Innes FitzGerald: who is 16-year-old endurance athlete who turned down championship team spot over eco concerns?

FitzGerald has previously journeyed to major championships using alternatives to flying

Britain’s top junior female endurance athlete has written to UK Athletics to request that she not be considered for the team competing in the World Cross Country Championships in Australia.

Innes FitzGerald said “the reality of the travel fills me with deep concern.” Last month, the 16-year-old gained attention when it became known that she had chosen to take the train rather than a flight from her home near Exeter to the European Cross Country Championships in Turin, Italy.

Champions for Earth, an organisation for eco-conscious athletes, said it was a "tortured decision to decline" a seat on the team.

“To have the opportunity to compete for Great Britain in Australia is a privilege,” FitzGerald said. “When I started running, the prospect of me competing in the World Cross Country Championships would have seemed merely a dream. However, the reality of the travel fills me with deep concern.

“I would never be comfortable flying in the knowledge that people could be losing their livelihoods, homes and loved ones as a result. The least I can do is voice my solidarity with those suffering on the front line of climate breakdown. Coming to a decision has not been easy, however little compares to the grief I would feel taking the flight.”

(Photo: Instagram/innes_fitzgerald)(Photo: Instagram/innes_fitzgerald)
(Photo: Instagram/innes_fitzgerald)

At the European Cross Country Championships last month, FitzGerald finished fourth behind much older competitors in the under-20 women's event. She believes that her poor performance in the race was due to travel disruption and delays.

To reach the event, she travelled on an overnight coach to Lille before boarding a train to Turin via Paris. To reduce expenditures, her family took foldable bikes to ride the 20 minute journey between stations.

“My family is as environmentally minded as I am,” she said. “We live in a passive house on a small holding growing fruit and vegetables. So my dad was happy for us not to fly. Aviation is the most energy intensive activity we can do and explodes a person’s carbon footprint. I don’t want that on my conscience.”

Champions for Earth added: “The Exeter Harriers runner is a champion in more ways than one, winning impressively on the running track and in the world of environmental protection. Innes was crowned the 2022 Youth ‘Champion For Earth’ for her commitment to pursuing her sporting goals as sustainably as possible.”

FitzGerald, who previously ran for fun, only made a splash on the competitive scene at the beginning of last year under the direction of coach Gavin Pavey. She is a maths, physics and biology A-level student who broke the UK under-17 women's 3000m in Belfast in July.

Since then, she has dominated competitions like the Mini London Marathon and the Euro Cross trials in Liverpool this winter. Based on her performances from last summer, FitzGerald may have qualified to compete at the European Under-18 Championships in Jerusalem, but she again decided against it due to worries around aircraft emissions.

Champions for Earth said: “She is looking for sponsors and supporters who can help her with the more expensive public transport, accommodation and eco-friendly kit that she requires. It is clear that Innes has the steely determination and focus, combined with the courage and clarity to face a reality quite different to athletes of previous generations.”