Alison Andrews-Paul achieved the run of her life at the Auckland Track Challenge to secure the qualification time for the 2016 IAAF World Junior Championships. Steve Landells chats to the Masterton-based 800m athlete about her impressive rise to prominence.
It is fair to say that Alison Andrews-Paul potential for running was spotted early.
It was during her first ever parent-teacher interview as a year one student when her teacher Missy T impressed by her running ability told the then five-year-old's parents "do you know fast Alison is?"
Alison laughs at the comment today and although she never began training seriously for running until the age of "11 or 12" she has more than lived up to her teacher's comments and last month ran the fastest race of her career to clock 2:06.84 and dip 0.16 below the Athletics NZ qualification standard for the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz.
It was a moment that brought tears of joy to the 18-year-old from the Wairarapa, who has a bright future ahead of her in the sport.
Raised on a lifestyle block on the fringe of Masterton, Alison grew up in the ideal environment for running excellence. Spending plenty of time running around the family farm, she first made her mark as a cross country runner, winning the inter-regional title as a year seven student.
It also was Alison's good fortune that her step-father Wayne Paul happened to be former international athlete. Wayne appeared at the 1986 and 1990 Commonwealth Games in the 400m hurdles and won seven national titles in the event between 1983-1990.
He later snagged the New Zealand title in 1992 for the 800m.
"Because he has run at a high level, he knows what it takes to reach that standard and after he finished 400m hurdles he took up 800m, so he knows a lot about the event," says Alison.
"He has made a huge difference. We work well together and have a good connection. He is on my case a lot, but it is definitely what I need. We do have our occasional arguments at home, but that is no different to any other teenager."
Alison's first major career achievement came in 2011 when she took the junior girls' 800m title at New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Wellington as a Year nine student at Wairarapa College.
Yet victory at Newtown Park did not open the immediate gateway to further success and she has had to show great patience to make gains in her athletics career.
She won a bronze medal in the 1500m in the national under-18 Championships in 2013 and the following year took silver in the women's Youth 400m at nationals. Yet despite making a mark in a range of events the 800m has always remained her genuine passion.
"I've always loved the event since I was young," she says. "I love watching it, I think it is the most exciting race to watch and I've always been closely aligned to it."
With a personal best of 2:10.81 coming into the 2015-16 season, Alison knew she had some way to go to achieve the World Junior qualification standard of 2:07:00. Yet she was determined to pursue the target. Training six days a week - which often includes two to three track sessions per week plus a longest run totally no more than 45-60 minutes - this season she focused on the 400m during the first part of the year to sharpen her speed.
At the National Secondary Schools' Championships in Timaru she secured 400m bronze in a time of 56.94 and the following week had confirmation her form was heading in the right direction by trimming 0.64 from her 800m lifetime best to run 2:10.17 to take the North Island title.
"I just felt that running the 400s has really helped," says Alison, who also landed the Wellington 400m title last month in a time of 56.64. "I feel by running the 400s it has made me a lot stronger and improved my finish.
"I used to feel like I didn't really have the speed. I'm definitely not a 200m sprinter, but I now have a little bit of speed."
Further progress was made during the 'Classics season' as she first ran an 800m PB of 2:08.88 at Potts Classic before producing a 2:08.63 at the Porritt Classic in Hamilton to further inch towards the World Junior qualification mark.
Yet all her stars were to align at the Auckland Track Challenge in Waitakere. After enjoying one of the best speed sessions of her career in the countdown to the race she also benefiting from the presence of four-time New Zealand 400m champion Louise Jones as pacemaker and World University Games champion Angie Petty in Auckland as the 800m was run at a blistering pace.
Unlike at the Potts Classic, where she went through the first lap in 64 seconds, Alison hit the bell in "around 60 to 61 seconds" and came home strongly. She flashed past the line in third but was unsure of the time she has posted.
"I looked across at the finishing clock and thought it might have just ticked over to 2:07," she says. "I wanted to hold back my excitement just in case I didn't achieve the time. I only found out (the time) about 10 minutes after my race had finished. I had started my warm down and I was at the 200m start. I was totally stoked. I went in there knowing I was in PB shape. To find out I'd ran a sub-2:07 time was an awesome feeling for me."
Elated to achieve the qualification time she followed it up by securing the junior women's 800m and 1500m double and the New Zealand Nationals and next plans to go on to compete in the 800m at the Australian Championships. Yet her focus is on the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz and, should she win selection, she can't wait for what will be her first ever European adventure.
"It will be a big experience for me and I'm really excited to go," says Alison, who cites her mental strength as her biggest asset. "The only overseas racing I've ever done has been at Australian Nationals."
So should she earn the selectors tick of approval, what would she like to achieve in Poland?
"The New Zealand qualification times are based on top 16, so the big aim would be to run faster and make the final," says Alison, who currently works part-time in sports shop. "I now just have to work hard and try and improve by a couple of seconds. To make that final would be a dream."
Beyond that Alison plans to take up a US scholarship in August and she has bigger ambitions down the line.
"I'm not sure what the qualification times are but I'd love to make the next Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast," she says. "The 2020 Olympics might come a little soon for me so the 2024 Olympics might be more realistic."