BIRMINGHAM, England – Few athletes really know what Jake Whiteman’s life has really been like over the past two weeks. The newly crowned 1500m world champion had to deal with his newfound pressure, and so he quickly got the phone number of former Olympic and Commonwealth 400m champion Christine Ohurorogo, who passed on her knowledge and experience. She said to him, “Go from the hunter to the pursuer.”
It wasn’t just his life on the track that seemed to change overnight. He was sitting outside a café recently, coming home from winning the men’s 1500m world championship, when a woman stopped in her tracks. “Are you the boy who won this race?” She asked. When he said yes, he was actually the one who racked up one of the most stunning gold medal victories in British athletics history, she was glad to hear: “Oh, well done.”
She was one of 15 or so people who stopped by to say the same thing. They’ve all heard the story of how that night’s stadium announcer, Jeff Whiteman, is also his father and coach. They’ve seen videos of Jeff staying breathtakingly composed as he comments on what was unfolding ahead of them: that his son, 10th place finisher at Tokyo 2020, took one last throw to the finish with 200m remaining to win his first major title. Wightman went viral, while the story made international news.
Thus, Wightman’s life changed – at least temporarily. Now people stop in the street, congratulate him at the local athletics track, or ask for his autograph at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, for which he became a last-minute poster boy. That last bit played in his mind.
He has been tasked over the past two weeks with handling and channeling all that pressure and trying to become the first athlete to hold the world and Commonwealth titles at 1500m at the same time. It wasn’t easy. At first, he seemed to shy away, saying he dreaded the mental task that it would take to compete again in this event, and instead wanted to do the 800m. He wanted to celebrate his title. His mother, Susan, said he should do the 1,500m so all her friends could watch him run.
It didn’t take long to change his view and set his sights on adding another 1500m title, saying before the games: “My motivation is: ‘How much can I improve this summer?'” “This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
But on Saturday at Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, the prophecy made by Uhurugo came true.
The men’s 1500th Commonwealth Games finals began similar to the one in Eugene last month. His dad, Jeff, was the stadium announcer again – although this time he introduced him as the world champion – and most of the last month’s strongman were on the court as well.
Wightman stayed in the group, sitting fifth for most of the race before moving up the 250m. His legs lifted a gear, they moved faster and stepped more forcefully while Wightman quickly moved to the lead. That was when the chase happened, when Wightman discovered what it meant to have a target on his back. The Scottish sprinter entered the final 100 metres, starting first by Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot, and then by Australian Oliver Hoare, who eventually won the gold medal.
By the time Wightman reached the finish line, he was left in bronze. It was an achievement that he was still proud of, even if he wasn’t pleased. A group of reporters were waiting to speak to Wightman afterwards – more than usual – and he revealed everything.
“I went from not wanting to do the 1500m because I couldn’t bear to do it again to being ready to do it and wanting to win it. I could easily have walked out of this race with nothing… The bronze is a relief given the shape I am in. “.
“I hate being in the 800m or not running at all and watching the 1500m [from the sidelines] I think I’d love to be in it for a chance to win. I put it to the test, and put myself in a position that I could have won.”
His conversation with reporters continued, and he said he would not run the 1500m again this season, exhausted by his onerous demands, instead saying he would compete in the 800m for a “different kind of pressure”. He’s got that right.
Then came a line he hadn’t said before, but would have to think about for a good part of the next 12 months: “I hope I won’t get dropped for not winning the world championship,” he said.
In truth, it was just another sign that life had changed for Whiteman.
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