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Kirsty Wade

Kirsty remains to this day (at the beginning of 2014) the finest female athlete produced by Wales, having won three Commonwealth Games titles. She is still the second fastest Briton of all-time at 800m (1:57.42), 1,000m (2:33.70) and mile (4:19.41) over a quarter of a century after she achieved these feats. Only 2004 Olympic Champion Kelly Holmes has gone faster over 800 (1:56.21), and 1,000m (2:32.55) whilst the much maligned Zola Budd still holds the UK mile record with 4:17.57.

She now lives on in the Outer Hebrides and at a glance it might be a strange environment for someone who has created so much history within the sport. However, having being born in Girvan, Scotland, of English parents; brought-up in Mid-Wales where her parents still live and won titles in both the Welsh and English Schools’ championships it was perhaps natural that she returned to her land of birth. But she is Welsh through and through - her success coming from the way she was nurtured through the Welsh athletics system, especially the exceptional grounding she received as part of the Welsh Schools’ set-up.

Wales has not been over blessed with world-class women athletes. However Kirsty McDermott as she was is a pioneer. She took on many of the worlds finest and emerged in gold-medal class. She first shot to promise as a 12 year-old under the guidance of Roy Jones during the 1975 season as she won the Welsh and Welsh Schools’ under 15 800 title. Twelve months later running in the colours of her home club Brecon and school Llandrindod High, she did the double again setting a Schools’ record of 2:19.8 in the process. Her other coaches were briefly the late effervescent Ann Hill in 1984 and then the charismatic and hugely influential Harry Wilson, the former Welsh 6 miles champion who also coached Steve Ovett. Tony Wade, husband Tony, also coached her jointly with Harry from about 1985. Kirsty quips: “although Tony was not a coach who then became my husband it was very much the other way around!” 

She first raised eyebrows on the national stage in 1976 having just turned 14 when at Crystal Palace in the Women’s (UK) AAA junior 800 Championship she was noticed by the national press ‘as one to watch for the future’ (!). She won the title in 2:11.1 which gave her a new Welsh record for both under 15 and 17 age groups. It was also the fastest 800 time recorded by a Welsh athlete that year - irrespective of age, a phenomenal performance for one so young. Her efforts ensured that she was on the front cover of the first ever Welsh Athletics Annual in 1977. She was also awarded the BBC Wales Welsh Junior ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ accolade.

By the tender age of sixteen she had won her first Welsh senior 800 title in 1979 and it was the start of a remarkable run of ten successive titles up to 1988. Amazingly, later in the championships, she gave a clear indication of her blistering pace by finishing second in the 200m behind GB international Carmen Smart. Very few Welsh athletes – if any – have won a senior title at sixteen. During her unbeatable 800m championships reign her best time was 2:03.3 in 1985 and in almost all her races she lead from gun to tape. She also won four titles at 400 with her best time being 54.74 in 1987, while two titles also came in 1987 and 1991 in the 1,500, making sixteen titles in all. Only Venissa Head (25) won more senior women’s titles

Her junior career was a steady build up and this served her well for her superstar career to come. After her Women’s AAA under 15 title win in 1976, she again won the UK title – this time at under 17 level in 1978 to become once again the best in the UK for her age. In 1978 she also won the UK and Ireland schools international 800m on home soil in Haverfordwest. Afterwards she moved from Llandrindod High School in the heart of Wales to the exclusive sporting academy at Millfield School in Somerset.

Kirsty’s first taste of European competition came at the 1979 European junior championships in Poland. She excelled to reach the final, finishing 6th in 2:04.8 just 12 days after her 17thbirthday, slicing almost 3 seconds off her best. To complete her junior career she joined an elite group of Welsh athletes - rugby star Gareth Edwards was one - who have won English Schools’ titles with an 800 victory in 1980 by virtue of her studies at Millfield.

