It has been a rocky few years for Kelsey Stewart, but a string of encouraging performances – including a strong showing in the 200m on Sunday – has seen her revitalise her outlook on a sport she looked set to walk away from.
Competing last weekend, Stewart ran her fastest 200m since 2017 – the same year which saw her selected for the Commonwealth Games in Australia.
Stewart’s clocking of 24.64sec is all the more impressive considering that she only returned to athletics in January, after concluding a brief foray into skeleton.
Stewart had been part of the 2026 Winter Olympics training set-up, but after being dropped from the programme in December, was in no rush to return to the track.
After a strong 2017 season which saw Stewart win the English U23 title for the 400m, the intervening years were trying for the Stonehaven-based athlete.
Selection for the 4x400m relay at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games ought to have been the high point of her career. But after selectors denied her the chance to run in the Commonwealth final – where the Scottish team set a national record – Stewart endured several seasons where, falling well short of her best, she questioned her motivation for the sport.
Yet the latest twist in Stewart’s career has seen her return to track and field of her own accord, and the plans were hatched over a course of sushi with her friend and fellow 400m runner, Zoey Clark.
Shortly after leaving the British skeleton set-up, a catch-up between the two of them was long overdue, and with Clark having since moved to a new coach in Ryan Oswald, Stewart was tempted to dip her toe back into the sport.
She explained: “I came back from skeleton, and I was actually very determined I was not going back to athletics at all.
“I was very set on that decision – I did not want to go back to it. Skeleton gave me a nice break, but afterwards I thought ‘I can’t go back to athletics again’.
“But Zoey and Ryan got me round to their house for tea one night just for a catch-up. By the end of the evening, I had decided I was going to be training with Ryan.”
Part of what may have convinced Stewart may have been the fact that Oswald himself had tried winter sports after deciding to leave competitive athletics behind in 2014.
Having put everything on the line for the 2014 Commonwealth Games – falling just short of the standard himself – Oswald briefly turned his hand to speedskating.
The ability to relate to Stewart’s experience suggested a new set-up for Stewart might give her a chance of returning to the sport where she had enjoyed significant success as a junior.
She said: “Ryan himself had done a bit of speed skating for a while – he had a crack at it and was in the British set-up for a bit, so he understood it, and he was in a position where he’d tried winter sport.
“He said ‘Kelsey, you’ve gone and got so strong from this – you’ve still got unfinished business. We’ll get you fit to start with and get you back, and then you can make up your mind.’
Tempted, Stewart got herself back involved, but as she explains, it was very much on her own terms.
“He never pushed me at any point,” she said. “It was all my own decision. To start with, it was very much a case of getting me back into the group.
“Then we said we would maybe see about training, but there was no real urgency. Then all of a sudden, I was back into racing – and here we are.”
Stewart added that, mentally, the attributes which had seen her win numerous medals over 200m, 300m, 400m, and 800m as a junior athlete had become a crutch for her during a fallow few years. Since returning to the sport, she has scaled back the intensity and rigid discipline which, over time, became inimical to her sporting ambitions.
“I think Ryan’s approach (to the sport) really helps – he’s very relaxed, which I think works for me and I’ve come into it with a different mindset compared to what I’ve had in the past.
“I’ve got a much more laid-back mindset now, and I think I’ve realised it’s important to also have a life. Athletics isn’t the be all and end all, and I think that’s made me a much happier athlete.
“When I have a bad race now, or a bad session, I’m able to park it quite quickly. In the past, I might have dwelled on it quite a lot. It would make me feel down for the rest of the day.
“Now I just park it, and think ‘that doesn’t matter’. Getting that kind of balance is really important and just having a more chilled approach. That’s what Ryan’s like. He’s brilliant and I really rate it. It’s been good to come back and I’m genuinely enjoying it.”
Quickest 200m since 2017 😅 ‘Mon the old dogs pic.twitter.com/m4SmucsylA
— Kelsey Stewart (@hello_imkelsey) May 29, 2022
If happier athletes run faster than disillusioned athletes, Stewart is certainly proof.
Having only returned to training in late December, Stewart has decided she will focus on the 100m and 200m over the coming season. Having set a personal best in the 100m and come within 0.3sec of her 200m best, Stewart is now looking to compete at the Scottish Senior Championships later this year, which take place on home turf.
“It’s brilliant to have Scottish Seniors back in Aberdeen, because it’s a long time since we’ve had them. I would quite like to do a 100m and 200m there.
“Next year, we would look at going back to 400m, but at the end of the day, I didn’t get a winter and I haven’t done the work for it.
“But instead of looking at it in a negative way, we’ve looked at it in a positive way – we’ve actually got an opportunity to sort out running mechanics, which will be helpful eventually over the 400m.
“We’re working on things which wouldn’t normally get worked on which, in the long run, will definitely help.”