400m NZ champion

400m NZ champion

22 December 2015

Jessica Hood blitzed to an impressive victory in the senior girls 400m at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Timaru. Steve Landells chats to the talented St Paul’s Collegiate School student about her rise and future ambitions in the sport.

“Train hard now and it will make life easier later” is a regular quote made by Jessica Hood’s coach James Walsh and it is one the Hamilton-based athlete has whole heartedly lived up to in her short but eye-catching career.

Possessing a strong work ethic with a fierce desire to win all the stars aligned at the New Zealand Secondary School Champs when the Hinemoa AAC athlete trimmed 0.27 from her PB to clock 55.57 to strike senior girls’ 400m gold.

To pour further cream on her individual success in Timaru the 16-year-old then teamed up with Maddy Tims, Emanae Ferguson and Jade Henley-Smith to grab 4x100m gold and 4x400m silver as the St Paul’s Collegiate School quartet produced an all-around sprinting masterclass.

To trace Jess’ athletics journey we need to rewind back to her athletics day as a year three student at Southwell School in Hamilton. There she stormed to victory in both the 50m and 100m taking out the school record in both events.

“I thought, wow, I am a fast runner. I was surprised,” she admits of that awakening.

Yet perhaps Jess should not have been so taken aback by her athletic ability as her family boasts an impressive sporting pedigree. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was 46-times capped All Black Ron Hemi – a dynamic hooker during the 1950s. Both parents were also heavily involved in sport with Jess’ mum representing Waikato at both tennis and netball.

Clearly gifted, it was not until she was aged 13 that her mum approached Hinemoa AC coach James Walsh to see if he would coach Jess. It was then her athletics ability begin to flourish. For the first time she specifically trained for athletics and she found the experience eye-opening.

“I remember when I started to be coached by James he had some very talented athletes in his group – including the likes of Holly Sprosen, a previous New Zealand under age-group steeplechase champion and some quality male athletes who have since gone on to excel as New Zealand rowers.” Yet rather than be intimidated she was inspired.

“The training was definitely hard but I found I was pushing myself to be the best I could be,” she explains.” I was watching the older kids and I aspired to be like them.”

Starting out as a 100m/200m sprinter last year Walsh suggested she might be better suited to the demands of being a 400m/800m athlete.

Uncomplainingly, Jess simply got on with the new task at hand. She admits the increased training load was a “big learning curve” as she not only had to become accustomed to the new events she was competing in and she also had to adapt to the tactical side of both the 400m and 800m.

Twelve months ago she targeted the 800m at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Wanganui but was “pretty disappointed” to place fifth in 2:18.93 she tripped and stumbed in the final. Yet the experience did not leave her despondent for long and it only served to make her “work harder in the future.”

Earlier this year she bounced back to lower her 800m best to 2:11.16 and also secured gold for the distance at the North Island Secondary Schools Championships. Over 400m she also made real gains earlier this landing the WBoP title and trimming her lifetime best down to 55.84.

During the summer months she has been fully committed to a six-day a week training regime which includes five track outings and one pain-inducing training session by Hamilton Lake Domain.

“Each week we do a one-minute hill sprint with hand weights,” she explains. “We do this three times then have a ten-minute break and then complete three more with a decreasing recovery time between each rep.”

There is little doubt that physically Jess is a superior athlete, but she is also mentally stronger and that in part is down to her work with Walsh.

“He’s very knowledgeable and knows a lot about technique and how we are going to implement the training programme,” says Jess. “His race preparation is excellent. We know exactly what we are doing on any given day.

Once a week he has also received the input from Chris Williams former coach to Monique Williams, the New Zealand 200m record holder, which she has also believed has been “very beneficial.”

A Waikato netball age-group representative, Jess found some of her winter endurance training for the 800m compromised by her alternative commitments so it was decided she would target the 400m at the New Zealand Secondary School Championships.

Yet as a class act over the one-lap distance and she came into the event in Timaru earlier this month full of confidence.

James and I believed I had a good shot at the 400m, as my 200m time was faster than my fellow competitors, she adds. “I was determined to do whatever it took to win gold. That belief was really important.”

Facing the defending champion Shannon Gearey did not faze the Hamilton athlete as she chose to fully focus on her own performance. She was the quickest qualifier into the final and even dealt with a tricky lane six draw in which her key rivals were all inside her to deliver gold.

“We decided that from lane six I was going to go out as fast I could and build up a big lead,” she explains. “I went through 200m in 25.5 and then I had the strength from the training to take it through until the end of the race.”

She stopped the clock in a personal best off 55.57 to defeat silver medallist Gearey by a fraction under half-a-second.

Both relieved and pleased in equal measure she also claimed gold and silver medals in the two relays a fantastic achievement for a school with a girls’ roll of around 100 students. She cites the work of Gary Henley-Smith at the College as vital to the success of the quartet, however more generally her success in Timaru has given her the belief to set some high goals in 2016.

One target is to dip below 2:10 for the 800m and she has not ruled out a crack at the Athletics New Zealand qualification mark of 54.30 for the women’s 400m in an effort to qualify for the 2016 IAAF World Junior Championships.

Looking further ahead to the 2016 National Secondary Schools Championships she would like to target the senior girls’ 400m record of 54.92 set some 25 years ago by New Zealand 800m record holder Toni Hodgkinson.

At the moment the St Pauls Collegiate student insists her best event is the 400m, but such is her versatility she would like to run more 800m races in future.

Which leads to one final question; why does she like running so much?

“I enjoy running because of my competitive nature and my desire to run fast,” she says. “It is my ultimate goal to represent my county. But I run because I enjoy it. If I have a day off I’m still always keen to go for a run and my coach always has to remind me it is a rest day. Athletics is definitely my number one sport.”