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Interview: Jeremiah Azu, sprinter

08 July 2022

‘Once you’re in the mix, nothing ever goes to script’

Huw Talfryn Walters

Athletics was more about enjoyment for me. I did play football at a fairly high level, but it was athletics that won over. Obviously, I was very good, but I also genuinely loved it. I felt free when I was running.

When I went to Llanishen High, my PE teacher was constantly on about it. And then my coach, Helen James, spotted me in 2017 when I was about 16, and that was it.

I’m in uni at the moment. I’m just finishing my first year at Cardiff Met, studying sports conditioning, rehabilitation, and massage.

I enjoy the practical side of the course most, because that’s how I learn best: by doing something. You need to told things to apply them, of course, but it’s by doing something I get the best feedback and learn it properly. My training group are all on the course with the other students. My coach, Helen, gives us a training plan every week. I do the training sessions, and then have lectures straight after, then go home. It’s nice to train and work at the same facility.

I train three or four hours a day, and that’s every day apart from Tuesday and Sunday. That’s time on the track, in the gym, and I have physio. In winter months, I just take one day off, which is always Sunday.

I’ve just come back from the British Championships in Manchester, where I was running with the top 30 or 40 sprinters in the UK. I was able to win it.

It was an emotional rollercoaster, to be honest. I’ve wanted this for so long, and it still doesn’t feel real. It’s been my goal for the last year, and I had flashbacks of all the times at training when things hadn’t gone so well.

Now we’ve got the World Championships. We leave on Sunday, and I’ve been selected to be part of the relay team right at the end of the championships, with the best four from each country. It’s a lot more fun, because normally I’m running against these other Brits, which is still a good environment, but it’s a lot more fun and nicer and gives you a better memory when you’ve won a gold medal with team mates.

It’s a big year. I’ve got the Commonwealth Games, which I’ve never done before. I’m looking forward to representing Team Wales. It’s a big milestone. It’s a multi-sport event; so the atmosphere will be electric, I’m sure. I can’t wait. It’s straight after the World Championships (and fingers crossed I get selected); so it’s a quick turnaround to adjust to the UK time zone. The Commonwealth Games is almost a similar level to the World Championships, so a lot of good competition; and it’s a springboard for me on to the senior team.

I’m only 21; so I hope I’ll have at least another ten years in this career; but, yes, I’ll definitely want to go on to do something working with athletes. When you’re at the top, it’s quite lonely. I could understand them. No one really understands unless they’ve been through it, and I’d love to help the next generation get through these tough times, and experience it all again through them.

In the 2019 European Championships, I was number one for my age group — under-20s — and I pulled my hamstring when I was leading the race. I had just 40 metres to go. That was a serious injury. Then the season ended, and then the pandemic hit. I went from flying to sitting in my house, not doing anything.

I kept asking God why, but, in all that time, the questioning drew me closer to him, and I learned that there’s always purpose in suffering. In 2021, I went back to the under-23s team and won the 100 metres. It was a rollercoaster with that injury — it was big, life-changing — but I can stand here and say I’m better off for it.

Back in the March British Championships, I was on course to win gold, but I came out third. I suppose it’s about managing the expectations: I got to the semi-final, but once I made the final, I lost focus, maybe. Dealing with that was hard, and I wasn’t selected for the World Indoor Championships. That was pretty difficult to take. I’d had that on my mind for so long, got there — and it was taken away. But maybe it wasn’t the right time. I came to the Outdoor Championships and won, and they’re more important; so . . .

Once you’re in the mix, nothing ever goes to script, and there’s so much more to life than athletics; so I can’t be too caught up in it. No matter how much I want to win, God is at the forefront.

In terms of mental health, it’s a balance of knowing I’ve put the work in, and knowing that God’s plan for me is the priority.

I sing in church. There are eight of us: three singers, a drummer, two guitarists, and a keyboard player. We sing a mixture of traditional praise and African worship songs, and mix it in with British, American, and European songs. I’ve sung for as long as I can remember. I also feel free when I sing: it’s a similar feeling to when I am running. When I’m singing, I feel like I am having a really big one-to-one connection with God.

I see my girlfriend a lot — she’s a hairdresser — when I’m not working, and I also love to cook. My family’s originally from Ghana; so I like to learn Ghanaian dishes from my Mum. My favourite’s probably rice balls and a soup with peanut butter, like a katsu, but the flavour is richer.

I do watch my weight, but it’s more about what I eat. I’ve kept the same weight for the last year. I try to not over-complicate my diet, and don’t take extra protein, but I discipline myself and eat more fruit and veg than the average person. I have a cheat day on Saturdays and eat whatever I want.

I’d like to travel. I get to go to lots of places for competitions and training, but I never get to explore. You get off the flight, head to the hotel, go to your training or competition venue, and come home.

It doesn’t necessarily make me angry, but I find it frustrating when people make excuses.

Spending time with my family makes me happy. It’s the little things, like being at home and playing games. I’m based in Cardiff. My older brother’s moved out, but I still live with my younger brother, my sister, my uncle, and my parents. It’s hard when I go away: I’m used to being around them all the time. I missed my brother’s birthday in America, which was difficult.

I train with my little brother. He’s pretty new to it all still, but, once he gets a few years of training, he’ll be as good as me, if not better.

I think, in recent years, the world is leaning towards a more positive trajectory. There will always be negativity, but the world seems a much more positive place.

I pray most that God’s will is done in my life.

If I could be locked in a church with anyone, I’d like to speak to the prophet Jeremiah. I obviously have his name, but there’s a lot of stuff in that book that relates to me; so I’d find that really interesting. He used to reveal the wrongs that people were doing. Or Marcus Rashford: what he’s done with his platform changed so many people’s lives. Athletics isn’t as big a platform as football, but if I was even able to do ten per cent of what he’s done, it would be huge for me.

Jeremiah Azu was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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