On the track, Ella Nelson ran 200m in 22.53 seconds, but it was a much longer journey in her mind from dreaming she could be an international contender to believing it.
Nelson’s breakthrough performance at the Canberra Track Classic last month has changed her world.
By running the fastest 200m by an Australian woman since Melinda Gainsford-Taylor at the Sydney Olympics 15½ years ago, 21-year-old Nelson has emerged as the successor to a grand tradition of sprinting excellence dating back to Marjorie Jackson and Betty Cuthbert in the 1950s.
That is what she has always wanted, since she watched Gainsford-Taylor (22.42sec) and Cathy Freeman (22.53sec) run in the 200m final at the Sydney Games as a six-year-old, but until now it was a distant hope.
“This has changed my mindset so much,’’ Nelson said as she prepared for her next 200m hitout at the Sydney Track Classic on Saturday night, her last race before next month’s Olympic trials.
“The time I ran would have finished sixth in the Olympic final in London and that was something I never thought I would put myself in contention for.
“The time I ran last year was not even close to that but now it’s suddenly realistic. It’s given me confidence to believe in the dreams I have rather than hope. That confidence is so important, it makes everything a lot easier.’’
Nelson had once dreamt of running 22.50sec by the end of her career, she had even made it her PIN number for her phone (since changed), but she is now dreaming bigger. “Melinda’s national record (22.23sec) is the next big one for me, but I don’t want to set a limit or a timeframe for that.’’
Gainsford-Taylor was a power sprinter but the petite Nelson glides around the track, in the mould of Cathy Freeman or the reigning Olympic champion, American Allyson Felix.
Nelson’s particular talent is her ability to run off the bend in the 200m. She seems to slingshot off the curve into the straight, gathering momentum for the run to the finish line. In fact, her coach Michael Dooley has compared race analysis of Nelson and Felix, discovering that his charge has comparable speed over the last 150m of the race, but is slower in the first 50m. Consequently they are working on her start.
Both coach and athlete gained a substantial boost from a training camp at renowned American coach Dan Pfaff’s Altis program in Arizona in December-January, from which Nelson has gone to a new level. She had not broken 23 seconds before that stint, but set an Olympic qualifying time of 22.84sec in her first race on return from the US before improving to 22.53sec two weeks later.
She wants to return to Arizona after the Olympic trials to prepare for the Rio Games, but in the meantime she intends to record her third consecutive sub-23-second clocking at Sydney Olympic Park on Saturday, where wind conditions will probably determine how low she can go.
The forecast is not promising, but Nelson won’t rule out another fast run in her home town.
“Every Sydney Track Classic changes my life,’’ she said. “In the first one I got pretty close to Sally (Pearson) and everyone was saying, ‘Who is this girl?’, and then last year I beat Sally for the first time.’’
In her third appearance, she is shaping as the star of the show.
Dooley is now coaching the most promising young female sprint squad in the country, boasting not only Nelson and world championships 400m semi-finalist Anneliese Rubie, but the winners of the 100m (Sam Geddes), 200m and 400m (Jessica Thornton) at last week’s national under-20 championships in Perth. Geddes and Thornton will go to the world under-20 titles in Poland in July.