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Athlete Focus | Taia Tunstall - 2021 U20 Euro Champs

Athlete Focus | Taia Tunstall - 2021 U20 Euro Champs

A few months back, we had the pleasure of speaking to Taia Tunstall. When we last spoke with her, she had her first British Championship experience before our interview.  While she initially struggled competing at a tournament of this level, she ended up throwing a PB a week later, putting her straight at the top of the rankings in the UK.

And now, Taia is continuing to thrive not just here in the UK, but also in Europe too!  Last week, she competed in the European U20 Junior Championships, which was her first major international competition.  In the first round, she threw 48.36, which secured her a place in the finals.  When the finals came around, she ended up throwing a 42.39, more reminiscent of her 2020 British Champs challenges.  She is currently ranked second in the UK with a PB of 51.05 in April, consequently meaning she is also ranked 15th in Europe!

We just knew that we had to catch up with her again after her first major international competition.  In our newest interview with her which we conducted this week, we spoke about how she got on, how she coped with nerves this time round and what her biggest learning experiences in Tallinn were!

Watch our full conversation with Taia below. Or alternatively, scroll down to read the full interview transcript.

INTERVIEW WITH TAIA TUNSTALL: U20 FEMALE #2 RANKED DISCUS THROWER, JULY 2021

We are delighted to catch up with you following that really good conversation back after the British Championships.  I always remember you saying about the biscuit competitions you were doing in order to prepare yourself for that sense of competing, and that sense of nerves!  And obviously, you had a really bad Champs, and then you had that fantastic one week later that you threw really well...

And now of course, the U20 European champs.  It’s such an achievement to get there. It’s brilliant to see three British young women at the European champs for the discus!  It’s really, really good!

We are interested to hear from you first hand how it went, and how it compares to your first European International.  

SO, HOW WAS YOUR FIRST EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP? 

...we'd also like to congratulate you as well!

Thank you! I’m not going to lie, it was a mixed bag of experiences. I went into it thinking no expectations, nothing like this. I went in ranked 15th overall, so I wasn’t even expecting to make it to the final.  I went into it, had reasonably alright warm up throws, and first throw in the qualifying round.  I was in the later group as well, so the wait up building to it was intense!  In the second round, I managed to work stuff out that wasn’t going right, and threw a 48, which I was really pleased with.  My dad said to me beforehand “do your first one, get it in, don’t walk out on it”, so I did.  “Do your second one, just replicate it or change what you’ve got to do and for the third one, just smash it”.  Stuart [Carlaw - Taia's coach] said it to me as well and yeah, I just went for it and it got me into the final.  I ranked 11th at that point. 

I went into the second day and didn’t have my best comp!  Some things just weren't working out and I think I was a bit all over the place as I was not expecting to make the final, and I haven’t really done two-day competitions for a while.  So, getting into my physical mentality and everything like that was all over the place...

For the first experience of doing a qualifier and then a final was quite a big learning curve.  And just being up against so many powerhouses at that competition was a big learning experience.  Obviously, I’ve thrown against Jade Lally, Kirsty Law and Shadine Duquemin before, but, having people your own age throwing those sorts of distances was a big eye opener as well.  It just gave me a first taste of my own International experience.  It was definitely a learning experience, but I’m very grateful that I got selected for it to actually do it!

Yes, absolutely!  Qualifying is a massive achievement in itself.  In the finals, you were 6m down on your qualifying round...

WERE YOU NERVOUS IN THE FINALS?

...I totally understand what you are saying: you were expecting to do just the qualifiers and be really happy with that performance.  And then making the finals was a surprise that you weren’t ready for.  So psychologically, you were expecting a day off, and then suddenly you were competing again. What was that like?

It was definitely a big thing that I went into it actually being in the final.  But also at the same time, it almost didn’t feel like I was in a final.  It just felt like it was another competition.  I hit the cage in the first round and it threw me off a bit.  I tried to go into the second throw and fix it, but it didn’t go correctly.  And in the third round, I tried way too hard.  I tried to beast it, which is what me, Stuart and my dad call it when I just try really hard to throw it as far as I can!  And my technique went straight out of the window, in some ways!  Although Stuart was saying that my technique was alright, but… yeah!

Did you think he was being kind to you?

I think he was actually being honest!  I looked back at the videos, and they seemed to be alright!  But I think at the time, it was just a mix of the nerves getting to me that I was in the final and it was my first GB best, and everything like that.  I was trying to do as well as I could for GB.  Also, I was trying too hard and trying to one up myself from what I did the day before.  Trying to beat that and I’ve known from previous experiences, throughout this year especially, that the more I try to do something, the less it works.  The more pressure I put on myself to do something, the worse my performance usually is! 

That’s what happened on the Thursday, is that I didn’t try to do anything, just do what I normally know how to do, and obviously that worked.  So it’s a bit of a thing that I know where my mentality is and what works for me, and what really doesn’t work for me now!

