Niamh Emerson has developed a healthy habit of making and breaking records. And that’s not just her own personal bests. The 17 year old has recently returned home from the European Youth Athletics Championships in Tblisi where she amassed a total of 5,919 points to take bronze in the heptathlon. Not much more than a month before, Niamh had beaten the British youth heptathlon record previously held by Katarina Johnson-Thompson as she produced 5,815 points at the Meeting Internacional Arona Pruebas Combinadas in Tenerife.
“You don’t really think about records,” said Niamh – who received her SportsAid award from Stuart Cross in 2016. “You just focus on your points and winning a medal in the competition. I didn’t even know about the record until I was in Spain and halfway through day two somebody said to me that you could have a British record and I thought ‘Oh my God!’. I didn’t expect that. I was obviously more aware in Georgia but I just tried to beat my score in every individual event in the heptathlon and then it kind of just happened.”
Niamh was beaten to gold and silver at the European Youth Athletics Championships by Alina Shukh of Ukraine, who set a new world best at Under-18s level with 6,186 points, and Sarah Lagger of Austria (6,175 points). Niamh was handed the additional responsibility of being one of the elected captains the British Athletics team and she led by example as she managed to set new personal bests in the 100m hurdles (14.17 seconds), shot put (12.81m), javelin (35.44m) and the 200m (25.19 secs).
“It was so great to be selected [for the Championships] in the first place so to be chosen as one of the team captains was really good. I was very enthusiastic, cheered on everybody and spoke to those who maybe weren’t as happy with their performances,” said Niamh. “I tried to show them how much of a difference a year can make and encouraged them to use it as an experience. I know I’ve changed a lot in the last year, not just physically and in my performances, but in my approach, and that’s what the youth competitions can do for you.
“Going to the Championships was an amazing experience. The standard was very high and it drove me on the whole way. I was ranked third in Europe at Under-18s level going into it so I just wanted to ensure I secured third place. It’s one thing having it down on paper but it’s completely different to the actual competition so when I did that and managed to achieve those personal bests it made me feel even better. There was a lot of support out there and it really helped especially as the leaderboard kept changing all the time!”
Upon her return from Tenerife, Niamh made a big impression at the British Athletics Championships in Birmingham where she came third in the high jump with 1.82m. Last summer, she came 13th at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Columbia with a personal best of 5,384 points and won a gold medal in the high jump at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa. She feels the experience she is gaining from being on the bigger stages, especially internationally and at senior level in England, will stand her in good stead.
“The Worlds [Columbia] and Commonwealths [Samoa] were both completely different to anything I’d ever done – they helped take me out of my comfort zone,” said Niamh. “You’re part of a team but you’re in a new country and it’s those types of competitions which help to set you up. There were lots of people around and a bigger crowd at the Europeans [Georgia]. It makes you perform better, especially in the field events. For the high jump, it helps to spur you on because of the atmosphere and having people cheering you on.”
Niamh is a member of Amber Valley and Erewash Athletics Club where she is coached by Scottish international decathlete David Feeney. She has trained at Amber Valley since she was a child and credits the club for giving her opportunity to try out different events when she had initially been an 800m runner. Juggling a busy training schedule - where she has to make time for all the different disciplines - is a challenge for Niamh who has just completed her first year of sixth form at Belper School.
“It’s quite hard as I’m still at school so I have to train after my studies,” said Niamh. “It’s time consuming as you have to do every event at least once a week. I try to spread it out so one day I’ll do javelin and then another I’ll do hurdles and long jump so I can double up as well. My training changes all the time as we swap things round to make sure we squeeze things in. If I have a bad session I don’t have too much time to dwell on it so I just move onto the next event. It works out better that way as it doesn’t allow me to overthink it.”
The Commonwealth Games take place on the Gold Coast in 2018 and Niamh sees this as a ‘reachable’ goal based on her current trajectory. She praises her parents Michael and Deana for their support, both travelling far and wide to watch her compete, and has also felt the benefit of the help provided by SportsAid this year. Niamh often trains in Loughborough, around 35 minutes drive from her home, and her trips away mean overnight stays can be a regular occurrence. The SportsAid award she received has helped cover certain costs.
“You can’t underestimate the support of your parents,” said Niamh. “They take me to and from training, sort my food before I go, and they’ve followed me to every competition from when I started as a nine year old to now. When I went to the Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa they came out and got a mini holiday out of it! SportsAid’s support has been a massive help too from the financial side of things. But it’s also inspiring because people are investing time and money in you and it encourages you to keep training hard.”
What will you do to #SupportTheNext generation of British sporting heroes? SportsAid needs your help to ensure talented athletes like Niamh can continue receiving the support they rely on. To donate, please text ‘NEXT01 £5’, ‘NEXT01 £10’ or as much as you can give to 70070.