News10 Jan 2005

Andrew Howe: the Italian all-round prodigy


Andrew Howe of Italy celebrates his 200m Final victory (© Getty Images)

Double World Junior champion Andrew Howe became the idol of a whole nation when he won Long Jump and 200m gold medals in Grosseto. Raul Leoni portrays the young Italian whose road to international glory started in the US.

They say that a man’s life is decided almost wholly by his genetic inheritance, and this may well hold for Andrew Howe, the phenomenon of the IAAF World Junior Championships, held in Grosseto. His grandfather, Curtis Felton, was a Long Jump enthusiast, who, at the young age of 16, jumped 7.45 - no mean achievement. Then he took up martial arts and became a karate black belt.

His uncle, James Felton, was strong and quick on his feet, and as a boy he had starred as the running back of his school football team. His mother, Renée Felton, was a good hurdler: she moved from her native Greensburgh, Pennsylvania, to the west coast of the States, first to Santa Monica College, then to UCLA. While studying sociology and psychology she trained under the guidance of the legendary Tommie Smith.

His father Andrew Howe got to know Renée at College: he was a modest middle-distance runner, but was also a keen soccer player - perhaps a tribute to his family’s European origins. Today he still competes as a runner and in Triathlon competitions, and lives in California.

Andrew and Renée fell in love and became a couple, which takes us to 12 May 1985. It was a Sunday - Mothers’ Day - and at seven o’clock in the evening at the Cedar-Sinai Medical in Los Angeles Miss Renée Felton was having to deal with a difficult birth; she had to undergo emergency surgery and it was a near thing for little Andrew Curtis Howe.

For nearly thirteen hours the child stayed motionless, and they feared that he had suffered permanent brain damage. But Andrew, who weighed three kilos and measured 55 centimetres at birth, came through the crisis and began to grow normally, so much so that on 17 December in the same year, 1985, Granny Curtis was able to telephone his mother to say: “Renée, this baby’s walking already.” He was just over seven months old.

Andrew takes very much after his father: he has the same serene, calm character, the same taste for fine clothes and the same passion for music. But at that time Andrew Howe, Senior was not sure that he was a good father, and he separated from the family when his son was eighteen months old.

“I can understand it, and I respect his decision,” says Renée Felton now. “That’s why we’ve stayed on good terms, and we still meet up from time to time without any problems.”

His mother Renée took up the profession of physiotherapist at a private clinic in Los Angeles, and the child lived with her. Then in 1990 she met a young man from Rieti, Ugo Besozzi, and moved to Italy. But Andrew had had time to sample the running track and sand pits at Santa Monica with his mother, and his talent was already becoming apparent: at the age of 5 he competed in the Long Jump and in the 200m, although nothing is known of his results in this debut.

For professional reasons Renée attended the athletics ground at Rieti, one of the most important centres of Italian athletics. She took up training again, and for several seasons she defended the colours of her local team, the Studentesca Cariri (in 1993, at the age of 33, she ran the 100m Hurdles in 13.81). And of course little Andrew was growing up on the same track, at first just playing around and then with increasing seriousness. In 1998, at the age of 13, he was already a mini-star: in October of that year he qualified for the National Final of the School Championships in Catania, in Sicily. He finished sixth in the Long Jump with 5.79m, in spite of having jumped off the wrong foot on each of his attempts. 

Then he took part in a Hurdle race and won it, but he realised that there was something wrong: “It’s incredible; I got over all the hurdles on the wrong foot.” He asked his mother to train him. Renée now had a second son, Jeremy, from her relationship with Ugo Besozzi, but in 1999 the couple split up, and Renée had to take responsibility for the family.

She increased her commitment to her work at her physiotherapy clinic in Rieti and she entrusted the local experts with the task of monitoring the boy. 

“They took a look at him,” Renée now recalls, “and expressed the view that Andrew would never be a great runner because he had flat feet. When he heard that he started to cry - he was little more than a child.” In fact, according to his mother, the boy didn’t have flat feet; it was just that he was still growing. “We’re a long-living family,” says Mrs Felton. “Andrew’s great-grandmother is still alive; we just develop a bit slowly.”

Young Andrew devoted himself mainly to the High Jump and Long Jump: in 1999, at the age of 14, he achieved 1.89 and 6.51. But he was competing a bit in everything and he didn’t like losing. He confided in his mother and asked her to help him to win: “Mum, teach me to fly.”

The turning point came in the winter of 1999-2000. Renée tried out a complete training regime for the first time, and the result could be seen at once. On 7 July mother and son got on a bus with the rest of the team and undertook a journey of 3 or 4 hours to go and compete in Formia. As soon as they arrived there Andrew presented himself at the Long Jump pit - he had a PR of 6.70 - and jumped 7.33 in that competition, scoring over 7 metres three times. Later the federal manager for the Jump events, the Russian Robert Zotko, said to Renée, “Watch out for this boy; you’ve got a great athlete on your hands here.”

This was confirmed three months later, in the Italian Under-16 Championships where Howe jumped 7.52 with +0.7 wind assistance, and all six jumps were over 7 metres. It was the new Italian record in the category.

Andrew was also the best in other specialities: he ran the 100m in 10.9, high jumped 2.06m and 15.10m in the Triple Jump (both set new Italian Under-16 records). He also tried the 300m Hurdles and ran in 38.0, missing the national record by only 1/10th of a second. He was managing thirteen strides between each hurdle, prompting his mother to declare: “Who do you think you are? Edwin Moses?”

