We continue our Area in Focus series getting to know Oceania’s rising sprint star Heleina Young of Fiji, who found herself locked down in Australia in March just a month after relocating to the OAA High Performance Training Centre on the Gold Coast.
February was a big month for Heleina Young.
The month before, the rising regional sprint star from Fiji was awarded a three-year scholarship to Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, where she would begin her studies towards a business degree. The scholarship, the first awarded to a student-athlete in the region by the Griffith University Oceania Australia Foundation, meant she would also live and train at the High Performance Training Centre (HPTC) on the Gold Coast and compete at meetings throughout Australia.
And things moved quickly.
“I arrived on a Thursday and I started training on the Saturday," Young recalls. That training session was on 15 February. Classes began on the 24th but less than a month later, Australia joined most of the rest of the world in lockdown as prevention measures were imposed in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
"Everything was new to me,” Young says with a smile. “Uni life, being a student-athlete. It was different. Then, going into online schooling was even more difficult. But over time, it became normal, I guess. You just get used to it. You don't have a choice."
But Young’s journey to the Gold Coast did involve a choice - picking athletics from a grab bag of sports she competed in as a primary and high school student.
She took up athletics at seven, and quickly showed a strong affinity for the sprints. She also played field hockey, basketball, rugby and volleyball, multi-sport talents that landed her with a spot on the national junior field hockey team for the 2014 Oceania Pacific Cup. A year later, at 15, she made her international debut at a meeting in New Caledonia where she finished third in an open division 100m race. She decided to pursue the latter.
“Because I had too many injuries playing all these contact sports, I just thought athletics is where I performed the best. It was my passion. I just thought I don't want to keep getting injured and not be able to walk in my 30s.”
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Last year, still competing as a U20 athlete, she finished fifth and seventh, respectively, in the senior races at the Oceania Championships, and followed up with runner-up performances at the Pacific Games in late July, bringing 11.82 and 24.58 (24.01w) lifetime bests into the 2020 season.
With her new training set-up and access to world class facilities at the HPTC, Young was expecting to begin chiseling away at those bests during the Australian season, but the global lockdown put a quick halt to those ambitions.
With facilities put under lock and key, she and her training group were forced to move from the track to the grass and from the gym to the garage.
“We had some gym equipment there to help keep me a little bit fit,” she says. “We used picnic benches for jumping. We were lucky enough to have our own (weight) bar. We had to think outside the box and be creative, so it was ok.”
She did see her coach, Tony Fairweather, daily, albeit from a safe social distance.
“I wanted to come out here and just train as hard as I could with Tony because I knew he was a really good coach. And I was just looking to run PBs at whichever competition came first. Now that everything is moved I have a longer time to prepare.” When competitions do resume, she said, “we need to just run personal bests and make my family proud.”
She also passed her time keeping in touch with family - she’s the fifth of seven siblings - back home in Fiji, and comparing notes with old training partners. But she said that she hasn’t divulged too much about her new training regime out of deference to her new coach.
“I don’t give them too much of what I’m doing only because I think its disrespectful to my coach who is putting in a lot of effort writing up a programme for me.”
She worked with two coaches at home but found her transition to Fairweather’s programme a fairly smooth one.
“At first I thought it was going to be hard but when I got here I got used to my new coach really quick because he is very open and he's funny - and he makes training bearable just being funny.”
While her surroundings and academic workload are new, Young says she’s not finding it too difficult to balance school with training.
“I'm used to it,” she says. “Uni work is a lot different than high school work but I knew how to balance since I've been doing it since I was in primary school. The only problem I faced when studying was just mentally, this whole virus thing.”
Off the track and out of the classroom, she prefers solitude and music. “There is a piano in the house that I like - I spend most of my time at the piano. It's really nice.”
Young only celebrated her 20th birthday on 31 May, so she’s not thinking too far ahead but does want to make a career out of athletics, either on or off the track. But first, she wants to graduate with a degree from her three-year programme at the university.
“That is my main goal, it would be a huge accomplishment for me. I'd also like to stay involved in the sport for as long as I'm able to run. Later, I think I’d like to coach.”
But first, there’s plenty of unfinished business on the track she’d also like to focus on as she continues to forge her own path with her own unique style.
“I like to go out and be myself instead of going out and trying to be someone else. (Other) athletes would inspire me up until a certain point. But I like the idea of coming out and just being me.”
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics