What is the key to success? How is success measured? Can you be anything you want to be?

These are three very different questions that lead to the same answer.

On Saturday 7 December 2013 the life of a young teenage girl changed forever. In heat of around 35 degrees celsius, Jessica Thornton clocked 53.90s in the final of the 400m sprint at the 2013 Australian All Schools Championships in Townsville. Not only a personal best but a new U/16 meet record. To put it into more perspective, she had only just won the 100m sprint final an hour or so earlier. Jessica on this date made a statement and it never went unnoticed.

In March 2014 Jessica competed at the Australian Junior Athletics Championships in Sydney. This was the year of the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing China and to be considered she needed to compete in the U/18 age group as a 15 year old. Daunting as that may seem, Jessica won the U/18 400m sprint final qualifying her for selection in the Australian Youth Olympic Team. She also walked away with five Australian medals that weekend (3 individual – 100m, 200m, 400m and 2 relay) for the second year running.

Representing your country at any sport is a magnificent achievement and a dream come true. For Jessica, this was everything she had hoped for at her age and representing Australia at the Youth Olympics in China was a truly well deserved opportunity. I’m not really a hundred percent sure to this day what Jessica really expected to achieve, but her parents just hoped for a personal best time, and making the A Final at the Youth Olympic Games would be a fantastic result.

Fastest qualifier (and a personal best time of 52.78s) into the A Final made the whole scenario now somewhat surreal. Was she really a chance?  On that steamy night of 23 August 2014 amongst a capacity crowd, Jessica left nothing in the tank to fight off the girl from Bahrain in the final of the 400m sprint in a personal best time of 52.50s which ranked her number one female youth in the world for 400m (electronic time)* by the end of 2014.

Chosen as Flag Bearer for the closing ceremony was just another amazing reward and an honour for a young athlete who had put in every effort for her success. Topping it all off, selection in the 2014 Continental Cup Asia-Pacific Team in Marrakech as part of the 4 x 400m female relay team, the youngest Australian female athlete representative in 37 years since Debbie Wells in 1977.

Struck down by injury in 2014/15, Jessica missed the entire next season whilst in recovery. Jessica had competed at the NSW All Schools for the last time in October 2014 where she won the triple 100m, 200m, and 400m events for the 4th year in a row.  Unfortunately for her, scans revealed a stress fracture in her lower leg and on advice from her medical team, she was sidelined for the whole season.  Although down, it was a blessing in disguise as she had not had a rest from running for over 12 months whilst preparing for the Youth Olympic Games.

In 2015, Jessica’s main focus was her Higher School Certificate (HSC).  Amongst that though was her passion for the Australian Surf Lifesaving Titles Beach Sprint Championships.  She has always loved being part of a team and her beloved Coogee Surf Club is no different. In April 2015, despite having not trained for around 6 months, but undergoing some hard rehabilitation, Jessica travelled with the Coogee team and competed in the Beach Sprint competition in the U/17 individual and relay events and Open individual event.  Finishing 4th in her semi-final of the Opens event, you could tell she was tiring.  The disappointment was there but there was something more underlying. PAIN.

It should be noted at this time that there was some doubt about Jessica actually competing at that Australian Surf Titles.  She had won the female Open Beach Sprint Championship the year before in Perth, as well as the U/17 title, and wanted desperately to defend those titles.  On top of this, the Coogee U/17 relay team only had the 4 girls.  If Jessica didn’t compete there was no relay team.  I can guarantee, that any thought of letting her team mates down was never an option.  That’s the mindset of this athlete.  As an individual, she’s pretty good. As a team member, she’s a champion.

By the end of the Opens semi-final Jessica had, with no preparation, exerted whatever energy was in her.  But at that time her determination had taken over.  She then went on to win the U/17 Sprint Championship and consequently backed up to help the girls win bronze in the U/17 beach relay.  Her Beach Team Manager, Mark Harrison, later described her effort at a presentation dinner:

“The nemesis of an elite athlete is injury.  When you are used to winning and doing so comfortably losing is tough.  She felt she had let us all down which of course was a nonsense.  Jess was hit by a wave of emotion and only had 20 minutes to pull herself together and run in the 17’s Australian final.  Still wiping tears from her eye she took her mark in the 17’s final. In a blanket finish she just prevailed to win gold and the entire Coogee team erupted. It was a famous victory.  I can’t tell you how important Jess’s display was in the overall team landscape that day.  The team was inspired and went out to win 3 medals in the relay finals straight after it. 12 members of our team won a medal that afternoon.  Just for kicks, Jess backed up in the 17 girls relay to finish 3rd and a bronze medal.  She got as much pleasure being part of the team and seeing those with less modest ambitions in our team achieving their goals too.  Jess may have had more glamorous wins in her glittering career but the mark of a true champion is how they respond when the chips are really down.  On that day she was not entitled to win, but somehow she still found a way.”

