If Aussie Olympian Sam McEntee had to put a tag on the relationship he has with his event, it would read ‘it’s complicated’.
When Sam McEntee talks about the 1500m, he makes it sound like a high school crush. “It’s the way it’s run,” he raves. “You spend the first kilometre sorting out your position, and then it’s almost like you’re stretched out waiting for something to happen as the race builds up in intensity.”
He pauses for effect.
“That’s where it really starts to pick up and it’s kind of all over the place. I really enjoy that part of the race.”
It sounds like a match made in heaven. But as with many first loves, it didn’t last. Sometimes someone else comes along and messes with your head. In McEntee’s case, someone else was the 5000m.
Originally from Perth in Western Australia, McEntee spent his college years at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. He’d always been a miler, but the team aspect of US collegiate running saw him regularly “taking one for the team” and racing the 5k. His coach at the time, Marcus O’Sullivan – a three-time world indoor 1500m champion – saw it as a good opportunity to work on his fitness.
“I hated the 5k in college,” he recalls. “I was always doing it for conference races and it was easy-ish to get in the top four or five and get a good amount of points for my team.”
Villanova has a history for honing distance talents. It is alma mater to 5000m world champions Sonia O’Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan. For McEntee, however, there was still the obvious problem: “I didn’t enjoy it one bit.
“It was always a drag getting out there and knowing I’d have to run 12 and a half laps.”
In 2015, towards the end of his collegiate career, McEntee realised that maybe the 1500m and him weren’t going to work out in the long term. “I wasn’t running as well as I thought should’ve been and I didn’t quite have the closing speed that I needed at the time to finish races.”
At the 2015 Morton Games McEntee "found his calling"
He graduated with a science degree and went to Europe, still unsure what to do with his career. In July that year he took his first international victory at the Morton Games in Dublin with a 3000m PB 7:48.35. “I found my calling,” he says, but there was a problem. “You can’t run 3K in the Olympics.”
He had half an eye on returning to his former bedfellow, but his new coach, Melbourne Track Club’s Nic Bideau, told him bluntly that it would be a lot harder to make the Olympic team in the 1500m than in the 5000m. He even suggested the steeplechase. “I guess that really shot a bit of life into me as I thought ‘I really don’t want to be running the steeplechase’,” recalls McEntee. He took the plunge, ditched the 1500m and shifted his focus to the 5k. Stitched up things are never as good.
It worked wonders. In January 2016 he equalled his 3000m PB from Dublin; in March he clocked a 5000m PB 13:33.73 at the Melbourne World Challenge meet; at the end of March he won the Australian championships.
At Stanford’s annual Payton Jordan Invite in May McEntee booked his ticket to Rio thanks to a 13:20.72 clocking. In 12 months he had cut his PB by nearly 30 seconds. But the course of true love never did run smooth, and a foot injury meant a change of plans going into the final preparations for Rio.
While some of his training partners raced non-stop – Genevieve LaCaze racked up 17 PBs in 2016 – McEntee had to take a minimalistic approach. After his Australian title in March he only raced three races before the Olympic heats in August, focusing instead on training.
His 13:42.78 clocking in Hobart was an early WL
In Rio he didn’t make it past the heats. But that’s okay. Last year, even making the Olympic team “wasn’t certain by any means”. Still learning to embrace his new long distance lover, he only has eyes for the 5k over the next two years.
The 2017 World Championships in London next August McEntee says will “almost [be] like a home meet”. For the past three summers he found himself based in Teddington in south west London with the rest of the MTC group. “It’s weird being thousands of miles away [from home], but all us Aussies being in a house and going to the park or running track together means I’ve never felt like I’m too far from home or uncomfortable.”
And while London 2017 might feel like a home meet, it will be the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games that will actually be a home champs.
“I see people like Craig Mottram – probably Australia’s best distance runner ever – on YouTube running in front of 90,000 people at the MCG when [the CWG] were last in Australia in 2006. To have that many people cheering for you solely will be pretty special to be a part of.”
In the meantime, McEntee is working hard on his relationship with his event. “At the end of the day, it’s about taking yourself to the best level you can be. There’s no point in me running as good as I can in the 15, if I can do better in another event.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’m actually starting to like it.”