As an 18 year-old in 1981 Kirsty really left her calling card on the world scene. She gained her first full British vest in Britain’s indoor match against West Germany in Dortmund in January, finishing third in a Welsh record 2:05.23. And then, just three weeks later in Grenoble, she just missed out on a medal at the European indoor championships finishing fourth, reducing her Welsh indoor record to 2:02.88, faster than her outdoor best. She followed this up later in the year with a new Welsh 800 record outdoors with 2:04.01 in Hungary, clipping just under 3 tenths off Thelwyn Bateman’s 10 year-old record.

In 1982 she broke the Welsh 800 record on four occasions – 2:03.0 at Aldershot; 2:02.14 while finishing fourth in the Women’s (UK) AAA Championships; 2:01.23 at Cleckheaton and a superb 2:00.05 at Crystal Palace.

By the time she reached Brisbane in 1982 for the Commonwealth Games she was no longer a teenager, having celebrated her 20th birthday just a month before and was expected to gain valuable experience and reach the final of the 800. The rest is history as she held the inside lane from start to finish to win in 2:01.31 and be crowned the first Welsh female Commonwealth Champion.

By nature Kirsty was a pessimist and it wasn’t all plain sailing for she had to fight back from a disastrous year in 1984 when she was on the verge of quitting the sport. But having married and now living in Whitley Bay she rediscovered the dedication. “After winning in Brisbane I just couldn’t believe it. I had only just made the Welsh team by setting a personal best. It was a real shock to win. After that win, although I was only twenty, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to end my career. I used to treat athletics as a hobby and it was always bottom of my priorities and I wanted to take up a career possibly in nursing”.

In the doldrums after failing to make the 1984 Olympic team Kirsty decided to cut out, what she refers to as the “three “C’s” – chips, chocolate and cheese. She says: “I decided to cut them out and anything else that looked delicious and fat filled to see if it helped my running and it did”. She soon rediscovered her appetite for the sport the following year with devastating affect. “I also cut out chocolate and mum’s sponge puddings and stuck to 1,000 calories a day. It was quite hard but from a racing weight of 10st 4lbs in 1981 I was 8st 9lbs at the end of 1984”.

Kirsty never wanted to be a full time athlete and with being a graduate of English from Loughborough University ran the Sub-Two Fitness Centre at Rowlands Gill in Tyne and Wear. Living in Whitley Bay, the northeast air seemed to agree with her and training at a new base brought handsome dividends.

But 1985 was her probably signature year despite her double Commonwealth triumph 12 months later. She reduced her best to a phenomenal Commonwealth record of 1:57.42 in Belfast just failing to catch Czechoslovakian world record holder Jarmila Kratochvilova by a mere 28 hundredths of a second. This time still stands today after almost 30 years as the Welsh record and the second fastest of all-time by a Briton behind double Olympic champion Kelly Holmes. The clocking beat Christina Boxer’s six year old UK record of 1:59.05. This made her only the third British woman, after Boxer and Shireen Bailey, to run sub 2 minutes for 800m. The time stood as a British record for ten years until beaten by Kelly Holmes. Kirsty showed that her Belfast run was no fluke as seven weeks later in the World Cup in Moscow, she clocked a sparkling 1:57.48 to finish fourth, with Kratochvilova winning again, this time in 1:55.91. In 1985 she emphasised her superiority in Britain by clocking eight sub 2 minute times for the 800, including four sub 1:58’s. As a comparison, in 2013 Britain’s fastest, Marilyn Okoro ran once under 2 minutes with 1:59.43. That’s how good Kirsty was!

Kirsty’s 4:19.41 mile in the Bislett Games in Oslo also in 1985 was a new UK and Commonwealth record making her only the fourth woman in history to run sub 4:20. She finished just 23 hundredths of a second behind American Mary Slaney – no doubt remembered best for the fall she suffered in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic 3,000m in her tussle with Zola Budd - and shattered Christina Boxer’s previous record of 4:22.64.

