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Posted: May 6, 2003

Athletics: Late Starter Making His Mark

By Paul Grech

Few take up athletics with the sole thought of becoming the best in their sport. For many, running is a way through which they can stay physically active, a means of relieving stress of modern life. And if they start to clock good times, ambitions change accordingly.

Jonathan Balzan never considered athletics anything more than a pastime. A fun run organised by his school gave him his first taste of running, and he then progressed to the various distance running events held in Malta. On his own he leart how to pace himself and on his own he started improving his finishing times.

Last year, his name began being mentioned with increasing regularity among those finishing in the front. Good results that have been bettered this season. At thirty years, he has won the Attard 10K, the Dingli 10 and, most recently the Pembroke 10K. On a national scale, he came in as runner-up in the Malta International Half Marathon and also ended the Malta Amateur Athletics Associations' Road Running League in second place.

Yet the defining moment of his career came two years ago. Finally, he agreed to listen to those who had long been urging him to find a coach. With immediate results.

"Without any training I used to go out running. I used to take part in races simply for the fun of it. On occasions I injured myself because I didn't prepare properly for the events, I even used to run with any slipper I found. Many athletes told me that I would much better if I was coached properly, but I didn't really pay them too much attention because I was improving on my own. But then, after the 2000 half marathon, I agreed that it was something that I needed."

A sensible decision and one that Jonathan never regreted. If anything, he's "sorry that I didn't get a coach earlier. If I had done, maybe I would have achieved certain results and times much earlier." Now that he's realized how important it is to have someone to guide you, his faith in coach Roger Zammit is absolute. "Once he gets to know you, a coach can adapt training to your needs. But you have to tell him everything on how you feel. He will give you the help you need to fulfill your potential because he knows what he's doing. Sometimes I make the mistake of expecting to do too much in training, but he has to be the one to guide you."

Using his knowledge of the athlete, a coach will also establish the targets that have to be attained. "He'll set the time in which you should finish a rase. There is an element of surprise, because sometime I do better than the coach expected. On those occasions, I have to admit that I'm more than pleased." As well as encouraged to push harder. "In the beginning I used to be happy simply to finish a race. Then I started to edge closer to the leading pack, occasionally winning a trophy. These tiny steps forward encourage you to train harder in order to even better."

The second place in the Malta International Half Marathon was probably his most satisfying result so far. Hardly surprising that this event is one of Jonathans' favourites. "There are so many people in the final kilometre of the half marathon, so much enthusiasm that you push yourself that little bit harder."

Unfortunately, this excitement is the exception rather than the rule. Athletics in Malta still struggles against lack of interest and support. "I don't think that the efforts and results of the athletes are appreciated enough. Newspapers take long to publish results and these aren't even mentioned in the sports buletins."

Despite everything, Jonathan keeps on running. Dreaming, among other things, of competing in a half marathon outside Malta. "That would undoutedly help me develop, but it would also be the source of personal satisfaction." The problem in realising that wish is one common to most athletes: lack of money. There aren't many willing to invest in sport, much less those eager to sponsor an individual taking part in an event that doesn't get too much coverage.

Yet not even this discourages Jonathan. If anything, his career is just starting. "I admire those who keep on running and competing even when they get older. I hope to do the same when I get to their age." At thirty, Jonathan Balzan still has some way to go before he can compete with the veterans. But it is impossible not to emphatise with him. It has taken him long to taste success in athletics. He won't be stopping now he's finally got there.

Jonathan Balzan is a member of the St. Patricks Athletics Club (http://www.stpatricks-ac.org/).

Any opinions about this article can be sent to pawlu_grech@yahoo.co.uk .


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