Team GB's Callum Wilkinson reflects on his journey to the Olympic Games in Tokyo
You name it, Callum Wilkinson has almost certainly tried his hand at it.
“I loved table tennis – I played it a lot. That probably was the first event I took seriously, but I did so many different sports,” said the 24-year-old.
“Football, rugby at Newmarket, cricket, golf and I even remember going to Chippenham lawn bowls a couple of times. Archery – literally anything going, I’d want to see if I could do it.
“I guess the willingness to try any sport probably helped me out.”
But just how did the boy that grew up in Moulton on the outskirts of Newmarket – playing any sport that came his way – transform himself into an Olympic standard race walker who will be on the start line for the men’s 20K in Tokyo on August 5?
Good fortune certainly played a role initially, with the Wilkinson family just so happening to be living in the same village as the man who won race walking gold for England at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica.
Ron Wallwork has gone on to be one of – if not the biggest – influences on the former Moulton Primary School pupil’s career.
“Ron genuinely changed my life, without him I wouldn’t have race walked,” said Wilkinson.
“My dad picked Moulton on the map because it was close to the A11 and A14. He found a house, and it just so happens to be in the same village as Ron, who has a big background in race walking.
“Ron is the very definition of a gentleman who would help anyone and his dog, and his dog’s dog! That’s how generous he is with his time.
“I know he’s had an influence on so many people’s lives.”
Even in those early days Wallwork must have seen enough potential in a young Wilkinson.
After a handful of sessions he was entered into the Suffolk County Athletics Championships, and duly triumphed in his age group. Subsequent outings at a higher level brought him back down to earth, but by this point a 15-year-old Wilkinson had well and truly got the bug.
“We’d watched the Moulton 5 race walk and like all other sports, I decided I wanted to give it a go,” he said.
“My dad knocked on Ron’s door just around the corner and said that his boys wanted to have a go at race walking, can you give us some tips?
“We had two weeks of training and then Ron took us to the track in Bury St Edmunds to do 3K to see how we were getting on – turns out it was something like the Suffolk County Athletics Championships! We just strolled up, and looking back, I’ve no idea what we must have looked like turning up!
“But I set a new country record over 3K for Under-17s, and that was only after walking for two weeks!
“From the studies I’ve done, early sporting success is good for continued participation, and it certainly made me think I could be quite good.
“That September, having first raced in June in the Suffolk Champs, I raced in the English Schools and that was the first time I’d raced against people my own age properly. I was lapped three or four times by the winner Cam Corbishley, who has become a good friend.
“The race at the county champs showed I had some natural talent, but this one showed me I had a lot of catching up to do.
“A year later I made some really big strides and I was second behind Cam in the Nationals, but I was only 20 seconds behind this time.”
As well as Wallwork’s expertise, in those early days coach Mick Graham was on hand to help guide a blossoming career.
And such is the esteem the trio hold each other in, they remain very close knit, even though Wilkinson’s journey has taken him across the globe competing and now over to Ireland for training.
The former world junior champion explained: “With Mick and Ron, I sort of see them as a tag team. One with the other, in training, just worked. It was all part of the fun.
“They’re very much a comedy duo at times and it made me enjoy training so much.
“Mick has a way with words shall we say! I can still remember the exact Q’s he’d give me. I probably ended up saying them in my sleep.
“It’s testament to them both that when I am back in the UK, I’ll drop in and see Ron, I’ll go to the track and see Mick – he’ll always give me his time.
“The first two people to text me after the race (after qualifying for the Olympics) were Ron and Mick. I hope that says something about me, that they still care and feel involved in my process because they are both still mentors to me.
“Long may it continue because I value their input a lot and I like being able to share my achievements with them.”
And yet, things could quite conceivably have been very different.
Towards the back-end of 2017, Wilkinson was on the rise. He had just been selected to represent his country at the Commonwealth Games, but the Leeds Beckett University student had lost a lot of love for the sport.
