New South Wales Institute of Sport [NSWIS] scholarship athlete Josh Azzopardi embraced the pressure-charged job of running the anchor leg – that’s the last runner – for Australia’s 4 x 100m relay team at World Athletics Relays [Championships] Bahamas 2024. It was a significant meet for Aussie Athletics because after the women’s team qualified in fifth place for the Paris Olympic Games, Azzopardi and his fleet-footed teammates, Sebastian Sultana, Calab Law, and Jacob Despard, sealed their ticket after clocking 38.46 in the second round of competition.

As he prepares to compete at the upcoming Oceania Championships in Fiji, Azzopardi shared his insights into the bond that he and his fellow relay runners share; the pressure of being the anchor; taking on his all-time hero; and the enormous future, he believes, awaits his teenaged teammate, Sebastian Sultana.

 [NSWIS]: Before running at the World Athletic Relay Championships in the Bahamas you said you’d visualised yourself anchoring Australia and charging across the line to get the team to Paris replaying long before race day. How powerful was playing that scenario out in your head in the days or weeks before it happened?

Josh Azzopardi [JA]: Visualisation is huge. It allows you to see something before it happens, so that means when it happens, you’re not a stranger to it. Anchoring the relay team was amazing. It meant I got to cross the line for Australia . . . so, I got to be the one that takes the team to the next level. And when I say that I don’t mean it was just myself because there are three other blokes in the team, and each of them helped our chances with their great performances and their determination. All of us did well, and we’re happy with one another.

NSWIS: What’s the pressure like for the anchor?

JA: There’s a bit of pressure! Usually, most countries put their fastest runner in the last leg. So, you have the likes of Andre de Grasse (Canada) and Noah Liles (USA) running the last leg. It means I’m up against these blokes who run 9.9s [Azzopardi’s PB is 10.15] so I have to hold my composure together to be able to take off on time, to either chase them down or hold my form so I’m not chased down. There is a bit of pressure there, but I love the pressure, and I try to use it to my advantage.

NSWIS: For Jamaica to beat Australia by just point three of a second over there . . . do you understand when I say that’s something few people would have ever imagined?

JA: We were in a very good position in the third leg, into my leg. I got the baton a few metres in front of Jamaica . . .  and to be just behind Canada was huge as well . . . because Canada and Jamaica are the world’s sprinting powerhouses. I was trying to keep my composure together, but he just got me on the line. I went back and reassessed . . . I was obviously gutted at getting run down . . . but the coach pulled us together and said it’s no easy feat to even be close to a team like Jamaica. I took that on board, moved on to the next day and, fortunately, we got the job done. Hopefully, we can get them in Paris! But to now be classed among the world’s top sprinting nations is crazy because Australians aren’t well known for that.

NSWIS: When we spoke last year, I think Australia was ranked No.16 in the world and there were concerns the team might not qualify for Paris. It’s a great change in fortunes.

JA: That was the big thing about the world relay championships, it gave two opportunities to automatically qualify. We knew we could match it with some of the countries in 12 to 16, but we finished 11th overall. While that’s a huge result for us, we want to go quicker at Paris and challenge the national record.

NSWIS: How have you and your teammates Sebastian, Jacob, and Caleb gelled so well in the leadup to Paris?

JA: It’s the camaraderie, and also the way we’re able to change the baton at a fast pace – that’s where we’re getting a step on our opponents. We train very well together. We’ve had camps since December and we know how the other person passes the baton; how their hand looks, so it’s become second nature for us. People who don’t follow athletics closely might not appreciate how important that is, but everything is done at such a high speed. When we pass the baton, we’re at our top speed and everything needs to be done in two and a half seconds. That’s the make or break in the relay . . . drop the baton and you’re out . . . to hold the pressure off and keep your composure in that 2.5 seconds is something big.

NSWIS: What are the lessons you took from the Bahamas?

JA: There were plenty! It was good to get the nerves of being around such high-level athletes out of your system before Paris. It’s easy to be starstruck when you see the likes of Andre de Grasse [Azzopardi’s hero] and Noah Liles. To be lining up against de Grasse in our first race, and he anchored for Canada, was something else. But you need to bring yourself back to earth and remember that we’re here to do a job. We got that job done, but it was also probably a good thing to get that [possible star struck feeling] out of the way before Paris.

NSWIS: Did you get to speak to de Grasse afterwards.

JA: Except from shaking his hand to say ‘good race’ after we ran, no. I’d love to have a chat with him one day.

NSWIS: Obviously, you’re not watching de Grasse when you’re racing – you’re focussed on your own form – but what did you notice in relation to where de Grasse was during the race when you watched the replay?

JA: World Athletics do the splits of each leg, and I think he split point two of a second quicker than me, which, I guess, is good for me to see where I’m at. But to be in high level company like that . . . well . . . dreams come true. I think it’s important for everyone to know that when I’m in my competitive mode I see him – all of my opponents – as ‘human’ because you don’t want to feel overwhelmed out there. I mean, I’m there to do my best and to win. But when you’re sitting at the dining hall and you’re always taking a quick look over your shoulder to see who’s around and think ‘oh, this is so cool.’

NSWIS: Did the result in the Bahamas justify your decision not to go to Rugby when Rugby Australia approached you to join their Sevens program a few years ago? I remember you said running at the Olympics was always your dream . . .

JA: Making teams, travelling with teams, was what – ultimately – made my decision to become a Track and Field athlete. I just love to be able to travel and do athletics. Through the sport I’ve visited so many countries I never thought I’d go to: China last year, the Bahamas, Finland for world juniors and I even got to see my great-grandfather’s birthplace, Malta, through running.

NSWIS: Tell us about Sebastian Sultana, your fellow NSWIS scholarship athlete? He’s 18 and had a heck of a summer, including winning the 100m national title . . .

JA: He’s a great, young kid. Very relaxed. I was fortunate enough to room with him in Miami and we had some good laughs together. A really good bloke and I get along with him quite easily. When he won nationals I said to Sebastian, ‘I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to beat me’ . . . and the point is you never want to be beaten. It also meant NSWIS finished first and second, which was good to see! But he is a genuine talent. Only 18-years-old, and he also has the world junior championships to look forward to as well. There’s no reason that I can see why he can’t jag a medal there. 

 Daniel Lane, NSWIS  

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