Phil Norman on the steeplechase’s brutality and how Mo Farah inspired unique journey to Tokyo Olympics

Exclusive interview: The 31-year-old quit the sport for six years before rekindling his passion for the sport in 2014

Jack Rathborn
Assistant Sports Editor
Thursday 29 July 2021 09:10
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Tokyo 2020 round-up

There is no easy way to run the steeplechase but the event epitomises Phil Norman’s steely character and his protracted journey towards realising his Olympic dream in Tokyo on Friday.

The testing conditions of the Japanese climate further add to the unforgiving nature of his event, with the Team GB runner targeting a place in Monday’s final.

Like many athletes in Tokyo, Norman’s path to the pinnacle of the sport has been far from straightforward. It has included a recent sabbatical from his day job as a pole tester with Openreach, handing him respite from the arduous work that would sometimes hinder his training.

But Norman, who ran a stunning 8:20 in Ostrava in May to clinch the Olympic standard, is fully aware of the brutal nature posed by the 3,000m steeplechase.

“Every athlete will say their event is the toughest, but I’d say the steeplechase is the toughest event out there,” Norman tells The Independent. “If you hit one of those barriers, it’s not moving and that can end your race.

“In a hurdles race you can recover, but in a steeplechase, your race is done. You’ve got 28 barriers to get over, three feet high each, and seven water jumps. They take a lot out of you.

“You have to be focused the whole time too. It’s different to other races, where you can tuck in behind people, but in the steeplechase you can’t switch off, you need to check where the barrier is.

“There’s no easy way of running the steeple. If you go off too hard, you’ll suffer badly and when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. That last 300m is a whole different story as well.”

Norman’s place in Tokyo can be traced back to an epiphany experienced while on the beach reading Mo Farah’s autobiography. It was then that he realised, six years removed from falling out of love with the sport, there was still time to rekindle his dream.

“After the 2018 season, I realised that I’d spent so much of my life, 10 years, sacrificing other things and that I wasn’t enjoying it, so I stopped and I didn’t know if I would ever run again.

“I was playing football, a local league, nothing serious, but I started getting fed up with that as not many people took it seriously and I needed more of a challenge. I saw what other people had done, like James Wilkinson. He was the same age as me and I think he only beat me once. I saw his trajectory and I thought I could do that or better.

Phil Norman from Great Britain competes in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase on Friday

“Mo Farah’s book was bringing up old memories too and I thought there is unfinished business here and I just can’t leave it any longer.”

It was Mark Brace who initially helped Norman to reestablish himself before a change of coach in 2018 to link up with Tomaz Plibersek.

And the latter has guided Norman to new heights in 2021: a 5,000m PB (13:46.80) and his breakthrough in Ostrava, finishing second to Tokyo favourite Getnet Wale, though Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali is expected to push the Ethiopian close in one of the most delicately poised track races of the Games.

Norman is also expecting a child later this year with his wife Coral, who has been a pivotal part of his journey since transitioning back towards the sport.

It is a familiar position in the Great Britain camp too, with Norman sharing the expectation of a new family member with Elliot Giles and Andy Butchart. His family will be cheering him on back home due to Covid-19 restrictions, leaving Norman to focus on Heat 1 this Friday, with teammate Zak Seddon in Heat 2.

It is time to perform but the 31-year-old takes a moment to contemplate the culmination of a childhood dream. And 23 years after joining Exeter Harriers as an eight-year-old, he is able to encapsulate the beautiful simplicity of this sport and what it means to him.

“Standing on that start line, you know,” Norman says. “Ready for that gun to go and just giving it everything I have, wearing a Team GB kit at an Olympics. Going to compete and giving it my all to make the final, it’s all about that moment.”

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