Ben Buckingham's journey to become an Olympian has been more than a decade in the making, but it's made the feeling of representing Australia on the world's biggest stage, at the age of 29, even sweeter. The Myrtleford-born athlete is part of a full complement of Australians to compete in the 3000m steeplechase for the first time since the 1956 Games in Melbourne. He spoke to The Border Mail's BEAU GREENWAY about how he's prepared himself for Tokyo 2020.
BEAU GREENWAY: Congratulations on making your very first Olympic team, how did you get there?
BEN BUCKINGHAM: Essentially the top 45 in the world on a three per country basis qualify. I ended up being 42nd out of 45 and essentially your world ranking is an aggregate of your three best races. It was a funny one because I was in the top 45 for a year and a half and it became a very nervous wait by the end. I think it's the first time there's been three male and three female steeplechasers from Australia at an Olympics since 1956. Five years ago no-one qualified at Rio and the previous Olympics in 2012 and 2008, only one man, Youcef Abdi, made the team and he's the second quickest Aussie ever in the event. The three of us in order to make the team have all run within the top six or seven Aussie times ever.
BG: How has the preparation been for you?
BB: I had a 3km race in Joensuu in Finland which I came second in and ran a five-second PB, which was really positive. I lost the race by about two metres, I led into the straight and got out-kicked, which was really frustrating, but it was a really good battle with a good mate of mine who has made the Finnish team in the steeplechase.
BG: I imagine it's not easy to find steeplechase events around the world, do you essentially run in whatever race you can in the lead up to a major event?
BB: My manager put me in a couple of races where I'd sort of be in the mix for the win to get me in a good spot. My European season I've come fifth, fourth, third and second in four races and was fourth in a 1500m race before I flew to Tokyo.
BG: What was the situation like with COVID while racing in Europe, did you have any crowds?
BB: In Australia you don't get massive athletic crowds anyway, but you've got quite large stadiums that are really spread out. In Finland, we had a full stadium in Joensuu. It was a small stadium, but the nice thing in Europe is they have these little stadiums tucked away in suburbs where the crowd is quite close to the track. It makes the atmosphere a lot more fun and exciting. In the 3km event I lost, the crowd was on their feet when I was battling with the Finnish local who got me, so it was a really fun atmosphere.
BG: Your preparation would have coincided with the European Championships?
BB: It was a definite highlight of the trip. I was in Switzerland when they beat France (in the round of 16) and we didn't get much sleep that night because after the penalty shootout the Swiss people were driving around the town with the horns going and fireworks were going off. I was in Italy when they won their semi-final against Spain on penalties and I was in the UK for the final. We had to be pretty well behaved because we were flying out the next day and didn't want to get COVID in the UK, so we watched from the hotel. Every time there was a goal you'd hear the reaction from the local pub in the background.
BG: I assume you're no stranger to a COVID test by now?
BB: I've had so many COVID tests, they don't phase me any more (laughs). You get a test pre-flight for the meet, you get a test on arrival, the meet then gets you to have a test before you go on to the next place. At the meet itself, you're in a bubble which is pretty much from the hotel room to the track and you don't really go anywhere or interact with anyone to be safe. It's not so much someone getting it, but more the whole group will miss two weeks of training because you all have to self-isolate.
BG: Is it bittersweet to not have friends and family able to support you in Tokyo?
BB: I suppose it's one of those years where I'm just fortunate and grateful it's happening in some form. I'm 29 and this is my best shot, maybe my only shot, to make an Olympic team, so I'm just really grateful it's happening. For a while it looked like it would be cancelled, so I'm very lucky I get to compete, even though there's no fans or anything and Japan is in a very challenging situation.
BG: How has the support been from Myrtleford?
BB: My parents are still there and I stay in touch with a few people. The local soccer club (at Myrtleford) put up something and my old athletics club in Wodonga put up something. When you get picked it's hard to describe what it means, but everyone else is very good at putting words to it because it means a lot to them. It was very nice to see all the messages I had afterwards, especially from the people who have known you for a long time and know where you've come from.
BG: There's a host of others from the Border and North East competing at the Games, including another runner, Ellie Pashley, from Albury. Have you two crossed paths at all?
BB: I know her a little and we went for a run down at Anglesea a few months back. The cool thing about Ellie and I is we've both got really good late in our careers. When you make teams in your late 20s it makes it a lot sweeter. It's incredible how good she has become in a marathon.
BG: What's a realistic goal for you in Tokyo?
BB: I'm in the shape of my life and I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do and how fast I can run. You just want to come away with a performance that you're proud of where you've really competed and stayed in the race and been there at the business end when the moves are made. There's 15 spots in the final and 30 guys don't make it. I think a couple of guys around my level will get in, there's probably 10 or 12 of us fighting for two spots.
BG: What do you enjoy most about racing the steeplechase?
BB: It's a great event for carnage if the weather does cook us, so that will also play a factor. The crowd is mainly hoping for a stack and normally they're rewarded every four or five races. A flat race you lock into rhythm and hang on, but every 80 to 100 metres of the steeple you have to focus on the jump and your position in the pack. It really breaks up the rhythm, so I really like the challenge of every lap you have to be very focused and calm. Jumping in a big pack is a real challenge as opposed to being at the front.
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BG: Does much training go into the jump component?
BB: It's probably running first. There is technique, but it's really just fitness. I run about 140 kilometres a week and you do some hurdle-specific work there, but I've always found the best way to train is to race steeplechase races. Even some of the best people in the world will still fall and will still misjudge it.
BG: Have you had many stacks in your time?
BB: I stacked at the Victorian Championships one year and still won the race, it's just part and parcel of the event. In a weird way that's what I like about it because there's a little bit of tension. Especially the water jumps, it's a different feeling and that really makes the race come alive. As long as the guy in front of you doesn't stack and you've got nowhere to go.
BG: What's one of the worst you've seen?
BB: My first race in Europe there was a Finnish guy who KO'd himself on a steeple next to me and had to crawl off the track. He just misjudged it, crashed into it with his thigh and came down on his head. There's nothing you can do because you've passed before you've realised it's happened. That adds a different aspect to it, but it also adds a sense of jeopardy, which is quite fun.
BG: You won the Nail Can Hill Run in 2017 for the first time, could we see you back next year as an Olympian?
BB: I only won that race once, but it took a lot of years to get it done. I'm so glad I won that one because it was getting harder and harder. I really hope I get to do it next year, but it depends when I go overseas. I'd love to see how fast I could run on that course, I wouldn't break the record, but I'd like to see how I'd go.
Buckingham will contest the heats of the men's 3000m steeplechase on Friday from 10am.
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