DERVAL O'ROURKE: Underage success gives no guarantee for senior career

Last week the World Junior Athletics Championships took place in Oregon’s Hayward Field.

It was the first time the US had hosted any kind of Athletics World Championship in 22 years and the first time in history to host an outdoor event. Is the World Junior Championships a big deal or is it just the first rung on the athletics ladder?

I competed at the World Junior Championships in 2000 in Santiago de Chile. I ran an Irish junior record in the heats and then pretty much bombed in the semi-final, finishing last. I was 16th overall in the world. The difference between my performance and that of the girls who won medals was immense. If the world juniors were the first step on the athletics ladder my impact was so minor I was clinging by my fingernails to that first rung.

The recent championships stirred up my curiosity and I went in search of the results from the event I competed in all the way back in 2000. There were two names that jumped out from the results sheet.

The first was that of Canadian athlete Priscilla Lopes. When 18-year-old Lopes took to the blocks in Santiago de Chile in 2000, how did she fare among the world’s best juniors? Not very well at all. Lopes was eliminated in the first round and finished a very modest 31st out of 44 competitors. Lopes has since gone on to win an Olympic and a World Championship silver medal. She has been a ferocious competitor on the women’s sprint hurdles scene. Her modest showing in Chile did little to deter her from becoming one of the best in the world.

The second name was that of Swedish hurdler Susanna Kallur. Kallur was the winner of the event and one of the superstars of the 2000 championships. Kallur went on to have a stellar career post World Juniors but she does not have an Olympic or world outdoor medal to match the gold she won as a teenager.

When wondering how consequential World Junior success is to elite senior track success, it’s really interesting to look at a recent article written by Jesse Squire for the delayrelay.com. He took 10 World Junior Championships and cross-referenced them with World Championships and Olympic Games. The aim was to look at those who won medals and then to look at how many junior medallists go on to win medals as senior athletes.

The data makes for interesting reading. There has never been a female sprint hurdler who won a World Junior gold or silver medal and then went on to win senior medals. Even the great Sally Pearson, reigning Olympic champion, only managed a fourth place at these championships.

If anything, the chances of winning both World Junior medals and World Senior medals are very slim. Of course there are standout athletes who have done it, such as Haile Gebrselassie and Usain Bolt, but the probability of doing both is not high.

The Irish team will return home from the World Junior Championships this week and on paper there isn’t a huge amount to celebrate. This is not cause for despondency, the results of these championships must be taken with a pinch of salt. The few days in Oregon have not determined whether or not these young Irish athletes will go on to make their mark at senior level.

In my opinion, what is more important is how they react to their experience. The sport at junior level is about learning the skills necessary for development in the senior ranks. This can be a complex process. Physically some athletes develop faster than others and mentally the desire to succeed may grow in some and not others.

I competed at every age group in athletics, youth, junior, U23 and senior. From my experience the senior track championships are a different world but what the junior version does is offer the opportunity to prepare for the top flight.

In my experience the athletes who are absorbing everything are the ones who will go on to bigger and better things.

Hayward Field, Oregon hosted some amazing moments at this edition of the championships and perhaps the biggest success story was teenage superstar Mary Cain, who won the 3,000m. For the first time in the history of the event, an American won a medal in an event longer than 800m. Cain is an underage star in the US and is part of the Nike Oregon Project that Mo Farah trains under.

Does this mean that Cain has a free pass to the top of the sport at a senior level? Unfortunately for her it doesn’t. Past success at this level would tell us that the probability of her being a senior world champion is by no means a sure thing. But it’s not impossible.

The World Junior Championships teaches us to live in the present. It showcases some incredibly gifted teenagers who may be having the biggest moment of their career. It shows that it’s important to enjoy the sport in the here and now rather than prophesising about the future.


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