Kevin Metzger may only have been specialising in the 400m for little over a year, but a string of outstanding performances in the one-lap event has earned him the chance to represent Great Britain at international level for the first time in his career.
He makes his GB début in Poland at the World Relay Championships this weekend as one of the less experienced members of the men’s squad, having raced in the outdoor 400m less than a dozen times in his entire career – a fraction of the experience enjoyed by his counterparts. Perhaps most remarkably of all, he is yet to complete so much as a baton changeover in a 4x400m relay.
But such has been the speed at which Metzger has adapted to the 400m, nobody could argue the Sale Harrier doesn’t deserve his place on the team. For much of his career, he had specialised – and not without success – in the triple jump. He was a regular medallist in the event at English National Championships, and is still the English U23 champion from 2019.
Indeed, such was his aptitude for the triple jump, few could have predicted Metzger’s decision to leave behind an event at which he had excelled so consistently. Perhaps nobody could have foreseen a change to an event as dichotomous to the triple jump as the 400m.
There is one very obvious question that springs to mind: why did Metzger leave behind the event in which he is a national champion, in favour of an event as arduous as the 400m?
“The triple jump was going well and I was having a decent career,” Metzger explains. “But I just felt like I was reaching a bit of a plateau. It just wasn’t progressing how I wanted it to.
“I felt I was banging my head against a wall. I’d been doing it for years and I felt that although I was jumping OK, I wasn’t scratching the surface of my potential.”
Towards the end of the 2019 season, Metzger experimented more readily with the sprints and – with good cause. He clocked 21.65sec in the 200m, as well as 10.68sec at the UK Championships, where he reached the semi-finals. But more importantly than the PBs and the fast times, switching events allowed him the chance to stop getting into his own head.
“I wasn’t overthinking [sprinting] as much as I was with the triple jump. Going into the next season I thought I could just give the sprints a go.”
Yet out of the three sprints available to him, Metzger chose arguably one of the toughest. Why the 400m?
“I guess one of the good things about the 400m is that there are quite a lot of opportunities to make relay teams. With the triple jump, I was way off any standard [for a major championship], so I took a bit of a risk. It all just added up with me wanting to have a change, to do something fresh and something new.”
It certainly sounded simple in theory. But with autumn 2019 fast approaching, the 23-year-old was still tasked with finding a new coach, a new training group, and adapting to his new event. Listening to him explain how it all came together, however, and Metzger makes it all sound remarkably easy. A short Google, text message, and phone call later, he found himself preparing for a training session with a group coached by Steve Ball at Longford Park, Stretford.
“Finding a group wasn’t too hard – I just looked around for a little bit on the Power of 10,” Metzger says, matter-of-factly. “I didn’t want to move out of Manchester, so it was a no-brainer to join Steve. I got in touch with someone in the group and then rang Steve. He just said ‘yeah, come down for the next session’ – and that was it!
“I’d seen all the athletes he’d coached,” Metzger adds, before reeling them off from memory. “Andrew Steele, Kelly Massey, Rick Yates, Seren Bundy-Davies… the list goes on. Steve’s obviously had success and knows how to train 400m runners. The current group of athletes he has is really good as well. There are 47-second runners so I thought, ‘perfect’.”
Metzger may have found the ideal coaching set-up, but soon was to come a winter’s worth of training he was almost completely unfamiliar with: lactic tolerance, speed endurance, and gruelling runs on a Sunday morning along the River Mersey. Were there ever times he wished he had just stuck with the triple jump?
“I’d heard about how hard the training is for the 400m, so I was mentally prepared. But I knew what I was getting myself in for so there was never any case of wanting to stop – even though the sessions were absolutely horrible sometimes.
“Obviously mid-session, your body’s screaming at you to stop, but I never seriously thought about going back to triple jump. I wanted to give it a good go.”
That he certainly did. Metzger was a surprise package during the 2020 indoor season, coming a fraction away from dipping under 48sec at the UK Indoor Championships. Seven months and a national lockdown later, he closed the 2020 season by running 46.71sec in the Czech Republic, placing himself in the UK top-10 for the men’s 400m – not bad for a one-lap novice.
Fast-forward another seven months (and another national lockdown), Metzger finds himself on the plane with GB relay stalwarts Rabah Yousif, Dwayne Cowan, Zoey Clark, and Emily Diamond, after an excellent season opener of 46.86sec in Stretford. Has it surprised him how quickly it’s all come together?
“It doesn’t actually feel like it’s happened quickly. I’ve been in the sport since I was 11 or 12 and from the age of 15 or 16, I’ve been wanting to make a GB team,” Metzger says. “I’ve never made a GB team at a youth or junior or U23 level. So in the grand scheme of my career, it doesn’t feel like it’s happened quickly.
“But as far as the 400m is concerned, it does feel like it’s happened quite fast. It’s kind of crazy that since I started 400m, everything’s just been happening how I’d want it to happen. It’s going well so far so I’m really happy with it.”
With his GB début just a couple of days away, Metzger reminds himself to embrace the process in a way he admits he didn’t when he was a triple jumper.
“I’m just consciously reminding myself to enjoy [my career],” he says. There have been so many times where I’d put pressure on myself and then not do well.
“I was missing opportunities because I was being anxious. So now I always make sure to try and enjoy the experience itself,” he concludes. “That way, it doesn’t feel as stressful.”
A World Relay Championships without a crowd may seem a bit surreal – even a little flat – but there is little doubt that with a GB selection under his belt, Metzger is not an athlete to be underestimated with the 2021 season soon to be underway.