You know it’s a big deal when someone makes it their first ever Instagram post. On Sunday, Phoebe Gill became the youngest British Champion since 1974. Just seventeen years old, she has had a season like no other, rewarded with her first Great Britain vest coming at the Olympic Games. Phoebe sat down with James Rhodes to discuss the whirlwind of recent weeks and the excitement of what is to come this summer.

Twelve months ago – maybe even two months ago – few outside of those who closely follow British middle-distance running would likely have known of Phoebe Gill. She stunned the running world with a 1:57.86 clocking at the Belfast Irish Milers Meeting, a European U18 Record and the second fastest in history by an U18 globally. Fast forward eight weeks, and two 1:58 performances later, the 17-year-old is British Champion and heading to the Olympic Games.

It has been quite a rapid rise, but perhaps not unexpected. Those with a close eye on the club-level British running scene, particularly Wednesday nights in Watford, will be well aware of Phoebe. She ran 2:03.74 in May 2022, improving to 2:03.34 two months later. Those times are almost two seconds faster than the previous British Record for her age, set back in 1979.

Last year was just as impressive. English Schools Champion, Commonwealth Youth Games Champion, and a jump to 2:01.50. More eyes were opened, more afficionados aware of the St Albans Strider.

Belfast Breakthrough

The Irish Milers Meeting in Belfast has a tendency of delivering fast races over 800m. Louise Shanahan broke the Irish Record in 2022 (1:59.42), twelve months later she and Abbie Ives ran under two minutes. A fast track, a strong field, an undoubtedly exciting race was about to unfold on a sunny Saturday afternoon. That would be quite an understatement.

1:57.86. Phoebe reached the bell in under 57 seconds, and held on remarkably to break the European U18 Record. It bettered East Germany’s Marion Geissler-Huber mark from 45 years prior. An Olympic qualifier, by over 1.5 seconds, eighth on the British senior all-time list. There probably aren’t enough superlatives, and it took a while for the magnitude of the time to set in:

That 1:57 was so surreal. I remember crying on the plane home because I just couldn’t believe I’d finally done it! It was a four second PB! It just felt really gratifying that my hard work had worked, but I never really let myself believe that I could get to this position where I actually qualify for a place in Paris”.

Paris Perhaps?

Everyone starts the year with goals, ambitions, targets. Were the Olympics on the radar? Phoebe and her long-time coach, Deborah Steer, had different opinions:

I had a sit down at the start of the season with my coach, and she said ‘you can dip under two minutes, I believe in you. You can get an Olympic qualifying time’. I just didn’t believe her! I said, ‘No, I just want to focus on the European U18s’, and she was like ‘… ok…!’ I never believed it could happen!”.

Of course, to reach Paris, there is a need to navigate the British Championships first. A first for Phoebe, where she would race alongside people she had watched on TV, rather than toe a start line with. Four headed to Manchester with the Olympic standard, and with Keely Hodgkinson guaranteed a spot, only a top-two finish would suffice.

Photo: James Rhodes

Two Laps

Phoebe raced like a seasoned professional, not a debutant. She pulled away from the field, including two Olympic finalists from Tokyo, to win in 1:58.66. The youngest British Champion since 1974. Phoebe shares her thoughts on the race;

I spoke to my coach before and said ‘I don’t want to lead it!’. If I lead it, I feel like I’ll just go out at 54 [seconds] for the first lap and then die in the last 100m, like I did the last time I ran at Manchester. I really wanted to let someone else take the lead, but no, I took the bait as the commentator said! When I got in that position, I was thinking in my head ‘you can still control this, you can still do the same tactics’.

I got to the bell and thought ‘it’s not that fast, I can still wind up from this’. I just let my legs go and I felt myself go into another gear. It felt like me and Jemma fighting to the line; it was such an amazing experience to have her on my shoulder, such a talented athlete and that really pushed me to the line“.

It is an enormous achievement, one that cannot be understated. Most striking, perhaps, was Phoebe has now run sub-two three times, in very different ways.

For the 800m you have to be so adaptable, it’s such a tactical race. I love that about it, but it also meant that I was so stressed before the champs. It really gave me confidence that I can run in different ways. It was nice to know that the 1:57 wasn’t just a fluke, and that I solidified it by going under two minutes again”.

Photo: James Rhodes

New Targets & Teammates

The original plan to contest the European U18 Championships, with Phoebe announced in the team, is no more. The competition, with two rounds, take place between 18 and 21 July – less than two weeks before the Olympics. Focus is solely on the big dance. Similarly, the World U20 Championships at the end of August are not on the radar; “I’ll be on holiday then!”.

However, Phoebe will race before the Olympics, the venue to be decided. First and foremost is making sure to “enjoy and soak up the build up to this one“.

It will be a formidable trio in the Stade de France, with Tokyo silver medallist Keely Hodgkinson and fourth placer Jemma Reekie. It’s an opportunity Phoebe relishes:

They’re such lovely people, they both came up to me after the race, and I couldn’t have better people with me, being mentors for me. Keely was quite young when she did her first Olympics, so she knows what it’s like. I’m really excited to spend some time with them“.

Photo: James Rhodes

Still Surreal

Four days on from the biggest race of her life, the reality of what is coming next month, the dream of so many, is still not fully sunk in.

It hasn’t set in yet. I keep rewatching my race and keep looking at photos, and I just don’t believe that’s me. Now I’m here and I’m trying to let it sink in, but it just won’t! I feel like I will be feeling confident going into the Games, but I just want to enjoy every moment of it. It’s so nice that this event is going to be the first where I get a GB vest”.

That statement is not one many people can say. The journey is just beginning.

Photo: James Rhodes