Team England race walker Callum Wilkinson putting less pressure on himself for Commonwealth Games in Birmingham
His yearning to win burns as brightly as ever, yet Callum Wilkinson will have an altered mindset when he arrives on the start line at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham on Sunday (11.20am).
The Moulton-raised race walker has always been his own harshest critic, fixating on every minute detail of each race to learn how he could have performed better.
Indeed, just last year Wilkinson finished a highly respectable 10th at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, only to concede afterwards in his interviews that he was disappointed to have missed out on the top eight.
But a recent injury provided the 25-year-old with an opportunity to reflect. By rights Wilkinson should not be in peak shape to represent Team England at the weekend, such was the seriousness attached to the surgery required to correct the problem in his knee.
Yet the former Moulton Primary School pupil describes the speed of his recover as ‘miraculous’ – and it means that after passing up the chance to feature at the World Championships, he now feels primed to tackle this weekend’s 10km distance at a revamped Alexander Stadium.
And the fact that he could quite feasibly have missed such a big event means he is feeling less pressure than before.
“It feels pretty miraculous to be in this position. I went through everything before my surgery with the surgeon, the doctors, British Athletics and my own team in Cork and you can make a plan but you never know how it will go,” said Wilkinson, who was seventh at the 2018 Games in Australia.
“It was tough to pull out of the World Champs but it’s allowed me to have six weeks uninterrupted training and so I feel like I know what shape I’m in.
“Everyone goes into a race believing they’re capable of winning it and I’ll be the same in Birmingham. On my day I think I can win it.
“But maybe it’s because I’m getting wiser and that I’ve been through a lot with the knee injury but I just feel a bit more zen about it from a mindset point of view.
“I know I’ve done as much as I can to be ready and if I perform the best I can then that’s all I can do.
“I’ve always been very harsh on myself and set high expectations, but sometimes you set yourself up for a fall by doing that.
“When I look back over the last 18 months, every race has felt like it had massive pressure on it. I missed out on the Olympic qualifying time and then I won the British Championships but I think I described it at the time as a disgraceful performance because again I hadn’t earned the time.
“I finally got the time but it’s been a packed 18 months or two years of very much all or nothing races for me and that brings pressure.
“Ultimately only one person can win a race and I’d love that to be me in Birmingham, but I can also take some comfort in the fact I’ve prepared right and done everything I can. There’s no doubt you race better if you’re a happier person.”
One of the driving factors behind getting himself fit for this event was the prospect of performing in front a home crowd – something he experienced first hand in London at the 2017 World Athletics Championships.
But there was also the added incentive of having his family close by after Covid restrictions made travelling much more of a lonely experience for athletes.
“The crowd was a big part. It will be a bit different on the track because in London and then Berlin a year later it was a great atmosphere out on the road,” he added.
“I’ll watch some of our athletes to get a taste of it and if I can be near the front towards the end I’m sure it will be a fantastic atmosphere.
“And my family being there is a big thing. They’ve travelled everywhere right from me being a junior and that’s something I have missed for the last three or four years. To have them track-side – and the fact they can drive up from Moulton on the day – is great.”
Among those cheering Wilkinson on in Birmingham is set to be Ron Wallwork, not only his mentor and the person that guided his first steps on the ladder to such prestigious international events, but also a Commonwealth Games gold medallist from 1966 in the 20-mile race walk.
“I look up to Ron so much and I think he’s got tickets to be there which is amazing,” said Wilkinson.
“He text me recently to ask if I was going to do the Worlds or the Commonwealths and while he didn’t say it directly, I think he got the answer he wanted!
“In some ways it’s gone full circle for us and it will be a bit of milestone. If I win we could compare gold medals!”