Julian Oakley’s gradual improvement shows dividends
Kiwi Julian Oakley has been gradually making his presence felt on both the US collegiate circuit and more latterly the international scene with a series of impressive performances. Steve Landells spoke with the 24-year-old middle-distance talent to find out more.
Of all the performances by a Kiwi on the global stage in recent times, perhaps the least heralded was Julian Oakley’s ninth place finish at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham.
Yes, he may have smuggled his way into the final following the disqualification of FOUR athletes for lane violations, including Olympic 5000m silver medallist Paul Chelimo.
But he used his good fortune to his advantage, to make his first mark of significance on the global championship stage.
It has been a journey fostered on hard work, patience and persistence and perhaps a little genetic assistance from his gifted sporting mother.
Born the eldest son of four-time world squash champion Susan Devoy, Julian was a regular cross country winner at primary school, although in his formative years he was far more interested in cricket, soccer and rugby than running.
It was only after starting life at Tauranga Boys’ College did athletics pique the interest of Julian – and a huge part of this was the positive influence his coach and teacher at the school Gareth Hyett, a former New Zealand 800m and 1500m champion, made on the then teenager.
“It was only after I got to high school and started to train properly (thanks to Gareth) did I start to get into running,” explains Julian.
“We had a really good cross country team. We pushed each other hard in training and we’d medal at national events. Then as a Year 12 student at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Hastings, I finished second in the 800m (behind 2018 Commonwealth finalist Brad Mathas) and fourth in the 1500m. That was the moment I realised what I could achieve if I continued to work hard.
Julian says Hyett’ offered “a great insight” into running and he continued to impress, winning 1500m gold and 800m silver at the 2011 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Wellington as a Year 13 student.
Later that 2011-12 season he ran a 1500m PB of 3:47.31 – a performance which proved the gateway to gaining a US scholarship and the Kiwi also earned selection for the 800m and 1500m at the 2012 World U20 Championships in Barcelona.
Competing inside the 1992 Olympic Stadium proved a rush, and although disappointed to have exited the heats of both events, the experience acted a spur for his subsequent career.
“I remember racing the Moroccans, Kenyans and Ethiopians and it was a great opportunity to race the top guys and see how they did it.
“Coming from New Zealand I was one of the best runners, but here I was (at World U20s) racing guys who ran 3:38 (for 1500m) thinking, ‘wow, these guys are on a different level’. It gave me a new appreciation of how hard you needed to work to reach the top.”
Just one month after his World U20 experience he headed Stateside to take up scholarship at Providence College, Rhode Island. He says it was no easy decision to leave New Zealand but ultimately what persuaded him was the quality and class of Providence track and field head coach Ray Treacy, who has previously coached Kiwi distance stars Kim Smith, Julian Matthews and at that time Laura Nagel.
“I just trusted Ray,” insists Julian. “He was a great coach with a great record. Some people experience burn out training high mileage at college but Ray was all about long-term growth with the hope that I would have a long career ahead of me.”
Adjusting quickly to life at Providence, Ray was good to his word preferring Julian’s long-term development over short-term gain.
The Kiwi recalls “getting his butt kicked a bunch” during his first couple of years at Providence, although that only served to motivate the Tauranga athlete.
Success came gradually and in 2014 he achieved a landmark first sub-four-minute mile mark in Concord, Massachusetts with a 3:58.89 clocking.
“It was a really cool moment and what you dream of as a middle-distance runner,” he explains. “Earlier that year I had run two 4:00 indoor miles, so I’d been close. I ran poorly at NCAA regionals and didn’t make it to nationals before going to this meet in Boston. Hamish Carson (the six-time New Zealand 1500m champion) and Leo Manzano (the 2012 Olympic 1500m silver medallist) were there that day and it just all came together. Crossing the finish line in 3:58 was a moment which made all the hard training worth it.”
“Chipping away” and enjoying consistent training coupled with no serious injury has seen Julian make gradual improvements. In 2015 he made his first NCAA Indoor Championships, where he excited the heats of the mile. Twelve months later in the same competition he progressed to seventh in the final. Last year he made his NCAA outdoor final in the 5000m, where he placed 17th in what was his final college appearance.
Since then Julian, who graduated with a MBA a few weeks ago, but unburdened by the pressure and demands of competing on the college circuit had a lot more freedom to pick up his mileage, which now typically stands at between 85-95 miles a week (approx 135-150km).
The result has been some significant improvements during the indoor campaign as he set PB’s in the 1500m (3:39.92), the mile (3:55.10) and he slashed eight seconds from his 3000m best (7:44.34) as he achieved the World Indoor Championships standard.
Selected for the New Zealand team in Birmingham, for what was his first major championship, was a huge honour, although he did not quite perform as he hoped in the heats – crossing the line in 7:55.92 and initially outside of the qualification spots.
Yet as he was to quickly find out, he would be given a most welcome reprieve.
“I was pretty gutted after the race when I saw Hamish (Carson) and Tamsin (Chittock, the team physio) and they said ‘you’re in the final’. When I checked the results, I saw there was four DQs, which was obviously not how I wanted to progress. Even going to bed that night I thought the athletes would protest and be let back in, but it held out and I was in the final.”
In the medal race, Julian admits he found it ‘tough’ competing against top-quality African athletes capable of covering the final kilometre in 2:21 but he stuck gamely to his task to cross the line ninth in 8:18.60.
“I’m the type of athlete that always wants more but ninth in my first world senior championship was pretty cool,” he adds. “I could have done a little better but at the same time, I’m not too disappointed.”
Deciding to stay on the US for at least another year to be close to Treacy and a familiar training environment would seem a sensible move by the Kiwi, who has thrived under the Irishman’s patient approach.
In the early phase of the Northern Hemisphere track season, Julian has continued to impress, setting a 1500m PB of 3:39:42 in Swarthmore and he plans further North Americans races and stint in Ireland with the goal of a 13:30 5000m.
Beyond that, and having had a taste of major international championship competition in Birmingham he wants more.
“Right now Doha (2019 World Championships) and Tokyo (2020 Olympics) is on my radar,” he explains. “I’m coming into my prime years and making any New Zealand team is the goal”
The question is in which event does he see his future lying; the 1500m or 5000m?
“I have some unfinished business in the 1500m and I’ve only run the 5k a handful of times,” he says. “I do like running the 3000m but unfortunately there is no outdoor championship over the distance. My long-term future might be over 5k but I really like running the mile. It is a special distance and they run it a lot here in the US.”
Praising the influential role his parents have played, particularly his mum given her rich sporting background, he claims he is ‘lucky to have them” supporting him every step of the way.
But with a mum as a four-time former world squash champion and two younger brothers, Jamie and Josh also both pursuing a career the racket sport, why is that Julian never went down the same path?
“I did play squash when I was younger,” explains Julian. “I enjoyed the social side to the game and I played on the Bay of Plenty team, but I never took squash too seriously. I was always better at running.”