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Keely Hodgkinson interview: ‘I was very lucky with tumour operation, I could have had a very different life’

·3-min read
 (Getty Images for European Athletics)
(Getty Images for European Athletics)

The Olympic Games postponement might have caused chaos and cost Japan in the region of hundreds of millions of pounds to rearrange, but Keely Hodgkinson is a grateful recipient.

Tokyo 2020 was not even on Hodgkinson’s radar but the shift to 2021 changed all that, the 19-year-old announcing herself on the world stage with a speed and maturity to get excited about.

Still only a teenager, it would perhaps be wrong to expect too much of her; but so prodigious is her talent that she is being talked about as a candidate for Britain’s first middle-distance Olympic medal since Kelly Holmes in 2004 in a discipline that Britain once dominated.

In contrast to Holmes, who proved a late bloomer – that golden double coming at the age of 34 – Hodgkinson has exploded onto the scene at 19.

There was the manner in which she led the field round for the second half of her 800metres at the European Indoor Championships to become Britain’s youngest ever champion in the history of the championships.

And even more impressive was the speed she showed in the home straight of the British Championships to leave Laura Muir trailing and Jemma Reekie not quite able to match her for pace.

“It’s been a fun few months of the year,” she says, almost not quite realising the magnitude of her achievements. “Hopefully I can take that into the Games.”

The Olympics is an entirely different stage: the size of the event; the athlete village; the rounds to come through which require not just speed but tactics, guile and the occasional use of strong elbows.

But already she seems to have shown an aptitude for all of that. And it is then perhaps surprising that Michael Jordan is her sporting idol: “I loved his mentality but also he was 100 per cent willing to train as hard as it took, and I really respect that graft.”

There is a breeziness to the way she both talks and walks, although that hasn’t always been the case. She was a swimmer first before turning to the track, and that in turn looked in danger of being cut short after having a tumour found behind her left ear.

While not cancerous, it needed to be cut out, a delicate operation that could have easily had devastating consequences for her. In time, she recovered, the only hangover from it is that she has just five per cent of hearing in the ear in question.

“I was very lucky that the operation was successful as I could have had a very different life,” she said. “But there’s just the deafness and there’s nothing I could do about it. It’s got a bit trickier with the pandemic and people wearing masks so I can’t understand people sometimes.”

And yet she is fully tuned in to the bang of the starters’ gun, poised to hopefully continue her break-out season in Tokyo under the tutelage of her coaches, husband and wife team Trevor Painter and Jenny Meadows.

Meadows knows the two laps of the track inside-out while Painter guided Meadows throughout her career. Do they try to keep her grounded or allow her to shoot for the stars?

“It’s funny but probably a bit of both,” she said. “They keep my feet on the ground as nothing happens unless you train hard. But they give me the self-belief to target anything on the track and to enjoy the pressure – without pressure, there are no diamonds.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier trio than Hodgkinson, Muir and Reekie, and there is an amicability between them all which will likely shift - between Hodgkinson and Reekie at least - with both going in the 800m.

“It’s great to have them on the team but there’s going to be a slight rivalry so we all stick to what we do,” she said. “My first aim is to make that final successful and then anything can happen. A year ago this wasn’t possible so it would be absolutely crazy to be an Olympic medallist.”

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