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European Under 23 Championships preview

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Craig and Jess
Craig Pickering and Jessica Ennis at European Athletics U23 Press Conference in Debrecen

The ‘failures’ of 2004 were today hailed as the inspirations of the Norwich Union Great Britain and Northern Ireland team settling into the hot and humid Hungarian city of Debrecen for the European Under 23 Championships, which start on Thursday 12 July and go on until Sunday.


GB Juniors returned home empty-handed from the 2004 IAAF World Junior Championships in Grosseto, Italy – the first time this had happened in the 11 editions of the competition.


Craig Pickering (Marshall Milton Keynes AC) was in the 4x100m team that was disqualified. Now he heads the European Under 23 rankings with his winning time of 10.15 seconds against older and more experienced athletes at the European Cup Super League in Munich on 23 June. Completing a GB 1-2-3 at the top of the rankings are Rikki Fifton (Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets AC), who was sixth in the Grosseto 200m final; and Simeon Williamson (Highgate Harriers), who was second behind Pickering in the 100m at the 2005 European Junior Championships and has a burning desire for revenge this time. While Fifton will concentrate on the 200m and 4x100m in Debrecen, GB’s third man in the 100m is Ryan Scott (Yate and District), who reached the European Indoors 60m final in the winter.


Steve Lewis (Newham and Essex Beagles) was ninth in the Grosseto pole vault, clearing 5.00 metres. Now he is the UK No.1 senior with a best of 5.60m and was in last month’s GB senior European Cup team – as was long jumper Chris Kirk (City of Sheffield AC), who placed 10th in Grosseto.


Laura Finucane (Pendle AC), seventh in the Grosseto 800m final after a painful fall in her semi-final, is in with a medal shout in Debrecen along with her Loughborough University colleagues Charlotte Best (Crawley AC) in the 800m and Abby Westley (Hallamshire Harriers Sheffield) in the 1500m.


Jessica Ennis (City of Sheffield AC) was eighth in the heptathlon in Grosseto with a personal best of 5542 points. She went on to win the European Junior title in 2005 and the Commonwealth Games bronze medal in 2006. And she flew into Debrecen from Szczecin in Poland, having spent the weekend compiling her second UK Under 23 record of the summer, 6399, to lead GB’s senior women to their first ever victory in the European Cup Combined Events Super League.


“Grosseto! I’d forgotten about that,” she smiled today as she prepared to contest the 100m hurdles at the weekend and, providing her legs have recovered from the seven events in Poland, the high jump on Thursday. “We were tagged ‘failures’ but it was just a step on the way.”


Her coach Toni Minichiello, chair of the UK Athletics Combined Events Management Group, said: “I think a lot of people wrote-off the team en bloc when they came home without medals. But most of the athletes thankfully kept faith in their own ability; indeed, the experience strengthened their determination to succeed. And they have responded to the loyalty of their coaches and the help that UKA has given them.


“Like fine wine, it takes time to mature a good athlete. Sometimes we err by trying to rush our youngsters. All of the age group championships are part of the learning process towards Olympics and World Championships.”


Ennis has already learnt that the weekend’s heptathlon took too much out of her legs for her to double-up in the high jump as well as the hurdles in Debrecen. It would have meant her competing in high jump qualifying rounds on Thursday morning, hurdles first round and semi-finals on Friday, and then have barely 90 minutes between the two finals on Sunday.


She and Pickering, who is coached at the University of Bath by Malcolm Arnold at the specific request of UK Athletics Performance Director Dave Collins, have been named the Team Captains by Team Leader Steve Rippon, UKA Senior Performance Coach for the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside and the North East.


Rippon explained: “Craig and Jess are inspirational examples to not only the team here in Hungary but to the thousands of slightly younger athletes following them on the exciting road towards London 2012. Their successes are glowing proof of what hard work, natural ability, dedicated coaches and sensible assistance can achieve.


“Their ‘can do’ attitude is recognisable in many more athletes. There’s a zoological garden next door to the track here in Debrecen and we have brought some hungry young lions to the party.”


Among other members of the team optimistic of doing well, David Greene (Swansea Harriers) and Ben Carne (Harrow AC) head the 400m hurdles rankings here, Ross Toole (Kilbarchan AAC) heads for his international debut ranked fourth in the 1500m, Adam Scarr (Enfield and Haringey) is equal fifth in the high jump lists, and Laura Kenney (Royal Sutton Coldfield AC) and Susie Hignett (Bournemouth AC) are in the top eight of the 5000m.