That’s really important. Obviously, Samantha Callaway and Zara Obamakinwa were both there as well. Samantha was in the finals, and Zara wasn’t...

WERE ALL OF THE ATHLETES SUPPORTING EACH OTHER IN TALLINN?

...did the others have similar experiences to you?  Was that something you shared, or did you really find that your experiences were so different to the other athletes and that really, it was the personal journey that you need to find, and your personal solution?

I can’t speak too much about Zara or Sam, as I’m not sure how they completely found it.  But, I think one thing we all had in common is that we may have just tried too hard to hit those distances.  It wasn’t completely our day at that point, as I know both me and Sam hadn’t done a qualifier and then a final before, so that was a learning experience for the both of us.  But it’s definitely individual, as I’ve seen throughout the other athletes who were there that each of them had their own different take on it, and learnt different things from that experience as well.  It’s all going to be individual learning experiences for all of us.

As a team, you can learn different things from different people, and how they cope with things.  The 400m runner we had went straight into it with full confidence and said “I’m going to win this”.  He did win it, and he won the 4x4 relay as well!  You learn different things from different people and you learn how different things work as well, but you also learn things about yourself when you’re in that situation… which is quite a big eye opener!

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST LEARNING EXPERIENCE FROM THE CHAMPIONSHIPS?

I spoke to my dad about this afterwards!  I’ve learned this before as well and I think it was just a bit more of a big thing for me.  As soon as I don’t really think about it, I don’t set myself any expectations, I don’t try and go for any of the distances that I’m meant to do, I get into it better.

I know that when I threw my PB back in April I was just completely relaxed, and trusted that I knew what to do, and I trusted that the work I’d put in for those several months of hard work that Stu put me through, that they’d paid off.  I think the same thing happened this time as well, where I trusted that I knew what I was doing.  Especially after that 42m throw that I did in the first throw of my qualifier, I trusted that I knew what I was doing, throughout the training I’d had at Loughborough.  And it just happened!  As soon as I tried to trust something else, tried to trust my physicality and the strength I’d put behind it, that it just didn’t work out right.

So relaxing into it and focusing on what you’re doing, rather than what you’re trying to achieve?

Yeah!

That’s interesting!

HOW DIFFERENT WAS THE BRITISH CHAMPIONSHIP TO THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP?

...The British Championships was a first for you… this was also a first… Had you learnt from the British Championships? Had that helped you in this experience?

From the first British Champs, I definitely learned about the cameras!  And the announcers as well!  The announcers was a big thing, not doing that for a few years after English Schools, you don’t usually get that amount of noise.  And having the cameras around was a big thing.  Doing the second British Champs, having that helped a lot.  I think I went into the Euros and it just felt the same as the British Champs almost.  There were slight differences with the way they did the call ups for your throw, but it was all in the same sort of thing and I just went into it thinking “this is just another competition I’ve done in Britain before”, and that it’s just the same sort of thing.

So that familiarity was really useful then?

Yeah, that learning experience from British Champs, both of them really, really helped this time.  Just because it’s another high level competition, just with a lot more countries involved!

But it’s still at the similar elite level, and also the atmosphere of those events is very different to a county level event or whatever it might be.

Yeah, definitely.

That’s great!

SO, WHAT'S NEXT FOR TAIA TUNSTALL?

I’ve still got two NAL competitions left and I’ve got the ETC comp in September.  I’m looking forward to those.  I’m taking a bit of a break at the minute, I’ve been doing so many comps that I need a bit of a chill out from athletics!  We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, fixing the things that need to be fixed and if there are more comps that I can do, I might try and do them.  But, the Euros was the big thing that I had to do this year, so anything else would be a bonus!

Hopefully get another PB but if not, we’ll go back into winter and… Stu will put me through my paces!  He’s already said about it!

And with a bit of luck, we’ll see you at the Europeans in 2022 again! Do you have another year at the U20’s?

This is my last year at U20’s.  I’ll be U23’s next year.

So moving up another level… That’s absolutely fantastic!

WHAT WAS THE BEST EXPERIENCE FROM THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP?

...What was that feeling, that spark… it might have been walking into that stadium, or the actual throwing, or afterwards… What is that memory that’s really going to stick with you?

The last throw happened and then I was really unsure, I think I was third going into the circle in that third round, and there were still another nine girls to throw after me.  I think it was after I’d finished the round and I’d spoken to Stu and I said “am I in the final tomorrow?” and he said to me “yes, you are!”.  And I was like oh, OK!  I think it was the realisation in that moment where I’d exceeded what I’d thought I was going to do.  The whole call with my dad afterwards as well and him saying how proud he was of me for getting into the finals.  That just really set it off and made it even more special as well.

