Fiona Morrison made a huge breakthrough at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships last weekend carving 0.21 from her lifetime best to land her fourth national 100m hurdles title. Steve Landells chats to the Cantabrian about her long and winding road to accomplishing the feat.
Athletics is not always about the destination. It is as much about the journey. Of putting in the hard grind, overcoming obstacles and dealing with the inevitable troughs which can blight an athlete's career. For Fiona Morrison her athletics career has been a journey and she has needed to reveal both patience and persistence in order to finally reap the rewards.
Last Saturday at the Caledonian Ground in Dunedin, the Christchurch-based athlete edged an epic duel by just 0.02 from her long-standing friend and rival Auckland's Rochelle Coster to bank her fourth national title.
The fact that Fiona had dissected her personal best by 0.21 clocking 13.21 in a New Zealand resident record should not be overlooked. Nor should the fact the 27-year-old achieved her breakthrough mark (note Coster also hacked 0.18 from her lifetime best with 13.23) running into a 1.0mps headwind, which suggests there is much more to come.
"It is pretty exciting," says Fiona, who now sits second on the New Zealand rankings behind Andrea Miller with Rochelle at number three. "I didn't really expect it, but I'm happy. I do wonder what the time might have been without that headwind."
For Fiona it represents the high point of an athletics journey which began some 22 years ago at the Christchurch Avon Junior Athletics Club, where her mother was club captain and her two older sister's competed.
She embraced most of the athletics disciplines, but it was only later on the recommendation of her eldest sister, Jill, and now coach, when she first tasted the hurdles aged "around 15." Instantly she had found her athletics forte.
"I must have been reasonably co-ordinated because I picked it up quite quickly," says Fiona.
"I really enjoyed it and I thought hurdles, because of the additional technical elements, was more interesting than sprinting."
She made an immediate impact and aged just 16 competed in the sprint hurdles at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Marrakesh, Morocco.
A talented hockey player, too, Fiona featured for New Zealand at the 2009 Junior World Cup and took a couple of years away from the sport only to return to athletics in late 2010.
"I hit a bit of a plateau with my hockey and because I never felt I had fulfilled my potential I wanted to see how far I could go with my athletics again," she explains of her decision to re-engage with the sport.
In her first full season back she landed her maiden national senior 100m hurdles title in Dunedin and did so by taking a staggering 0.54 from her PB to defeat Coster and Sarah Cowley.
"I was rapt with it," she says of her breakout performance back in 2011. "I was racing again Sarah Cowley and I remember really wanting the win."
Yet the years that followed brought frustration. She continued to excel on the domestic scene winning New Zealand 100m hurdles titles in 2013 and 2014 but she only managed to trim a further 0.18 from her PB in the next four years, disappointingly missing out on a place in the New Zealand team for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Last year a stress fracture of the shin bone forced her to abandon attempts to clinch a hat-trick of national titles, yet it was this injury which led to a key discovery which has helped reboot her athletics career.
Medics found the stress fracture may have been caused by a bone impingement from a bone spur in front of the ankle joint. The ankle on her lead leg (left leg) had caused her issues for five years, so last August she underwent key-hole surgery in an attempt to scrape the bone from the ankle.
"The surgeon said to me, if I was an average Joe Bloggs because of the possibility of scar tissue he would not do it, but if I wanted to continue to hurdle it (surgery) was worth doing," explains Fiona.
The road back has not been easy. The full recovery has taken longer than anticipated and she only returned to hurdling around Christmas last year. Even today in order not to aggravate the injury she limits herself to two hurdles sessions per week, but she is thankfully finally training injury free.
Besides the injury concerns, Fiona has also faced some significant training obstacles. As Christchurch has no 400m synthetic track since the 2011 earthquake she instead trains on a 160m synthetic track - 100m bend and 60m straight- at Christchurch Boys' High School.
"On the straight I can fit six hurdles and then run on to the grass," she says. "It definitely makes training more difficult, but it is not too bad for me because I am a sprint hurdler."
In recent months, though, and free of injury her form has come together nicely. She believes her hurdling fluency at speed has progressed - a fact which started to bear fruit competitively after winning the Porritt Classic in a time of 13.46 - 0.02 of a second in front of Coster - and within 0.04 of her then PB.
Then at the nationals in Dunedin she went on to "surpass expectations" to run 13.21 into a -1.0m/s headwind - once again pipping her long-time rival and good friend Rochelle Coster whom she credits for playing a major part in her success.
"I don't think I would have run the same times as I have without Rochelle pushing me," says Fiona.
Such has been her progression Andrea Miller's national record of 13.10 is in sight. So what about the possibility of qualifying for Rio (note, the A standard is 12.95 with the B standard at 13.05)?
"It wasn't in my mind before, but it is on my radar now, she says following her performance in Dunedin. "It is something which is achievable, especially if you take the wind (headwind) into account.
She plans to compete in Auckland on March 19th before heading over to the Australian Championships at the end of the month for one final tilt (two if we include the heats) at the Rio qualification mark during the domestic campaign.
Should she come close to the Olympic qualification mark, she has not ruled out a period in Europe in a late push to achieve the mark.
Yet for now she prefers to focus on the fact is once again running injury-free.
"I really enjoy being able to push myself and get the most out of myself," she adds of why she loves athletics. "I'm very excited for the future."