Abi Irozuru is a unique athlete. She could have called it quits, but she liked the competition, and in an event in the UK that is insanely competitive. Stuart Weir helps us appreciate the talented Abi Irozuru.
Abi Irozuru enjoying a second career
Women’s long jump is one of the most competitive disciples in British Athletics with four athletes capable of competing for medals and two of them in the elusive 7 meter club. When it came to the 2019 World Championships, Lorraine Ugen failed to be selected. Jazmin Sawyers did not make the top 12 for the final. Shara Proctor was 11th.
Abi Irozuru finished 7th with 6.64, which was a solid performance but the 6.86 she jumped at the 2019 GB champs would have given her fourth place. What made her seventh place in the Worlds more remarkable was that she retired in 2016 because of injury. After almost two years out – after April 2016, her next long jump competition was February 2018 – she explained her reasons for the comeback: “Firstly because I had unfinished business and I didn’t want to look back at my career with any regrets and I didn’t want to be asking myself ‘what if?’ I also felt prompted by God to return. I also felt that I was often telling people not to give up on their dreams and I wasn’t walking that talk. And I also believed that I could jump further than I had previously”.
What, I asked her, had she learned from competing in the World Championships in 2019, which, at the age of 29, was her first major championship. “From the qualifying round”, she replied, “I learned that I need to be a little bit more relaxed because the pressure I felt about needing to qualify for the final made my body tense and tight and I ended up carrying a little niggle into the final. That tends to happen when my running mechanics are too rigid. Mentally I was too rigid and that resulted in me hurting my body. So that was a key lesson to learn because without it I think I could’ve performed better in the final”.
Abi Irozuru, 2020 British Outdoor Athletics, photo by Getty Images / British Athletics
Despite her placing, she added, she left thinking that she had underachieved: “It was good to finish as the top British athlete in the long jump but it still felt like an underachievement because it didn’t feel like the best performance that I was capable of producing on that particular day”.
A very thoughtful athlete, she then answered the question [what did you learn from Doha] from a quite different perspective: “When you asked that question I tended to think of the negatives, but there were also a lot of positives. Overall it was a good learning experience and as it was good to be there. I loved competing in a global championship in front of a crowd. It was a reminder that I do enjoy being in a big stadium and performing. I had fun in the final, when I managed to relax; it was just unfortunate that my body wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be. But I was definitely a lot fresher and happier in the final than I had been in the qualifying round”.
She is also the only long jumper I know to have a train named after her! Virgin Trains as part of an initiative called ‘Supporting British Athletes’, named Pendolino train 390007 “Abigail Irozuru” in 2011.
We then talked through 2020 in which Abi’s season consisted of 6 meets in 33 days in 6 countries, starting mid-August. She lives in Manchester which has been hit by some of the toughest COVID restrictions in England. “I remember some sessions in the spring where I felt really frustrated by not being able to access the track or being able to be on the track but not the sand pit. I found it really frustrating when other people had what they needed to train, but the jumpers couldn’t use the sand pit. But I suppose it’s when you compare what you got with what other people have got that you get yourself upset. When we could only train on the grass, I stayed in my own little bubble and got on with it. You just turn up, shut up, do the work and hope it gives you positive gains”.
There are two tracks in Manchester but even now there are a lot of rules about use. For example, as an elite athlete, Abi cannot be on the track with other people. It has to be alone or with other athletes from the GB performance squad. While the staff at SportsCity are helpful, they too are subject to conditions and restrictions.
Abi found the postponement of the Olympics inevitable and almost a relief “as it wouldn’t have been fair because you would have had athletes in, for example, Sweden with full access to the track and people in, say, England or South Africa with no access to the track”. At that stage European Athletics were saying that the European Championships at the end of August would definitely go ahead. When they were eventually cancelled, Abi found it “a bit gutting but not heartbreaking because I still had an expectation that I’d be able to compete a bit this season”.
She explains that she was always determined to compete: “because I see no point in training just for training. And as an older athlete, I think it’s important for me to take every opportunity to get as much competition as possible. It was always my motivation that there would be an opportunity to compete – and even if I couldn’t compete to my highest level because of the lack of preparation – it would still be good to get out there, compete with the other girls and enjoy the experience”. Her first competition was not until 11 August but she felt that with13 weeks without access to a sandpit, she could not have jumped any sooner.
Her assessment of the six competitions is characteristically honest. She was frustrated that 6.57 was her longest jump: “To sum it up in two words: underwhelming and under-performance. Despite the challenges that I faced I think it could have been better. It just felt a massive underachievement. Coming second in the British championship was disappointing. Throughout most my competitions I felt I was getting one or two decent jumps and then it would go downhill. I think I could have jumped an extra 10 or 20 centimeters in most of the competitions. Never to get out of the 6.50s was an under-performance. If I had felt that 6.50 was the best I could do, I would have accepted it but I always felt there was a consistent 6.60+ in my legs. And of course, it didn’t end well, as in my last competition in Berlin I had to stop after the second round with a hamstring tear. That was pretty frustrating as I had planned to finish the season at the Doha Diamond League to which I was looking forward. I’m still in rehab for the hamstring. In Berlin I had opened with 6.54, one of my biggest openers. I thought that was really good and I knew I was running faster – perhaps fueled by the disappointment of the British championship – but unfortunately in Berlin my hamstring wasn’t playing ball”.
As she had mentioned God, I asked her to explain the part that faith plays in her life: “Being a Christian means that I want to do everything with excellence because that is what I believe we are called to do as followers of Jesus. Understanding that it is all by God’s grace has helped. When I remember that it takes the weight off my shoulders and stops me putting pressure on myself. It helps me to enjoy competing. I love the quotation from Eric Liddell [in the old movie, Chariots of Fire] “God made me for a purpose but he also made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure” and I want to feel God’s pleasure when I jump. So it’s about knowing that God is in control, knowing that I have to give my best”.
Abi is officially self-coached: “I haven’t fully released the reins because of the type of personality I am. I know what works and what has worked in the past. So I wouldn’t be able to trust someone else without having some input myself”. For the 2021 season she will collaborate with Aston Moore who is going to set a framework. As well, since 2015 she has worked with Nick Jones so that has been one constant. In addition the physios and biometricians at British Athletics are very helpful. As she puts it, “While I am self coached, I don’t do it on my own because it’s very collaborative”.
Her comeback has surprised many people as did her 7th place in the world. Having a PR of 6.86, she knows she can do it and will be focusing on repeating it in 2021, the new Olympic year.
2020 results as recorded at www.worldathletics.org
11 AUG 2020
Paavo Nurmi Games, Paavo Nurmi Stadium, Turku
19 AUG 2020
Gyulai IstvÃ¡n Memorial, BregyÃ³ Athletic Center, SzÃ©kesfehÃ©rvÃ¡r
23 AUG 2020
BAUHAUS-Galan, Olympiastadion, Stockholm
04 SEP 2020
British Ch., Sportcity Regional Arena, Manchester
08 SEP 2020
56th Palio CittÃ della Quercia, Stadio Quercia, Rovereto
13 SEP 2020
ISTAF Berlin, Olympiastadion, Berlin