Her achievements in 1986 will go down in history as one of the greatest middle distance performance by any woman at the Commonwealth Games. Those privileged to be at Scotland’s Meadowbank Stadium in the cold summer witnessed a piece of athletics history. Her achievement in becoming the first woman to win not only the Commonwealth 800 title twice, but also a middle distance double of 800/1,500 was truly remarkable. For her outstanding feat, she was made the BBC Wales Sports Personality of The Year.

In 1987 she continued in fine form. Her rise as a world-class runner reached a new peak in February in San Diego when she broke the European indoor mile record with a time of 4:26.10, by two seconds. Outdoors, she also won the European Cup 1500m in Prague with one of her devastating finishing kicks defeating future World and Olympic champion Tatyana Samolenko. She also finished 6th in the Rome World Championships 1,500 in 4:01.41 to cement her ranking as Britain’s number one in 1987 in both the 800 and 1,500.

Her new home track at Gateshead soon became a favourite of hers as at the end of the 1987 season she set a new Welsh 3,000 record of 8:47.86, taking some 5 seconds off Angela Tooby’s record.

Altogether, Kirsty set twelve Welsh records at four different distances. Her record breaking included 800 (6), 1,500 (4), 1 mile (1) and 3,000 (1) – a truly remarkable achievement, unequalled amongst Welsh middle-distance athletes.

She took part in two Olympic Games (Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992) reaching the semi-finals on both occasions, and finished 6th again in the Tokyo World Championships of 1991, having taken a year out in 1990 to give birth to her first child.

It was not only on the track that Kirsty excelled. She won the prestigious 5th Avenue Mile in New York in 1987, and the road miles in Toronto and on home soil in Westminster twice.

But her best off-track performance came in the televised International Athletes Club international cross country race in the grounds of Cardiff Castle in 1986, when she beat the cream of Britain’s cross country stars to win the race and lead Wales to the home countries team title. Recalling that race she says: “I was extremely happy that day as I had been a pretty average cross country runner and apart from loving it at around age 11-14 I had struggled through it for the training effect for years. I don't know how but that day I managed to beat Yvonne Murray and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic 3,000m silver medallist Wendy Sly and a couple of good Americans. It was a quirky course that did laps of the Castle and it just suited me...... and the Welsh team won beating the English and USA team. Definitely a highlight for me … Dad was laughing so much when I crossed the line we have a great photo of us together....some sort of payback for all the muddy, cold, wet hours that he had spent supporting me during my adolescence!”

She was also an excellent performer indoors taking five UK indoor titles between 1981 and 1987. She took the 800 title four times between 1981 and 1984, also taking the 1500 crown in 1987.

In a poll undertaken by the AAW (the predecessor of Welsh Athletics as the athletics governing body in Wales) in 2000 to establish the leading Welsh athletes of the last century, she won the female award ahead of Venissa Head, which confirmed her as Wales’ finest female athlete of all-time.

Kirsty is a remarkable athlete and her records will last for many a year.

She was inducted into the Welsh Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008, when she was presented with her award by 1972 Olympic pentathlon champion Mary Peters at a glittering ceremony at the Vale Country Club, Hensol.

Clive Williams/March2014

With thanks to Mike Walters

Kirsty Wade Statistics:

Personal bests:

400m: 54.46 Derby 25 May 1987

800m: 1:57.42 Belfast 24 June 1985 (UK record 1985-1995)

1000m: 2:33.70 Gateshead 9 August 1985 (UK record 1985-1995)

1500m: 4:00.73 Gateshead 26 July 1987

1 mile: 4:19.41 Oslo 27 July 1985 (UK record Jul 1985-Aug 1985)

3000m: 8:47.7 Gateshead 5 August 1987

Annual progression at 800m:

1975: 2:19.9

1976: 2:11.1

1977: 2:11.20

1978: 2:07.74

1979: 2:04.8

1980: 2:05.42

1981:  2:02.88i 

1982: 2: 00.56

1983: 2:01.88

1984 2:02.34

1985: 1:57.42

1986: 2:00.01

1987: 1:58.45

1988: 2:00.61

1989: no mark

1990: no mark

1991: 2:01.92

1992: 2:01.00