Jake Wightman (coach: Geoff Wightman; club: Edinburgh) became Great Britain & Northern Ireland’s latest global champion – and first in the men’s 1500m for nearly 40 years – in sensational style on day five of the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, running the absolute perfect race in the final for the greatest moment of his career.
Wightman was in contention throughout the entire 1500m final and, when he executed his move around the back straight and with 200 metres to go, he was untouchable, clocking a huge personal best and world lead of 3:29.23 minutes to double the British team’s medal tally after Laura Muir’s (Andy Young; Dundee Hawkhill) 1500m bronze 24 hours before. Teammate Josh Kerr (Danny Mackey; Edinburgh) meanwhile was a valiant fifth in 3:30.60.
The 28-year-old’s gold is one of British athletics’ greatest moments since Dina Asher-Smith’s (John Blackie; Blackheath & Bromley) own 200m title in 2019 – and she blasted her way into another half lap final as the fourth fastest overall with a season’s best 21.96 seconds. The chance to defend her World Championship crown now coming on Friday in Oregon.
Jessie Knight (Marina Armstrong; WSEH) was the other British qualifier as just one session was scheduled on day five, making her first major championship semi-final with a solid if not conservative run of 55.48 in the women’s 400m hurdles heats. However the day belonged to the truly impressive Wightman.
With a clear plan in mind, Wightman positioned himself in the front five for the first half of the race and looked extremely comfortable in doing so. He was very well placed in that group of five at the bell and would soon hit the front and never let it go.
He moved on Norwegian leader Jakob Ingebrigtsen on the back straight and then with 200 metres to go powered clear to the front. No one could, and would, catch him as Wightman lit up the home straight to clock a huge personal best and world lead 3:29.23 for gold.
Not since 1983 has a Briton won World Championship gold in the men’s 1500m but that is history now and Wightman, who was presented with his gold medal by Lord Sebastian Coe, admitted he has never doubted his ability to achieve this feat.
He said: “It probably won’t sink in until I have retired I don’t think. It’s mad. I had such a disappointing year in Tokyo last year. I don’t think people realise how crushing it was to go in with such high expectations and come away hoping for a medal but end up tenth.
“I just knew coming here I had to take the pressure off and the only thing that could happen was that it was a better run than last year. I got a whiff of it on the last lap. I knew if I was there with 200m to go I could put myself in a position to win it and I was running for my life on that home straight.
“What’s the point starting a race and not putting yourself in a position not to win it? The opportunity was there. Jakob is so good I knew at some point he was going to come past so I gave it a go and the closer I got to the line the more likely I felt that wasn’t going to happen.
“I have given up so much to get to this point and it makes everything worth it. I learnt last year that the rounds were a lot of more tactical than you thought so I tried to be under the radar going through. I never gave up in my confidence to get to this point. I am so glad that I have been able to do what I have dreamed of since I was a kid.”
Wightman was joined in the final by fellow Brit and clubmate Kerr, who held back behind that pack of five for the first 800m. He would then make progress and was well positioned at the bell.
It wasn’t to be for the Olympic bronze medallist however as Wightman proved too good for all, Kerr’s time of 3:30.60 still a season’s best and good enough for fifth among a highly competitive field and he was full of admiration for his teammate.
He said: “It was very exciting to watch and very fun to race in. I pushed myself to the limits and that was the result. Obviously I’m disappointed to not come away with a medal but Jake Wightman is a true champion and I’m really proud of what he achieved today.
“It was world record pace for the first 400m and you’ve got to settle in and make good decisions. I think I made those sorts of decisions but maybe I wasn’t fit enough to run and go win it from the front. But I can’t be disappointed with that because I gave everything I had today.
“You can see why Wightman won the British Champs this year. He’s a stray dog in the dog fight out there, and he was able to come out on top. I knew Wightman was good enough to medal last year, and I know he’s be determined to get it at this one, so it’s awesome for him. That was the run of his life. Even though I didn’t come away with the medal, the title went to my team, my country, my city and my club.”
Asher-Smith powered out the blocks in the second of the three women’s 200m semi-finals and with 50 metres to go was in a line with Jamaican Elaine Thompson-Herah and American home hope Tamara Clark.
