Underdog Kinlock now has his eyes on Olympic prizes

Croydon has produced another champion sprinter. ANDREW SINCLAIR caught up with Derek Kinlock to discover how the Thornton Heath teenager overcame covid and other barriers (literally) to become a European Junior gold medallist

In good company: Derek Kinlock joined some of the biggest names in British sprinting when he won the European Junior 200m in Tallinn

“It was just fun, man,”  Derek Kinlock said on answering the phone to Inside Croydon’s call last week.

“It was fun.

“It was a blessing to go out there and race other countries from Europe. It was the fastest in Europe – it is amazing being in that environment. Coming back to the UK, I feel I’ve gained so much experience.”

Yet because of covid, the finest moment yet in Derek Kinlock’s young sprinting career almost never happened.

Thornton Heath teenager Kinlock is the latest sprinter off the British, indeed Croydon Harriers’, production line.

Last month in Tallinn, when still days short of his 19th birthday, Kinlock followed in the spike marks of great Britons Mike Macfarlane, Darren Campbell and Christian Malcolm in becoming the European Junior champion at 200metres. All three of those predecessors went on to enjoy stellar track careers, winning Commonwealth, European and even Olympic gold medals.

When he arrived in Estonia, Kinlock was ranked only 20th among European under-20 sprinters at the distance, an unlikely contender for gold.

That outlook barely changed after he scraped into the Tallinn semi-finals, running a lifetime best just to finish third in his heat.

Derek Kinlock: underdog

But Kinlock’s best had yet to come. He’d just endured the best part of two summers under pandemic lockdown conditions, growing and developing from a 16-year-old to his late teens without the kind of training and hard racing which might have brought his times down.

In Tallinn’s Kadriorg Stadium, that all changed. In the semi-final, despite running into a slight headwind, Kinlock clocked 20.97sec, the first time he had ever run sub-21 seconds to go through to the final as the quickest overall.

And come that final, he found a little bit more to outlast the cream of European’s teenaged sprinters and claim gold in 20.72.

Being ranked 20th going into the championships, “didn’t affect me”, says Kinlock, a former pupil at Thomas More School in Purley.

“I liked that I was the underdog. No one really expected much of me, so I feel like that took a lot of pressure off.

“Most of the people that had run faster times had done it in good conditions. I knew that I didn’t have conditions on my side in the UK, but I’d still been running close to my PB into headwinds, in cold weather.

“I knew that when I got the right conditions, I would run a PB. I wasn’t really expecting to go that much faster than my PB, but I always tell myself that anything can happen and that I just need to run my own race and focus on myself. That came into clutch at these championships.”

And he could have been quicker still. “Seeing that I ran a 20.72, I’m thinking that if I had dipped it might have been a 20.6.

Christian Malcolm: the former European Junior champion wore specs off the track

“Same as if I’d maintained my form better. As I was running down the home straight, my arms were swinging, my arm sleeve fell off, or nearly fell off as it came all the way down to my hand.

“I really feel like I can take more off my time. I don’t know if that’ll be this season. I’m not going to rush anything, I’m just happy that I’ve PB’d this season.”

There’s something else that Kinlock has in common with his predecessor as European Junior 200m champion, Malcolm, the winner of the same title in 1997 who is now British Athletics’ head coach. They are both bespectacled sprinters.

Kinlock’s glasses remain on whenever he settles into his starting blocks, but not as some kind of fashion statement; they’re there to alleviate his poor eyesight.

“They’re reading glasses, they help with my vision. There was a time where I tried running without glasses and it went awfully. I didn’t run out of my lane or anything but I just ran a bad time. I thought ‘Yeah, I’m never going to run without glasses again.’

“I have tried contact lenses but I like wearing my glasses. I feel like it’s a unique thing about me. You hardly see anyone running with glasses.”

Kinlock’s generation of athletes have had to deal with circumstances never before encountered because of the coronavirus pandemic, and covid almost ruled him out of competing in Estonia altogether.

“We went out about four days in advance for my heat and then it happened literally as soon as I got to Estonia. My roommate got covid. I was potentially not going to get the chance to run, because they told me I’d have to quarantine.

“I was really panicking, I was gutted. In the end it all worked out, I got my negative covid test and it was decided I could still run. I was getting tested more or less every single day.

“Hearing that I could run gave me the boost I needed. It was like it was meant to be. I thought to myself  ‘let me go out there and run quick, let me execute my game plan’.”

Flag-bearer: Kinlock says there’s more to come after Tallinn gold

Covid had already curtailed Kinlock’s training for the championships. A year-long shut-down of the council-owned track and Croydon Harriers HQ had forced Kinlock and other athletes to find alternative training locations.

“Because Croydon Arena was closed, I had to train in the park. Running at the park, dogs were running after me thinking I wanted to play with them!

“I also had to go to other tracks. I wasn’t meant to really, I wasn’t allowed to – I was jumping fences if I’m being honest.”

With the Arena recently reopened, Kinlock is looking forward to getting back to his normal training, with the help of coach Paul Weston.

“I have a very good relationship with Paul. I’ve been with him for about four seasons now, so he really knows me very well. We have a very good and strong bond. He knows my strengths, my weaknesses and he’s like a father figure to me. He inspires me to pressure myself, to train hard.

“It all started in Year 9. I won Sports Day and I beat all the teachers. There was a teacher who had run a 11.7 100 in the past, so all my friends said ‘Wow, you just beat this teacher’. Other teachers came to me and said that I should train at Croydon Harriers.

“I decided to join a year later. I was doing GCSE PE and that required you to partake in a sport, so I said I might as well go and do athletics, because that’s what I liked doing.”

Back then, it all began quite modestly, with 15-year-old Kinlock running 22.9sec at the Arena to win a non-scoring race in the Southern League Div 2E, and managing 3.84metres in the long jump for his new club later in the summer. “I like the club and I like the environment. It feels like a family,” Kinlock says.

With a first international title, Kinlock is allowing himself to look ahead to bigger and better stages in the future. “I’m going to take it step-by-step and just hope that I don’t get injured. I want to keep on improving at the rate I’m improving, being the best that I can be.

“I’m really targeting the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year – that could be massive for me. After that, maybe, the Paris Olympics. I’ll just have to see how it goes.”

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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