That’s really lovely to hear! So often everything is judged against external placements or results.  But actually, when we first spoke 9 months ago, your target was to get selected for the Europeans.  So you’d clearly achieved that target.  And then you’d ranked 15th and wanted to do a good showing and to exceed your own goals is the whole point, isn’t it?  If you meet and exceed your goals it’s completely irrelevant, effectively, what anyone else in the competition has done.  The point is that you performed absolutely to the top of where you wanted to perform in yourself. 

It’s really great to be able to hold onto that as a goal, I think there’s too much pressure in society sometimes for young athletes, where it’s like “oh you’re going to go to English Schools and rank third” or “you’re going to go to this competition and throw this distance”.  It’s all external measures of skill, performance, ability… whatever it may be.  It’s that inner challenge and battle, that matters isn’t it?

The stuff you were speaking about going into English Schools… I’ve learnt that experience many times.  In my last English Schools, I was ranked 3rd in the country at the time, and I came out 5th.  I tried too hard to throw what I thought I needed to throw.  I thought I’d needed to throw another PB, because I’d thrown a massive PB the year before.

Especially those learning experiences, you realise that you can’t really try too hard, especially with the discus.  You’ve just got to let it happen and relax.  You say you try to relax, but until you’re actually completely calm and accept the fact that you don’t know what’s going to happen with this comp.  Anything could happen, as I’ve seen some comps where it completely rains down and people won’t throw their best that day.

You’ve just got to accept what it is, learn from it and learn from those experiences.  This comp especially, you realise that the external factors of trying to do this, trying to do that… It’s not always going to work.  It may work for some people, they may say I’m going to throw 48s today, and they throw 48s.  But, I’ve seen a lot of people where they don’t expect what’s going to happen.  They just let it happen and they throw a PB on the next throw!

External factors aren’t always the best... but I know in the past that bribery has worked with me as well!  My parents have bribed me a few times to do well!  It definitely differs, but it’s the way that you deal with it that is the thing that matters, I think as well.

And each of us has a unique personality and we deal with it in different ways, don’t we? It’s about tapping into our own triggers, and what works for us…

Well, I certainly think it’s a huge achievement and something to be really proud of. As I said in the beginning, it was lovely to see… not just in the discus, there was some fantastic representation across the board.  It feels like there’s a bit of an uptake in athletics at the moment.  The quality of the young people that we’ve got coming through, and obviously we’ve got the most amazing team going to Tokyo now!  It just really feels like maybe we’re coming into another period of UK Athletics!

I definitely agree.  We’ve had 8 throwers at European Championships and I think we’ve got 3 or 4 throwers at the Olympics at the minute, and I really haven’t seen that many throwers, especially across the Shotput and the Hammer… 2 for Shotput as well and there aren’t that many throwers that you would normally see doing the Athletics.  Having more people, especially when it’s live streamed on TV, you get more people involved as they’re seeing more of a variety of events, and I think that’s pretty amazing this year, especially with all the circumstances that have happened over the last 16 months as well.

Yes, absolutely. We just have to hope don't we that it lifts up the profile of the sport.  I think sometimes in the UK that Athletics has got a slightly lower profile. In Germany, it’s one of the main supported sports, after football. I don’t know where it would be placed in the UK, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s the second most popular sport after football…

After football and rugby, I think athletics is... somewhere in the mix!  It’s definitely not seen as much or live streamed as much as football and rugby are.

Absolutely. It’s underrepresented in the headlines, isn’t it? Which hopefully as you say, getting that really excellent cohort of British participants in these major internationals, just helps to pick up that profile.

Definitely, yeah.

WHO WILL YOU BE WATCHING AT THE OLYMPICS?

...what events and athletes are you particularly interested in?

Definitely Taylor Campbell in the hammer, Scott Lincoln and Sophie McKinna in the shot.  They’ve just really done well this year, especially with their PBs.  I will probably watch a bit of the high jump and pole vault as well, just because they’re fun to watch!

I know Emily Borthwick, who trains at Loughborough, she’s going to the Olympics this year for her first Olympics.  Harry Coppell in the pole vault as well, it’s his first Olympics and obviously Holly Bradshaw in the pole vault, as well.  She’s amazing to watch, especially when she’s training at Loughborough as well.  All the events are brilliant, so yeah… I’ll definitely be watching the athletics for sure!

Yes, we’ll definitely be tuning in as well.

Thank you so much for your time.  Pleasure to speak to you and hopefully, maybe we’ll be able to catch up again in a few months and follow your progress, and see how you get on!

I just hope it’s also useful for people to see a young athlete making those landmark journeys... and just a bit of inspiration and maybe some tips for everybody!

Thank you for talking to me again. It’s amazing to have these sorts of things, just reflecting on what’s happened since the last interview as well.

It’s been an eventful six months, hasn’t it!

Yes, it definitely has!

Thank you so much, and we’ll see you in person at the ETC festival, in the beginning of September. We’re going to be there as well, so it will be really nice to actually meet you in person instead of over a screen!

It will be great!
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