The defending world champion over the distance pushed through to the line and was made to wait alongside Thompson-Herah and Clark to see who had officially crossed in first, second and third.
Further inspection showed Asher-Smith had little to worry about as a dip at the line secured her second behind Clark in a season’s best 21.96 – one of five who qualified to have done so by ducking below 22 seconds.
Asher-Smith was fourth overall with another Jamaican Shericka Jackson fastest in 21.67 and the Brit, who was an agonising fourth in the 100m, said: “I am really happy with that. I knew that each of these three semi-finals, the field is so wide open and the quality is so high.
“We knew that we had to run this very well so I was really happy to get second. I didn’t actually know if I came first or third so I was just waiting. We come here sharp because it is the World Championships, we are always ready to go and that is just part of the job – navigating your way through the rounds and making it into the final.
“That is also part of the skill. I’m happy that we’ve got a day’s break so I can rest, recuperate, focus and get ready to go again, just a bit faster.”
Team captain Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake (Ryan Freckleton; Newham & Essex Beagles) and World Championship debutant Joe Ferguson (Lewis Samuel; Leeds City) couldn’t follow Asher-Smith’s lead in the men’s 200m semi-finals.
UK champion Mitchell-Blake was the first to go in the first of three semi-finals and was in the lead after the bend. However, he couldn’t maintain that over the last 80 metres, finishing fourth in that first semi-final in 20.30 to miss out on the final.
He said: “I’ve got to watch it back. I feel like I executed my turn a lot better than the heats. On the straight I may have tightened up but regardless it wasn’t enough on the day. I’ve got an opportunity to redeem myself as part of the relay quartet and get that fire back for the rest of the season.
“Championships are gruelling. I can’t complain about the race load because some people have doubled. But it’s nice to be in an environment again where I’m competing with the best and I feel like my best is yet to come.”
Ferguson meanwhile had to battle with defending champion and American home hope Noah Lyles in the second semi-final and clocked 20.52 for seventh. He said: “I just tried to hang with those guys and obviously those guys are running 19.6-19.8 pace, so it’s hard to hang on.
“So I just found myself being really burned out because I kept trying to go with them and they continued to move away and it made me stop running my own race which is a technical mistake.
But I’m glad I was in the race with guys that quick because it makes you learn and obviously it’s a big step up from the heats and that’s probably a bit of execution which cost me that time from the heats.
“It’s just more experience which is what I wanted, more of that high-level experience and at least I’m making these kind of mistakes now at my first one. It gives me a chance to go away and learn so when I am ready to step up to that level hopefully I’ll be experienced enough to handle it.”
Knight exercised her major championship demons as the first British athlete in action on day five in Oregon. The 28-year-old suffered heartache on her Olympic debut in Tokyo, stumbling into the first hurdle in the heats and ending her race there.
However, after a strong season so far, history was never going to repeat itself as she cruised around the track at Hayward Field and picked off Italian Rebecca Sartori in the home straight to secure an automatic qualifying spot with fourth in the third of five heats in 55.48.
She was not to be joined in the semi-finals by teammate Lina Nielsen (Shaftesbury Barnet) however as illness in the build up to her world debut prevented her running to her potential, clocking 57.42 for eighth in the next heat.
Knight herself is making her World Championship debut in Eugene and said: “It’s very different to last time [the Olympics]. I made it round. I’m so relieved. I must admit I played it safe, I think it was nagging in my mind and the minute I got over hurdle one I think I smiled. Hopefully tomorrow I can just race.
“Every so often it [the Olympics] would come back, but then I would be like no – don’t be ridiculous you’ve done five Diamond Leagues this year. I think last year it was my first major championships so we were a bit more outcome focussed ‘just get through to the semi’, whereas now it was like ‘go powerful into 1’, and I had a race plan.
“So for every hurdle I wasn’t thinking about trying to qualify apart from the home straight when I had a little glance and felt like I had done it and didn’t have to panic. Obviously tomorrow there will be everyone there but I felt good. Just pure relief to get it out the way.”
Great Britain and Northern Ireland Medal tally:
Gold: Jake Wightman– 1500m
Bronze: Laura Muir – 1500m