Meanwhile he was making his mark playing basketball and on the soccer pitch, where he was a top scorer. But finally, at 16 years of age, he settled for athletics. “Just remember this,” his mother admonished him. “You are still growing and you haven’t yet got the muscles that you need for fast running; you’ll have them later, when you’re 19 or 20.”

In 2001 the World Youth Championships were held in Debrecen. Andrew had jumped 7.52 during the indoor season, but outdoors he hadn’t jumped further than a wind-assisted 7.41. In the final jump he managed 7.61, winning the bronze medal, after they had got him to repeat a jump because of a wrong decision by a judge on one of Andrew's take-offs (the same thing would happened at Grosseto!) where in the fifth round they had disallowed a very long leap, potentially a winning one, saying that he had stepped-over the take-off board.

On his return from the World Youths Howe achieved the Italian record in the Triple Jump (16.16), and he had meanwhile also improved in the sprints: still in 2001 he ran the 100m in 10.65 (10.48 wind-assisted) and the 200m in 20.99 (20.91 wind-assisted).

The following year the boy changed his training slightly, as he was trying to take the triple more seriously, but the leaps caused problems for his body-structure, which was still growing.

“Andrew has a narrow pelvis,” his mother reveals, “and the leaps put him under both physical and psychological stress, because he was feeling pain.”

But, in spite of everything, Howe won the Gymnasiadi at Caen with 16.27 (with –1.27 m/s wind), once again setting the Italian Under-18 record.

In the Junior World Championships at Kingston he competed only in the 4x100m relay race through the deliberate decision of the federal managers: the Italian team finished in fifth place, but on that occasion Andrew could feel on the underside of his right foot the pains that were to disrupt his career.

Meanwhile he was seeking to go and discover his roots. He went to see his father and grandfather in the USA, trained on the track at UCLA - as his mother had done before him - and got to know Tommie Smith and Carl Lewis.

On the invitation of the experts he also competed in the Hurdles: another national record of 13.59 in the 110 Hurdles. In September 2002 he performed quite unexpectedly in a 400m Hurdles event: he started off too strong, lost his rhythm at the seventh hurdle and finished in 52.3!

Andrew would have wiped 2003 from the record if he could have done although the year hadn’t started badly: 10.58 against the wind in the 100m, and 16.24 in the Triple Jump. There were endless discussions about what events the boy should compete in, at the European Juniors of Tampere in July.

However, ill luck was just around the corner, on 8 June at the youth meeting in Bressanone. Halfway through the home straight Howe felt a sharp pain in his foot and was forced to finish limping in 21.03. The diagnosis was uncertain, but it certainly didn’t give rise to optimism: micro-fracture or no micro-fracture, the fact remained that he had to stop for a whole month. The season was finished for him.

You could see that Andrew had felt the blow; he got annoyed and he felt exploited by a throw-away system: one which was ready to adulate him when he was going strong, but was now casting him off like a worn-out glove. “He’s my son; from now on I have to take care of him,” said his mother Renée, on her return from Tampere.

The boy decided to start anew, to finish with a past that had brought him more sorrow than joy. Up to then he had been 'the boy with the plaits'; now he cut his hair very short and chose to serve at the Aeronautica, a military club that has a strong athletics team and good structures. He took refuge at Vigna di Valle, the sports complex near Rome managed by his new club, in a small, frugal room shut up in the barracks with his mother. He had the whole winter to recuperate, physically and mentally.

On 24 April 2004, at the Liberation Trophy, within the space of half an hour he ran the 150m in 15.3 and the 300m in 33.7. His mother said to him, “You’ll see, you’ll manage to run the 200 in little more than 20 seconds.” However he didn’t manage to get below 21 seconds in the 200m. “The time hasn’t come yet; be patient,” Renée consoled him. In the Long Jump, however, he was fantastic: 8.01, 8.04 and 8.07. Three times he set the Italian junior record and took his position at the top of the World junior list.

The rest is yesterday’s news. In Grosseto he showed himself in a shining light, ready to perform as a protagonist in the World Championships that all the Italians were waiting for. He won in the Long Jump, in spite of an error by the judges, who failed to record his second jump, perhaps the longest in the final.

Before the contest a federal expert, Claudio Mazzaufo had told him, “In the final you’ve got to be like a Russian and a German, determined and ruthless: go and land a good jump in the first round, then kill the competition in the second.”

But the error of the judges filled his mind with doubt. Then Mazzaufo said to him, “This isn’t working, Andrew. You’ll have to go back to being Italian and American, creative and unscrupulous.” It worked: Howe jumped 8.11 in the fifth round and won.

Then came the 200; Usain Bolt, his great adversary, wasn’t in the running. “For so long I thought that the Jamaican was far away, 10 metres ahead of me; that’s no longer the case,” Andrew reveals. The Italian athlete won the heat in 20.86, (pr), then the semi-final in 20.72, national junior record, and the final in a dazzling 20.28.

The last act of the season was the Athens Olympic Games.  20.55 in the heat, then the old pain in his foot got him in the second session. But now there’s no fear or despair. Andrew knows that his Games will be the ones in Beijing in 2008.

Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 4 - 2004

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