BIRMINGHAM, England — Few athletes truly know what Jake Wightman’s life has really been like these past two weeks. The newly crowned world 1,500 meter champion has had to deal with his new-found pressure, and so he was soon given the phone number of Christine Ohuruogu, the former Olympic and Commonwealth 400m champion, who passed on her knowledge and experiences. “You go from the hunter to the hunted,” she told him.
It wasn’t just his life on the track that seemed to change overnight. He was sitting outside a coffee shop recently, fresh from returning home from being crowned men’s 1,500m World Champion, when a lady stopped in her tracks. “Are you the guy who won that race?” she asked. When he said that yes, in fact it was him, who claimed one of the most shocking gold medal victories in British athletics history, she was glad to hear it: “Awww, well done you.”
She was one of 15 or so people who stopped to say the same thing. They all heard the story of how the stadium announcer on the night, Geoff Wightman, is also his father and coach. They saw the videos of Geoff staying stunningly composed as he commented to the crowd what was unfolding before them: That his son, the 10th place finisher at Tokyo 2020, made a final dart to the finish with 200m remaining to win his first major title. Wightman went viral, while the story made international news.
And so, life for Wightman changed — temporarily, at least. People now stop in the street, or congratulate him at their local athletics track, or ask for his autograph at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, for which he became a last-minute poster boy. That last bit played on his mind.
His assignment over the past two weeks to handle all of that pressure, channel it and try to become the first athlete to hold the World and Commonwealth 1,500m titles at the same time. It hasn’t been easy. At first, he seemed to shy away, saying he dreaded the mental task it would take to compete again in the event, instead wanting to do the 800m. He wanted to celebrate his title. His mum, Susan, said he should do the 1,500m so that all her friends could watch him run.
It didn’t take long to change his perspective and set his sights on adding another 1,500m title, saying before the Games: “The motivation I have is: ‘How much better can I make this summer?’ This is potentially a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
But on Saturday at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, the prophecy that Ohuruogu foretold came true.
The men’s 1,500 Commonwealth Games final began similar to that in Eugene last month. His dad, Geoff, was the stadium announcer again — although this time he introduced him as world champion — and most of last month’s strongest runners were in the field, too.
Wightman remained in the pack, sitting in fifth for much of the race before making his move with 250m to go. His legs turned up a gear, moving faster and stepping harder as Wightman quickly moved into the lead. That was when the chasing happened, when Wightman found out what it meant to have a target on his back. Entering the final 100m, the Scotland runner was reeled in, first by Kenya’s Timothy Cheruiyot, and then by Australia’s Oliver Hoare, who eventually claimed gold.
By the time Wightman reached the finish line, he was left in bronze. It was an accomplishment he still took pride in, even if he was not delighted. There were a pack of reporters waiting to speak to Wightman afterwards – more than usual – and he laid it all bare.
“I went from not wanting to do the 1,500m because I just couldn’t face doing it again to being ready to do it and wanting to win it. I could have easily come away from that race with nothing… I got a bronze which is a relief given the shape I’m in,” he said.
“I’d hate to be in the 800m or not running at all and watching that 1,500m [from the sidelines] thinking I’d love to be in it for a shot at winning. I put it on the line, I made myself in a position where I could have won it.”
His chat with reporters continued, and he said he would not be running in the 1,500m again this season, exhausted from its grueling demands, instead saying he will compete in the 800m for a “different kind of pressure.” He has earned that right.
Then came a line he has never said before, but will have to think about for much of the next 12 months: “I hope I don’t get shot down for not winning it as world champion,” he said.
In truth, it was just another sign that life, for Wightman, has changed.