He actually went as far as quitting – race walking had dropped far down his list of priorities.
“I meant it, 100 per cent,” he reflected. “I was working close to 40-hour weeks at McDonalds, I needed the money. I needed to knuckle down in my degree. I’d changed courses, then changed back, and I needed to stick my head down.
“Training became last in the queue. I was working, I was going to uni, I was enjoying life and spending time with my friends.
“All the times before when race walking had gone first – even in 2013, I didn’t go to prom because there was a race in Dublin that weekend. Prom was midweek, I could have gone, but there was a race I was so focused on.
“But at that point I just ended up having no motivation for training – all for something I’d loved for a long time and really enjoyed.”
As it was, he returned in a little more than two weeks. So what changed his mindset? Ultimately, it was the burning desire to fulfil a childhood dream of competing at the Olympics that proved too strong of a pull.
“I was very lucky that I had some very good people in my life that could see what I was struggling with,” he said.
“It was a case of ‘please bear with me through this, I need to process it all myself’. I was just being a student, and enjoying it. I wasn’t depressed or anything, but the motivation for walking wasn’t there.
“I didn’t want to feel guilty for not training and not wanting to be there. I’d even been picked for the Commonwealth Games at this point, but it was weird. I couldn’t get excited by it.
“But deep down I probably always knew I was going to come back, I just didn’t know when. It lasted two weeks, it could have been two years.
“I still had it in me that I wanted to go to an Olympics. I’d been to a World Champs, I’d been selected for the Commonwealths, the Europeans was the next year. Within nine months time I would have had everything but the Olympics, and that is such a big thing for me.
“I’m intelligent enough to know that if I wanted to realise that ambition, I had to stop being a uni dosser.
“I had to find the right balance. I learned quite a lot about myself. I knew how dedicated I could be and the sacrifices I made, going all the way back to the prom. It would have made no difference to my performance if I’d gone to the prom, but I was so dedicated.
“I just realised there are times when you need to be 100 per focused, and others where you need to try to enjoy yourself.”
Two other people that have played a leading role in Wilkinson’s rise to the top have been his parents.
They were there when he won gold in Poland in 2016, and were the first people he spoke to on the phone after booking his Olympic ticket.
“I know I’m very fortunate. I’ve already said that I tried every sport, well somebody has got to take you there, somebody has got to pick you up – they did, always,” said the former Bury St Edmunds schoolboy.
“More recently, they’ve picked me up when things haven’t gone well.
“After Doha (disqualified at the World Athletics Championships), I flew back, was up in Leeds and just felt like I needed to go home.
“It’s almost like my reset button, to be able to go home to see my parents and to Moulton – it will always be home and where it all started.
“They did everything possible to allow me to do what I wanted and created an environment where they just wanted me to be happy in what I was doing.”
Sadly, Covid-19 restrictions will prevent the Wilkinsons from watching their son up close in Japan – they will have to make do with tuning in back home with the rest of the nation.
“Before a race, if I know my parents are there, I’ll look for them. Usually you get let out on the course 10 minutes before, so I get to know where they are, wave and then I can switch on. Obviously it’s different this time,” said Wilkinson, who has the Suffolk emblem tattooed on his arm.
“I know it’s going to hurt, it’s going to be a battle and all the other cliches you can chuck at it.
“But it’s the Olympic Games, if you can’t smile at the fact you’re on the start line at an Olympic Games, when can you? Even if I don’t look like I’m smiling, I’m happy about it.
“I’ve done the training, I know my targets. Racing is the easy and fun bit compared to training, so I’ll be excited.
“I’ll be going in there looking at the top eight, I think that’s achievable.
“Of course the ultimate aim is a medal - nobody goes into a race thinking that they’d love eighth place. You go in to win a race, but you’ve got to be realistic as well.
“I’ve just got to give myself the best chance. I’m halfway there in the fact that I’m in the race, now I’ve got to execute everything.”