For two weeks now, Gateshead Harrier Richard Kilty has probably felt just as big as the famous 20-metre high Antony Gormley sculpture. In the wake of his 60m gold at the Sopot 2014 IAAF World Indoor Championships, the unlikely lad from the north-east of England talks SPIKES through his incredibly tough road to glory.
Sitting in the lounge at the British Athletics High Performance Institute in Loughborough, Richard Kilty, 24, could be excused for basking in the afterglow of his gold medal success, having followed in the footsteps of his boyhood idol, Maurice Greene, winner of the 1999 world indoor 60m crown in Maebashi, Japan. Instead, his thoughts drift back to the days when he was not so much on top of the world as at rock bottom.
They are far from distant days. It was only in the winter of 2012/13 that Kilty was so short of funds that he was forced to do his sprint training on a Tarmac path by the side of the River Tees in his home town of Stockton. Shorn of sponsorship and funding after failing to make the British team for the 2012 Olympics, he could not afford the £5 to go through his paces at Clairville Stadium in Middlesbrough.
“It’s actually a cycle path and walkway, right next to the river,” Kilty says. “It’s just across the river from the Victoria Estate, the council estate where I was brought up in Stockton-on-Tees. It’s a really rough area: high crime, high poverty.
“You go across what’s called the Infinity Bridge and there’s this really quiet area, with a cycle path that stretches for about 300 metres. I’d go there to do sessions in my trainers – 150m repetitions, things like that.
“Sometimes I had nobody to run with and friends from the council estate would come along on a motorbike and stay just a little bit ahead of me. I’d run after the motorbike until I got tired.
“It makes all this now such a luxury, training here at Loughborough, where I’ve got great athletes around me, a great coach in Rana Reider, a great support team and great facilities.”
The rags to riches story of the sprinter who went from chasing motorbikes on the roads next to a sink estate in the north of England to lauded world beater, reads like a throwback to Alf Tupper, the old comic book hero who was known as ‘The Tough of the Track.’ Alf would spend all day welding under the railway arches in Greystones, a grim industrial town up north, hitch a lift in a lorry down to London, grab some fish and chips and a mug of tea and proceed to pip the world’s best in a dramatic finish to a big mile race at White City Stadium.
Little was known of Teesside’s Tough of the Track before the 6.49 seconds that it took Kilty to get to the finish line first in the world indoor 60m final. On the fringes of the top-class British sprinting scene for some time, he had been coached for a while by Linford Christie, and unsuccessfully contested his omission from the British Olympic team in 2012.
He only made the team for the world indoor champs after James Dasaolu had been struck by injury.
What was clear to see in Sopot was Kilty’s hunger for success. It was etched in his eyes in the freeze frame photograph of the eight finalists crossing the line.
“Not coming from a lot, and growing up around people who’ve not had a lot, does make you hungry to succeed,” he says. “This was the first opportunity I had on the senior stage as an individual: I wasn’t going to let it slip.
“It was a big opportunity and I believe I won it because nobody wanted it more than me.
“The lowest time for me was when I lost my sponsorship in 2012. It had enabled me to go out to Arizona warm-weather training. I ran the Olympic qualifying time out there and was top of the rankings but got injured six weeks before the trials.
“I lost my sponsorship and was sleeping on Luke Lennon Ford’s bedroom floor in north London. I went home to Stockton to live with my parents and had to do bits of part time jobs in the gym here and there, just to scrape the money to eat.
“That was the lowest time. I was really struggling.”
True grit: Kilty crosses the finish line in Sopot.
Kilty was on the verge of joining the Army in January 2013, when his father, Kevin – a former 10.8sec 100m runner and bodybuilder – persuaded him to have another push at making the grade as a sprinter. It was then that he hit the road, or the cycle paths, in the style of his fictional boyhood hero.
As Kevin Kilty told the Evening Gazette: “As a kid Richard had a Rocky poster on his wall that said ‘His whole life was like a million to one shot’. I wrote underneath, ‘So is yours, Richard.’ Richard’s story is like a real life Rocky story.”
It is difficult to disagree. Ten years ago, Kilty and his family spent seven months living in a hostel for the homeless on Yarm Road in Stockton.
“That was another low time,” recalls the 60m world champion. “There were six of us living in a one bedroom flat in a homeless hostel. There were asylum seekers there and drug addicts.
“You’d walk down the stairs from our flat and see heroin needles and heroin addicts, people getting stabbed. It was terrible.
“It’s funny, people keep asking me about mind games in sprinting and people trying to get into your head before races. Well, I’ve coped with so much other stuff in the past, I just laugh at it.
“I’m out there doing the job I love and nothing is going to put me off.”