Identifying and developing potential talent is core to what Athletics New Zealand and Robert Walters both do. That’s why Robert Walters is sponsoring the Performance Potential Squad (PPS), which prepares young athletes for future success. In this interview, 21-year-old 800-metre runner James Preston reflects on the importance of setting small targets to achieve big success.
1. At Robert Walters, we continually look for people’s potential to perform at a high level. Who discovered your potential to be a top middle-distance runner?
Back in 2015, I was a hockey player primarily but I also competed at running with minimal specific training. A new coach took on our athletics group and saw me achieving good results without a whole lot of specific work. He told me he thought I had the potential [to achieve greater things] and that was the big turning point for me.
2. You’re now part of Athletics NZ’s PPS programme, of which Robert Walters is a sponsor. The PPS encourages athletes to aim high. What is your ambition?
The dream is to be one of the best in the world and win a major world or Olympic medal. But focusing too much on that result-based goal isn’t really where I want to be. My goal is to have a long and successful career in the sport so that when I retire I’ll know I’ve done everything I could to succeed.
3. How do you work towards achieving that?
We’ve got a 10-year plan that was identified through testing with Athletics New Zealand, looking at things like maximum speed, fitness tests, and how fast you can sprint etc. Through that we identified that it would be best for me to start with 800-metre distances and then slowly move up to the 1,500 metres. We structured it and modelled it based on current top 1,500-metre runners.
4. You’re using the word ‘we’ a lot there which is interesting because, when you’re on the starting line, you’re on your own against the other runners. Presumably, the ‘we’ you’re referring to is the team of people around you?
That’s right. I have a pretty big team that’s developed over time and a large proportion of that has come through the PPS. It’s given me opportunities to work with a strength conditioning coach and my physio, for example. These guys only really work with athletes in the high-performing bracket. Knowing that you’ve got this large team of people at the top of their field supporting you to achieve a shared, common goal makes you feel like you’re not alone.
My goal is to have a long and successful career in the sport so that when I retire I’ll know I’ve done everything I could to succeed.
5. What has been your biggest setback to date, and what did you learn from it?
Injuries have been my biggest challenge but also my biggest achievement to date. In 2016 I went to the IAAF World Under 20 Championships in Poland and did pretty well. [Editor’s Note: This is a huge understatement – James smashed the NZ junior 800m record at the event!]. But when I returned home I got a stress fracture in my left foot which basically wrote off all of 2017. I spent about 22 weeks unable to run at all.
With the help of my coach, a physio and other specialists, I came back from that to where I am today. Now I know that, if I can get through that previous injury, then I can get through any other challenge. They don’t come any harder than long-term injuries.
6. What’s your next target?
To put myself in the best possible position to qualify for the World Championships later in the year. It’s a pretty ambitious goal but definitely achievable if we go about everything the right way.
Robert Walters helps NZ athletics achieve their potential, find out more about our sponsorship.
Our athletes all have their own story to tell, read their stories here.