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Amy Hunt: I always want to do the hardest thing

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Published in Athletics
Tuesday, 21 November 2023 07:02
An exclusive interview with Amy Hunt who states that she can be an athletic force to reckoned with, after juggling a Cambridge degree with elite level sprinting brought illness, injury and burnout

Initially, a pause. After a hectic few years, Amy Hunt last month sat aboard a boat moored in a harbour on northern Italys Lake Como and indulged in an act that was so rare to her as to almost be alien: she did nothing.

This years habitual end-of-season trip was less a breather from the norm and more a punctuation mark in her life; the conclusion of one period and the start of another.

For the previous three years, soon after catapulting herself into the global consciousness when running the 200m world under-18 record, Hunt had battled burnout and injury while attempting to juggle her burgeoning running career with an English Literature degree at the University of Cambridge. The dual demands frequently took their toll on both aspects of her life.

So now, surrounded by nothing but water, she took the time to pause, rest and recuperate ahead of the next stage in her life.

I needed to find a boat in the middle of a lake where there was nothing to do, said the 21-year-old. It was a tiny fishing village with two restaurants, no museums, nothing to go and see or experience. I just forced myself to lie there, sunbathe and read.

Amy Hunt at University of Cambridge (Jan Kirkham)

Hunts life had changed irrevocably in the space of that 22.42-second run in June 2019, which earned her a record whose male equivalent was held at the time by Usain Bolt. Vogue magazine named her as one of the faces to define the decade. The Olympics website called her the most exciting young sprinter on the planet. Athletics anonymity was a thing of the past.

Upon graduating from school, the teenage track prodigy then took the life-altering decision to ω continue her studies at one of the most prestigious, demanding educational establishments in the world; a place where youre not supposed to have a dual lifestyle or something else on the side. Unsurprisingly, there were repercussions.

Eager to prove herself against some of the most academically gifted students in the country, Hunt made herself ill working long into the night before early alarm calls for track training. She pushed herself so hard in the first year of her degree that she quickly burned out.

With the degree I was doing, there was no natural end with how much work you could feasibly do, she says. I ended up doing far too much work and the more I did, the worse my work would become.

She drank too much caffeine, ate the wrong things, slept too little, and her physical and mental health worsened. She describes that first year as a nightmare.

Amy Hunt reading in Cambridge (Jan Kirkham)

A stricter routine no working past 9pm and more family help meant Hunt found a better balance for her second and third years. But the challenge of making athletics gains was always likely to prove too much.

After an illness-plagued 2021 season, she ruptured her quadriceps competing indoors in early 2022, forcing her under the knife and meaning she briefly had to move back into the family home in Newark, where her mother was required to lift her into the shower because she was unable to bend her knee. Another summer was ruined.

The decision to prioritise her final university exams this summer meant a further reduction in training and a failed bid to qualify individually for the European Under-23 Championships. The athletics wunderkind was seemingly in danger of being forgotten.

But to hear Hunt reflect on three years that she describes as one of the most stressful times in my life ever is to listen to a young woman with the kind of holistic view ordinarily absent from elite sport. There is no hint of regret.

Amy Hunt (Mark Shearman)

It would be nice if Id known how hard it was going to be, but Id still choose it 100 times over, she says. Not to get too existential, but we only have one life and theres only so many opportunities you get afforded at each point so you have to take as many as you can.

If this opportunity meant that one other thing in my life had to be on hold a little bit for three years then thats fine. I got to go to arguably the best university in the world. Ill have that with me for the rest of my life.

Im really glad I did it because it was an incredible experience. Im not just competitive in terms of athletics and the track, I want to push myself in my whole life.

Theres not one second that goes by when I regret the decision that I made or think I should have taken an easier route through. In a glib way, I think it sets the tone for my life and my approach for how I go through life. I always want to push myself to do the hardest thing. ω

Sometimes things that appear to go the wrong way arent actually going the wrong way, they are going the right way but youre too myopic to be able to see that. Its easy to feel like I missed out [on furthering her athletics], but I was spending my time getting my degree and being surrounded by incredible people, incredible architecture and history.

Never content with standing still, as soon as one chapter ended Hunt proceeded to throw herself into another. Hours after attending her Cambridge graduation at the end of June, she boarded a flight to Padua, Italy, to join a new coaching group under the guidance of Marco Airale. It meant the end of a working relationship with Loughborough-based coach Joe McDonnell, who had looked after her since she was 14.

Amy Hunt (L) at Espoo 2023 (Getty)

Id been having a lot of thoughts about going elsewhere for a while, explains Hunt. We decided it was time for me to take a step up to a more elite environment.

Id been in Loughborough for seven years, and nobody wants to be in Loughborough for seven years of their life! Having to walk into that same place every day for seven years just drains you.

Id just reached the stage of stagnancy, which is completely natural. I needed to move on and regain that spark. You cant keep putting yourself in the same environment and expecting different results.

With education behind her, and eager to return focus solely to athletics, Hunts decision to move to another country was part of a concerted effort to shake things up. She already knew Airale, one of the youngest but fastest-rising sprint coaches in the world, and was keen to join the growing number of British athletes under his watch alongside Daryll Neita, Adam Gemili, Jeremiah Azu and Reece Prescod.

Its not a natural time to change coach midway through the season but I needed to do it, she says. Being harsh, what else was I going to do for the rest of the season? I may as well move and try to get a few more races in rather than stay in an environment I didnt want to be in.

Amy Hunt (Mark Shearman)

I needed quite a big, radical change. Moving to a different country, different coach, different group and a completely different level has meant a huge step up. Thats what I needed.

Marco is an incredible coach and Im quite good friends with people in the group. Hes getting the best out of his athletes, getting them into Olympic finals and winning medals. I was seeing what Daryll was doing and thats who I want to be. If I want to be it, Ive got to try and hang in on those reps with her.

Im surrounded by elite athletes that have done pretty much everything in the sport. I can learn from them. Its the whole iron sharpens iron thing, and its true. As soon as I got there I started lifting PBs. None of it will have been down to any coaching change but just being in an elite environment.

The proof has already been evident on the track. A few weeks after joining Airale, Hunt returned to Britain for her penultimate outing of the summer, where she clocked 11.13 seconds over 100m in Stratford a huge personal best 1,547 days after running her previous mark of 11.31.

When I crossed the line I screamed and it was dead silent so it really echoed, she says. It was hugely emotional. You never know youre going to be the same and that youll be able to do what you did before major surgery. It makes me so excited for next year.

Shorn of her university commitments, Hunt hopes her sprinting will benefit from the sudden surfeit of time at her disposal. Her sleep has improved, her energy increased and she finally feels she has the capacity to cope with the demands of everyday life. My brain just feels bigger, she says.

Not that there is any chance of sitting back and doing nothing that Lake Como holiday was ideal only because it was a break from the normality of attempting to expand her horizons. She describes having nothing to do after training as so weird and has already taken to jumping on the train from Padua to nearby Venice on rest days to soak up the citys culture.

She has also identified learning the language as her next challenge for all the newfound free time, although even that has aspirational motivations far beyond just looking to order a drink in the local cafe: Its for a super nerdy reason because I want to be able to read [14th century writer] Giovanni Boccaccios The Decameron in Italian.

Running is now the priority, but that University of Cambridge mindset is not going anywhere soon.

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