Tokyo Olympics 2020: Scottish medal hope Jemma Reekie on being an ‘absolute running weirdo’
By the age of 11, she narrates now, a life choice had already been taken. Her teachers, her mother, could not convince young Jemma that she should keep options open beyond simply one. Said Morna: “I used to say: ‘you do need to stick in at school, too.’ And she’d just look at me and say: ‘but I want to be a runner’.”
Mission long accomplished. Daughter, prescient then, knew her own mind. The kid who treated school cross-country races in her native Ayrshire as cauldrons of fire will this week blow heat on her 800 metres rivals at the Olympic Games and expect them to melt in her wake.
23 years old now, this project in self-betterment has been in the making for as long as she cares to remember, weekends of yore scheduled around expeditions to Kilbarchan Athletics Club and revolutions around tracks in outposts like Linwood and Irvine that are a world removed from the hyper-designed stadium in Tokyo into which she will initially march in the wee small hours of our Friday morning.
The young pup, as she attests, might have run all day and night if she’d had her own way. Morna, and her Dad Jared, demanded their offspring occasionally slow down. “They were definitely careful of what I was doing,” she acknowledges. “Because obviously, you find athletes who over-trained. They made sure I was not running too much.” A losing battle, you sense.
In sickness and health, rain or shine, training sessions were to the starlet as girlish sleepovers were to her chums. “I was an absolute running weirdo,” she chuckles. “My friends at school were all obviously getting older and going to parties and stuff like that. I didn't even care that I was left out. There was no pressure to do anything. It didn't even bother me at all.
“Because all I was thinking was ‘I just want to run to the best of my ability. And to do that, I need to do this.’ I'd never once think ‘I don't want this because I'm missing out.’” Horse riding was her sole other passion. “I did it until 15. But I had to decide to stop it.” She missed it immensely. But, she confirms, “that's just what had to be done.”
Each one of the 11,600 or so athletes who have braved the incessant Covid tests and unfathomable restrictions imposed to allow these Games to proceed have an Origin Story all of their own. How they got here. What shaped them. Their version of the lightbulb moment: when fantasy becomes an achievable reality if the right formula and good fortune combine in good faith.
History will record that Reekie’s maiden win came almost a decade ago to this very day in Wishaw, over 800m at a youth league meeting. The first of many, yet that significant one is a blur. “I do recall winning the Scottish Under-16 championship,” she proclaims. “There's a video of it on Facebook. I was maybe 14. I remember finishing. My coach was so excited for me. I was absolutely buzzing.”
An addictive hit, she acknowledges. Further regular fixes desired. Reekie’s personal best time of 1:56.96, set earlier this month in Monaco, was one of only two defeats at her favoured distance sustained in 2021. To Laura Muir, rival but foremost her friend, who has removed herself from the 800m in Tokyo in favour of an exclusive assault on the 1,500m.
Formerly, the European champion held seniority. Presently, parity reigns. Double gold for the Glasgow-based group of their coach Andy Young is not an unthinkable return in Japan.
Clues of a will that matched Reekie’s raw talent were dropped upon their introduction in the summer of 2015. Substantiated still further, Muir testifies, when her then-teenage colleague made an angst-filled call in the midst of the 2017 European junior championships. “She came fourth in the 3000m. And she was absolutely gutted. I was like, ‘you've got this. ‘ And she went and won the 1500.”
It hinted at the mental strength that underpins the physical gains since. “I thought ‘wow, ok’,” Muir admits. “And then, she made a big progression from 2017 to 18 and 18 to 19. People saw her progress over the last year. But these things take time. You're not going to have a transformation overnight. But certainly within a couple of years, she was showing an awful lot.”
More so this summer. A complete package, with experience to boot. The delayed Games, not a moment too early, nor too soon. Whether a tactical chess match or a sprint for supremacy, all based covered, all boxes ticked. Childish dreams can so often fade. Be thrown unthinkingly into the trash. To run free, with sport’s greatest prize at stake. Reekie has pushed for this for so very long that it barely registers if it hurts.
“When I'm tired or anything,” she says, “I go 'if you want to be there, and you want to do as well as you want to do, you need to work hard every day.' I dream about it and remind myself of it.” Focused and fervent still, why should she be patient when her primary goal beckons?
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