Scots trio Wightman, Gourley and Kerr take local rivalry to world stage

Jake Wightman will be going for gold in the men's 1,500m final in Doha on Sunday night. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA
Jake Wightman will be going for gold in the men's 1,500m final in Doha on Sunday night. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA
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Jake Wightman is recounting his early athletic encounters with Neil Gourley with a smile, but also a wince. Inter-District cross-countries, Scottish Schools Championships, under-15 leagues. Jogging together, ignominiously, in the middle of the pack. “Neither of us would be winning,” he complains. “Because neither of us hit puberty until we were 16 or 17.”

An age category below at the same events, a prodigy was emerging who was ill-content with middling along. Eleven years old in 2009, Josh Kerr competed on 24 occasions and missed victory just five times. Twice in high jump, once in the shot, neither his specialism, then or now. “Josh was on Edinburgh AC relay teams with me when he was an under-13, his brother was under-15, and I was under-17,” Wightman recalls. “That was our Edinburgh cross-country relay team.”

Kerr’s sibling Jake was lost to rugby, earning his Six Nations debut for Scotland last spring. Gourley, from Glasgow, became their collective woe. Tonight in Doha, however, the trio of former teenage tyros will arrive as a Caledonian ensemble while orchestrating their individual ambitions in the men’s 1500 metres final as the World Championships reach their crescendo.

No other country has more than two entrants in the grand finale of the metric mile. There must be something in the water, surely. Performers to population ratio, far exceeded.

“Scotland’s a good breeding ground for not burning out early,” Wightman proclaims. “In England, you get a lot of kids who do too much too young.”

Their achievement in unison, engenders quite the collective pride, injects Kerr, the youngest of the bunch at 21. “We’re all super-respectful of each other off the track. And big competitors on it.” Similar trajectories have brought them here. Wightman became a European junior champion. His former relay cohort followed suit. Gourley opted for America, to the collegiate ranks to blaze his trail. Kerr, subsequently also, where the expatriates would sporadically stage a friendly private duel.

“He was always getting the best of me there,” Gourley rues. “But my younger brother Rob, who doesn’t run any more, kept reminding me that he had a winning record over Josh. He’d never been beaten by him. So he was always making fun of me. The last two UK Championships were the first time I’d beaten Josh for a while. But he is a great racer. And so is Jake.”

They must all be this evening. Kenya’s Timothy Cheruiyot is the commanding favourite. The Scots are all 100-1 shots at least, for gold. Medals, even so, still seem a possibility, especially for Kerr who has proven himself in America, if not yet on the international stage. “Josh has always been the superstar,” Wightman declares, with some pride. “For him to be running at the level he is, that’s not unexpected.”

The wunderkind is confident, and mightily assured. A professional since last summer, he is now tutored in Seattle by the distance specialist Danny Mackey within the Brooks Beasts collective. “My coaching change and my set-up changes have given me leaps forward. Coming tenth in the first round at the world championships two years ago, to making my first world final, is great. That just shows I’m in the right place.”

Gourley, based just southward in Oregon, will relish his maiden appearance on the major stage. The British champion may have been late bloomer but he is propagating nicely. A quicker pace may suit. The occasion will not faze him one bit. “I’m going to raise my game in that final and I don’t know where that puts me,” he underlines. “But I’m setting my targets on a medal.”

With bronze at last year’s Europeans, Wightman has prior pedigree. “I can’t make mistakes,” he declares. “If I don’t, I’ve got a chance.” He will run for his life, then share an embrace. “For us to have three Scots in the final,” he adds, “is incredible.”