Inspired Croydon Harrier Safo latest to join the golden greats

IAN LAMONT catches up with two high-flying athletes who, inspired by the London Olympics, won medals at the weekend’s European junior championships

Inspired by the Olympics? The record haul of 19 medals won by British juniors at last weekend at the European junior athletics championships in Rieti certainly suggests so, as these youngsters promise to be a new golden generation – all will have been no more than 12 years old when London was awarded 2012 Olympics in 2005.

Getting a jump on Europe: Croydon Harrier Elliot Safo

Getting a jump on Europe: Croydon Harrier Elliot Safo

Long jumper Elliot Safo, of Croydon Harriers, was Britain’s third gold medallist, helping to set the tone for Saturday’s nine-strong medal rush. On Sunday, Jacob Paul, who has just completed his A levels at Wilson’s School in Sutton, won the bronze medal in the 400 metres hurdles.

The European juniors has long been a testing ground of up-coming British talent. From the likes of Steve Ovett and Seb Coe in the 1970s, through Steve Backley and Roger Black in the 1980s, to Adam Gemeli, Christine Ohuruogu and Croydon’s own Natasha Danvers and Martyn Rooney, all have had one of their first tastes of international competition at the European juniors.

All three of Britain’s Olympic athletics gold medal-winners in London – Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Jess Ennis – had won European junior titles in their teens.

Regulars training at Sutton Arena may not be aware of such greatness in their midst, but Safo and Paul both train there under their different coaches.

In Italy, Safo had to battle for a victory that he felt, all season, had been within his grasp and has positioned him as the sixth-best long jumper in Britain this season.

He led for the first four rounds, including extending his personal best to 7.82 metres, before Belgium’s Mathias Broothaerts overtook him by two centimetres. Silver for Safo was not the plan, and the 19-year-old former Trinity School pupil extended his best to 7.86m to clinch the title, equalling the performance from eight years ago of Rutherford.

“I came here for the win, and a PB came with that, so I’m really happy,” Safo said. “I’ve had quite a few run-up problems in the past, and my run-up wasn’t perfect.

“Basically my run-up was too short, so I had to chop my stride to actually hit the board. The other guys were all jumping really well, and the Belgian had one round to go after I jumped 7.86m, so I was a little worried that he’d jump further – it was an anxious wait.

“I knew I had a 7.80m in me, but I didn’t know how much further, so to jump 7.86m is pretty good.

“The gold medal feels so good. This was my main aim for the season, so to actually come away with the win makes me so happy, shocked, but happy.”

European junior medal-winner Jacob Paul

European junior medal-winner Jacob Paul

John Shepherd-coached Safo left Trinity last year and is possibly heading for Harvard, in the hope of improving athletic prowess which has seen him compete at the world youth championships last year. His next aim will be to graduate in his athletics to join national record-holders Rutherford and Chris Tomlinson in the British senior team at future international championships.

Paul, meanwhile, had some Russian trouble – something he should be used to, given his coach Marina Armstrong is from that region of the world – earning bronze behind two of the finest one-lap hurdlers to have emerged from Russia.

“I came in ranked third behind the two world-leading Russians,” the 18-year-old said. “But there was a big gap of almost two seconds, so I knew coming into it that it was going to be a fight for the bronze medal as there was a few of us closely ranked in the 51sec region.

“I watched the two Russians in the semis where they ran 50.12 and 50.66, so I knew if I was going to be in contention I’d have to go out a lot harder and hope to finish the same as I did, but maybe the rounds took it out of me.

“Three 400m hurdles races in three days is tough – they call the event the man-killer, so it’s pretty intense,” Paul said, but he had no need to reach for excuses. His three runs in Reiti were the three quickest of his life. After breaking 51sec for the first time with 50.71 in his “comfortable” heat, he ran 51.13 for his semi-final and then 50.71 in the final.

“To come out here and run big PBs means I really can’t complain,” said Paul, who is now nationally ranked 10th in one of Britain’s best in-depth events. “I’ve done the best I can do, and I’ve come out with a bronze medal, which I came here to do.”

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