Sporting Stories: Athletics - Emma Jackson

Emma Jackson is one of Stoke on Trent’s outstanding athletes, who has represented England at 800m in every age group.  She was the fastest junior in the world in 2007 and in that year also won a silver medal at the European Junior Championships.  In 2011 she reached the semi-finals of the World Championships and after a spell out with injury has recently represented England again at an international meet.

When I was five years old I said that I when I grew up I wanted to be an author or a runner. At that age I don't think I'd ever done any running or writing but I obviously had some childish intuition of where my talents lay. My writing career is yet to take off but running has been my life for nearly 20 years. It is in my blood - my mum and dad even met at an athletics track. (The story goes that my dad was so besotted with my mum on their first meeting that he walked her all the way home only to realise that he'd cycled to the track and had to go all the way back for his bike.)

Funnily enough though, my first foray into racing was nothing to do with my parents. A girl in the year above me at St Joseph's College, Kate Sherratt, saw that I was pretty competitive at sports day and invited me along to a race that she was doing in Manchester. The race was a cross-country course which involved periodically jumping over hay bales. I was only nine years old and had never done anything like it before. My dad came with me and just told me to "stay as close to Kate as possible"...I took his advice rather literally. I followed Kate from gun to tape, she finished 16th and I finished 17th. It never occurred to me to go past her.

I loved my first outing and promptly joined Newcastle Staffs AC. My first coach was Arthur Shaw, a wonderful man who must have been in his 70s when he coached me yet was still known to do handstands at the side of the track. Training was mainly about having fun. Of course some parts were tough (hill reps up Keele Bank certainly stand out in my memory) but the emphasis was on enjoyment and building a well-rounded individual. We were always encouraged to try other events, with varying success rates.

I could do a decent long-jump but my first attempt at doing the 'Fosbury Flop' high-jump resulted in me kneeing myself in the face and a broken nose (My mum and dad choosing not to take me to the hospital as there was 'nothing they could do' and instead went to get fish and chips for tea and left me in the car with my face pouring with blood). I decided to stick to running after that.

Arthur's group was very successful and our team won many regional and national titles. All of the girls were great friends on and off the track. However, when the Stoke on Trent school cross-country races came around we were no longer a team and became bitter rivals. The top girl in our group was called Leanne Finney. I had never beaten her in a race but was just as good in training. Before the cross-country race hosted by St. Joseph's College, my home fixture, my dad told me that he thought that I could win today. I panicked, started crying and told my dad off for putting pressure on me. I learnt a valuable lesson that day...Always listen to your dad, I won.

I loved those Stoke Schools Cross-Country races. Everyone at school knew me as 'the runner' and I loved showing them what I could do. One race at Holden Lane school was a bit of a complicated course so they asked an older boy to be a hare and run in front of us all to show us the way. However, after about 200m I decided that he was too slow and was getting in the way so I strode past him. I'm told he pulled out soon after looking rather sheepish.

Unfortunately, Arthur retired from coaching when I was 12 years old. There were no other coaches at Newcastle AC so my dad took over for a while. He was probably hoping for a Peter and Seb Coe type dynamic but it ended up more like Homer and Bart Simpson. I have the utmost respect for anyone in authority and I had always unquestioningly done whatever training Arthur had told me to do but for some reason I did not extend the same respect to my dad. I moaned, I argued and I refused to do any session he set me. It wasn't long before he sent me off to Stoke AC.

I certainly never argued with the training that Alan Morris set me at Stoke. I was the youngest in the group by quite a way and some of the girls were my heroes. Emma Ward was the only person ever to win every single English Schools title at every age-group. The English Schools is the equivalent of the Olympics to a school child and she had won it SIX times. I don't think I dared to speak for the first few weeks. The group took me under their wing though and I was soon christened 'Little Em'. 

This was proper training now. Battling against the elements at Northwood Stadium is not for the faint-hearted. Built on the side of a hill, it is known by all athletes nationwide as 'the windy track'. I am convinced that it is always a good two degrees colder at Northwood than anywhere else. The sessions were tough and I was trying to keep up with girls a lot older and better than me. Despite this, I still have such happy memories of those days. I progressed rapidly by training with such a good group and there were some real characters in the group so there was always a laugh to be had.

When it came to leaving school and all my friends were choosing universities, I knew that there was only one choice for me, It had to be Keele. I had many people telling me to go to Loughborough as it was THE university for runners but there was no way I was going to leave Alan and Stoke AC. I had progressed so well over the years. Aged 19 I was easily the number one 800m runner in the country and I had run the fastest time in the world for an under 20. I had no intention of leaving my coach, my family, my support network and my home-town.

In the same way that I loved being 'Little Em' at training (despite being easily the tallest in the group by now), I have never been more proud than when I was known as 'Our Emma' in the local media when I ran in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and I was astounded by the public outcry in Stoke when I was overlooked for the 2012 Olympics. It got me though a very tough time knowing that so many people were on my side. Despite being injured for a couple of years now, the number of people I run past who shout me on and wish me well is incredible. I don't think I ever pass another runner who doesn't bid me good day. The kindness of strangers in this city never fails to amaze me. While I want to achieve great things for myself, I truly want to achieve them for the people of Stoke on Trent as well. I want to show the world just what us Stokies can do.