Much of sport is finally underway under updated guidelines. As mentioned last week, I had hoped to be able to give definitive dates for running events but this will have to wait as much is still in the planning stage.

Whanganui Collegiate has its cross country on June 24. Nga Tawa has beaten the rest by already holding its championships, with other schools delaying until early next term. The Whanganui Schools Championships will be in the week starting August 10.

New Zealand Schools is scheduled for Saturday, September 19, in Hawera but confirmation is awaiting government updates and guideline.

Runners have been hit hard over the past months. In December, the New Zealand Schools road race was cancelled because of bad weather, while the Whanganui Secondary Schools track and the North Island Schools track and field championships became victims of coronavirus, which makes the New Zealand Schools cross country so important for runners.

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As we enter Heritage month, it is worth considering how successful Whanganui athletes have been at the New Zealand Schools championships which had its inaugural meet at Cuthbert's Green in Christchurch back in June, 1974.

Over the 45-year history of the event, Whanganui runners have performed well at the championships. Cross country not only is a chance for individuals to shine, but also in such an individual and demanding sport, there is a large team element.

The championships bring together not only runners who have excelled over the four middle distance events in the track and field programme, but also boys and girls from other sports, such as Beauden Barrett, mentioned last week.

This makes the winning of a title especially hard. Annually the leading 10 athletes in each grade receive recognition on stage with the presentation of a top 10 certificate.

Eighty-eight athletes from schools in the Whanganui region have received this recognition. Of those, 45 were from Whanganui Collegiate. Two athletes listed represented two different schools; Melissa Gilbertson (High School and Collegiate) and Alexandra Lupton (Nga Tawa and Collegiate).

Three athletes appeared on the top 10 list four times. Duncan Ross (Wanganui Boys' College), Marguerite Couchman (Whanganui Girls' College) and Gilbertson (three with High School and one with Whanganui Collegiate School). Gilbertson joined Collegiate in the first intake of girls in 1991 and was a Year 14 student and thus had six years at secondary school.

Liam Back (Whanganui Collegiate), Sarah McLeod (Whanganui High School) and Rebecca Baker (Whanganui High School) each appeared three times.

Twenty-two times Whanganui athletes have mounted the podium as individual medal winners with half of these as gold medallists.

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Martin Holmes (Whanganui High School) won two consecutive senior boys' titles (1984, 1985), Gilbertson and Back each won both junior and senior titles. Gilbertson backed this up with a senior girls' bronze at the Tawhero Golf course in 1991 and Back's two titles were sandwiched around a silver in 2018.

Couchman, a junior winner at home in 1977, took bronze a year earlier. Geordie Beamish (Whanganui Collegiate) won in 2014, emulating his brother Hugo, who won in 2006.
McLeod (Whanganui High School) won in 1995 while Ross (Boys' College) won the senior title in 1993. This rounded off a great sequence by Ross, starting with bronze in 1991, then silver in 1992. This was a tribute to Ross' perseverance and sound coaching from Kevin Ross.

The team element is an important part of cross country and the format of three to score and six to score opens opportunities for both small and large schools. The six to score event, although often favouring larger schools, does provide a reward for larger training groups from small as well as large schools. Being part of a team can give encouragement and meaning to the less gifted athlete who is prepared to put in the work.

Whanganui Collegiate provided the first title from a Whanganui school when they returned as senior boys' titleholders from the inaugural championship in 1973. This was the first of 23 team titles supported by 30 silver medal and 22 bronze medal teams.

Whanganui Girls' College have won one team title (1991) supported by two silver and two bronze team medals, while Nga Tawa won a team title in 1997 and four bronze medal teams.

The other Whanganui team medal came with a bronze from Whanganui High School in the senior girls in 2001.

Whanganui hosted the event in 1977, 1991 and 2005 and, on each occasion, local schools performed well. Hopefully, a nearby event in Hawera will provide similar success and, with three months to prepare, schools will hopefully grasp the opportunity.

I am grateful to Brad Smith (NZSS Executive) for his documentation and history of the schools cross country.