tries to keep us all confident in our abilities and focused on the things that we can control at the moment and then just always looking towards next season. Then, if we just get through this when we get to next season, everything will be okay after that and we'll be back to what we were doing before.”
How did you feel when the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were postponed?
“It was hard to get my head around at first, but when you look at it from a world perspective, you know that it was something that had to be done. I think even in an uncertain time like this – where you don't really know what's going on – it does give you something to look forward to as well. I think once we all get out of this, it'll be like, ‘Okay, now we can have the Olympic Games properly and everyone can be there.’ At the moment, it's given me something to strive for and look past this time when it's hard to go out and train and things like that.”
Do you think your experiences at the YOG Buenos Aires 2018 will help you, if you do qualify for Tokyo 2020?
“Definitely. I think [the YOG] sets you up for knowing what to expect. I think that's one of the really good things about the Youth Olympic Games. You get all of the junior athletes together –some of them will make the Olympic Games one day, some of them won't – but it just gives you that sort of experience so that when you do go to the Games you know what is going to happen; you know what to expect. I know the Olympic Games are on a bigger scale, but it gives you an underlying experience that you can draw on when you're there.
The YOG Buenos Aires 2018 were 18 months ago now – how do you reflect on your experiences there?
“It's been the highlight of my running career so far. I think I learned a lot from it. A lot of racing experience, but I also learned a lot about dealing with pressure as well because I was the Australian flagbearer and I had that expectation on me to go out there and win. I was just really happy that I could actually go out and do that with all the pressure. Ever since then, I've been really confident when I go out and race. It's really taught me how to deal with the pressure, how to deal with trying to just go through the process and still go out there and run to the best of your ability.”
How did it feel when you received your gold medal?
“It was amazing. Just being able to win an Olympic gold medal is pretty big. I was standing on top of the podium and it just felt like everything I'd done to that point had paid off, all that hard work that I’d done, all those things that I’d given up – the parties I missed because I had training and stuff like that – it just made it all worth it. Then to stand there and hear the national anthem as well; it was a proud moment and I was really, really happy that I could come away with that gold medal.”