Jessie Knight is one of the amazing examples of how athletics has events for everyone!
A school teacher who took a break from athletics, and came back, finding a new event, the 400m hurdles. The speed and strength that Jesse developed helped her in both events!
This piece is done by Stuart Weir.
Jessie Knight – on the up
Jesse Knight was in sparkling form in August and September 2020 but, in truth, her success was the culmination of years of work. In August she won 400m hurdles races in Brussels and two in Poland (Chorzow and Szczecin) setting a new PR as well as running two PRs in the 400m flat, competing for the first time in a Continental Series Gold event and in her first ever Diamond League. Not bad for a full-time elementary school teacher who runs in her spare time. Then in September she added a GB 400m hurdles title to the British Indoor 400 title she had won earlier in the year.
She started track when she was eight years old, school and district schools before joining her local club, Epsom and Ewell Harriers. She recalls a relay in the early days “where our school was in last place and I got the baton a long way back and ended up winning. My mom was like: ‘do you like running? You’re quite good at it'”. Perceptive mom!
As often happens with athletes who start young, Jessie tried just about every discipline. Powerof10 website lists her PR at 14 different disciples – plus several age-group PRs. She always sensed that 400m would be her event with her combination of speed and strength but under rules in UK she could not run 400 competitively until her mid-teens.
She found her main event, almost by chance. At university she was a solid 54 second 400m runner but could not get any faster. She switched to 400H and “fell in love with the hurdles”. Perversely, having “given up” the 400m flat, she ran a 53.48 that summer!
Another unpromising scenario proved a life-changer. In August 2017, Knight competed in a meet in Manchester, running a 400m flat in 55.03 and decided that was it. She was finding that her full-time job as a teacher “took over and I just didn’t have the time for athletics any more. I gave up and left the sport completely. By that I mean that for six months I did no exercise at all”. She did not compete at all in 2018. But, as they say, you can take the girl out of athletics but you can’t take athletics out of the girl!
But she found: “I missed it so much. I think because I had been doing it since I was eight, it just became something that I did, rather than something that I loved doing. Having that time away helped me to realize that if I was going to go back, I had to commit 100% in terms of sleep, diet – and not just turn up to training and go home without really being an athlete”.
The 2019 season was OK but nothing more. She reached the semis at the GB national indoor championships. In the outdoor championships and trials she was third in the 400H but did not have the world championship qualifying standard.
2020 proved to be a breakthrough. It all started with a 400m race at the Glasgow Indoor Grand Prix. With Justyna Swiety-Ersetic, Lisanne De Witte, Iga Bauumgart-Witan, Janieve Russell and Stephenie AnnMcPherson in the race, Jessie – by her own admission – should have finished last. She just went out and won it in 51.57! She recalls the race: “I was the most nervous I’ve ever been before a race but in warm up my coach said: ‘just put your blinkers on and run’. My race plan was to stay as close to the leaders as I could, not expecting to be at the front but when I got the break, I was thinking ‘I don’t actually feel that tired’ and I managed to hold on and win and still to this day it’s the highlight of my life”.
In 2019 she had not made the final of the British Indoors but suddenly in 2020, she was the favorite – an unexpected but realistic favorite: “I wasn’t naÃ¯ve because I knew that a lot of the top 400 girls weren’t running indoors this year. I wanted to run a time that was worthy of winning, had all the top runners been there. So it was the perfect way to top off my indoor season”. Her winning time was a very respectable 52.76.
So Jessie was all set up for the 2020 season, the European Championships and maybe the Olympics – shame that everything was canceled. “I must admit that initially I was devastated”, she told me. ” I felt that I had finally got myself to a point where I could make GB teams and could have got to the Olympics, the pinnacle of any athlete’s career, but I quickly turned that into ‘let’s keep working hard every day’ because there could be races at the end of the season. I was quite surprised with myself because I managed to train very well. So it was fine and I still managed to push my body to its limits. OK, I was running along my road, not on a track. But I don’t feel that I lost fitness. If anything, I gained more fitness because I had more time. It was just about trying to be as positive as possible and recognizing that it was out of our control. What I could control was each session and I didn’t miss a session during lockdown and didn’t lose any motivation because I was so hungry to progress”.
She grudging admits that she did well in Budapest and Stockholm in August before moving into the athlete-typical analysis: “I was quite disappointed with the times. I know that they’re described as PRs but because I’ve done the 51.57 indoors, I was wanting a 51”. On the hurdles races in Belgium and Poland, she allows herself more credit. “I am absolutely over the moon with the three hurdle races. Completely changing my stride pattern from last year has meant that I dropped a lot in time. That is a new territory and now I’m standing on the line feeling like an experienced hurdler, and gaining in confidence. I have been really happy. Last year I was probably at 56 hurdler on a good day and a 57 runner consistently. Now I’m 55 low every time and that’s very exciting and that’s exactly where I wanted to be this year. The main thing is that I’m hurdling more confidently”.
I believe that Union rules state that you cannot interview a hurdler without discussing stride patterns, so here goes: “This year I have been a lot more comfortable doing 15 strides, which for a lot of females is quite an aim. Last year 50% of the time I wasn’t making my stride pattern but now I’m hitting it every single time. I’ve also got to a new point with my increased speed, but I got to learn to control it, because I’m finding that I’m on top of the hurdles a little bit. So I’m basically trying to make 15 strides as smooth as possible. So, for me it’s about learning a new stride pattern and with hurdles it’s all about rhythm. It’s not just about running as fast as you can but getting your legs moving in a fast but rhythmic way. So the main goal is 15 strides and then finishing as strong as possible. And an exciting thing for me is that I’ve got quite a lot still to work on. I’m struggling with a couple of hurdles and I know that when I get that right, more time will come off”
She is quick to acknowledge the contribution of her coach to her development: “Marina Armstrong is my dream coach. The nice thing, and what works best for us, is that we get on so well. I will sit and talk to Marina about everything not just athletics. We have similar interests and we get along really well at a personal level. Her training program is just genius. Every athlete is different and I need a little bit more running in my program, rather than shorter speed stuff – so her program really suits me as an athlete. And in the winter as 400m runners we do a lot of running – track running, minute runs, grass runs and longer ones which I need. The training just works for me. We have just clicked. I feel that she listens to me and we respond well to each other. It’s just working well as teamwork”.
The progress she has made has enabled her to take a leap of faith and reduce her teaching week to three days. “I have to say that the last two winters – the winters are a lot harder because it’s so dark – have been so difficult. Up at 6.15am and not getting home until 9.30pm or 9.45 every single day of the week. I went part time from September 2020, working Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – 3 full days as a teacher – with Thursday and Friday off. People ask me, am I going to do more intense training on Thursday and Friday but the answer is no. Training will not change at all but I’ll have more time to recover, sleep and let my body adjust to what it is doing”.
2021 promises a lot for Jessie Knight.