The amazing thing about all this, and I mentioned the word PAIN before, was that this pain was two-fold; firstly she was in pain through exhaustion but more importantly, she was in pain because her injury had not successfully healed.  Throughout that competition she had carried the stress fracture, and although we could see the discomfort in her face, the courage she showed was a true indication of the person Jessica is.

Having survived the Aussies, Jessica’s next scans showed the reality of her injury.  But that aside, the medical team of Dr Nathan Gibbs and Physiotherapist Liz Steet, ensured us that the HSC and a good 6 months of rehabilitation and rest until the start of the next season would place her in good stead.  Oh, did I forget to mention Schoolies as well?  Yes that’s right, a week in Fiji will rehabilitate anyone.

In January 2016 it was back to business.  The year 2016 will have many memories for Jessica and her family.  At just 17 years of age, her goal was simple – to make the Australian Team for the World Junior (U/20’s) Athletics Championships.  Meeting qualifying standards is never easy particularly returning from injury.  However, Jessica was determined to continue her success.  Having already completed 2 qualifying times for the 400m, her attention turned to the 200m at the 2016 Canberra Track Classic.  Racing against her stablemate, Ella Nelson, Jessica clocked an impressionable 23.26s just 0.06s outside the Olympic qualifying time and a personal best time.  An hour earlier and Jessica would have obtained that qualifier with a favourable tail wind – it became a head wind by the time of the race.

Then at the 2016 NSW Junior Athletic Championships Jessica ran both the 200m and 400m events winning gold in the two events.  Her attention then turned to the Australian Junior Athletics Championships in Perth, the qualification meet for the World Juniors in Poland. Winning gold in both events and setting a new meet record for the U/20 200m in 23.47s, Jessica qualified for both events but will only run the 400m in Poland and be part of the 4 x 400m relay team.

With qualification set for Poland, the next objective was to test herself in the 400m at the Australian Open Championships in Sydney, the trials for the 2016 Rio Olympics.  This was her first opportunity to race against Australia’s best female athletes and as a 17 year old. There could be no expectations other than to do her best.  Rio was never really a plan for Coach Dooley but Jessica had run herself into some great form coming back from injury. And, as it is with her demeanour, Jessica did not disappoint and absolutely exploded to the front for the first 300m of the race.  Coming down the home straight, fatigue was setting in and Jessica finished second to the classy Morgan Mitchell, herself in outstanding form. Family and friends had ventured to Homebush and sat in awe of this young talent.  Nails were bitten waiting for her time to be displayed – 52.33s – another personal best and just 0.13s outside the Olympic qualifying time of 52.20s.  Again she had left nothing in the tank to achieve this personal best.

Jessica backed up with the 200m event running again against her stablemate Nelson. Jessica finished second to Nelson winning silver in a time of 23.27s, only 0.07s outside the Olympic qualifying time of 23.20s.  Despite missing out on an individual qualifying time, Jessica knew she still had time, but more importantly had placed herself on the plane to Rio as part of the 4 x 400m relay team.  Of course, all dependant upon the official announcement by the Australian Olympic Committee, but she had met the qualifying standard set by finishing second in the open 400m.

So Poland awaits this Australian athlete.  Jessica thrives on being part of a team and representing Australia with friends she has met through various walks of athletic life only encourages her to do better.

Now, in my opinion, the answer to the three questions asked at the start of this foreword is quite simple and evolves around two words – Personal Best.

What is the key to success – to achieve personal bests.

How is success measured – the ability to continue to achieve personal bests.

Can you be anything you want to be – of course you can and by being committed to achieve personal bests you will be successful at what ever you do.

Finally, on behalf of your family, the extended family, friends and supporters of you, I wish you the ultimate best on your Path to Poland and eventually the Road to Rio.  No matter what happens at these events, what you have achieved to date at your age is exemplary of your attitude to competition, training and life in general.  You will continue to achieve success because you strive for those personal bests.  Modesty is one of your strongest traits and you are idolised by a lot of people.  Keep grounded and good luck.  We all love you.

Paul Thornton