Hers is a name you might not know – at least not yet.
But that will likely change. To those who keep an eye on the most promising distance-running talent emerging in the underage ranks, Agate Caune has long been a name to watch, and her trajectory suggests it will remain that way.
The 18-year-old Latvian is the leading contender for 5000m gold at the European Athletics U20 Championships in Jerusalem, and Caune is also well within the quota to earn a 5000m spot at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest.
All this, just weeks after finishing her final high school exams.
How good is Caune? Well, to offer a transatlantic comparison, the 15:12.94 she ran for 5000m in Karlsruhe, Germany in May is 13 seconds quicker than the US U20 and high school girls’ record.
Beating the Kenyans in Cali
While Caune was kept off the podium by three East African athletes at last year’s World U20 Championships in Cali, Colombia – running 15:43.56 in the thin air of Cali to finish fourth – she was some way ahead of the rest of the world, while also beating both Kenyan competitors, historically a fiendishly difficult thing to achieve at that event.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Caune’s role model is a woman who has proven distance podiums are not the sole possession of the East African superpowers: Emma Coburn.
“I like her mind, how she’s training, how she sets her goals,” says Caune. “I watch everything she posts on Instagram.”
Caune is a student of her sport, and of success itself. In her spare time she devours autobiographies, whether those written by Latvian football players or Michelle Obama. “I like reading about people who achieved really great things and these lessons that they give you,” she says.
She grew up in Valmiera, a city of 22,000 in the north of Latvia, and there was no running background in her family before she found her way to athletics at the age of nine. She tried “everything” in those early years but focused on running at the age of 12, finding that the longer she went, the better she fared.
“Running distance is where I feel great,” she says. “I like challenging myself, setting goals and achieving them.”
At the age of 14, she clocked 10:19.24 for 3000m to win the Latvian U16 title and the following year, at 15, she won the Baltic U18 3000m title in 10:01.20. Her big breakthrough came in 2021 with Caune claiming silver in the 5000m at the European Athletics U20 Championships in Tallinn, aged just 16.
“When I was second I (understood), ‘I can do this,’” she says. “I ran with all these girls who were really fast and really liked the taste and I said, ‘I will do the best I can.’”
Last year, Caune did the 3000m-5000m double at the World U20 Championships in Cali, finishing sixth in the 3000m and fourth in the 5000m. Many sea-level distance runners struggled with the thinner air – Cali sits at an altitude of just over 1000m – but not Caune. “The altitude was hard but I was there three days before my race and my body was really great,” she says. “It was an amazing result that I was so happy with.”
Caune said it was a little “scary” lining up against her more established rivals from Ethiopia and Uganda. “Because I know they run so fast,” she says. “In my head (I thought), ‘Is it possible to run with them? But it was great to run against them.”
"I train with boys. They help me to be faster"
She came home only 14 seconds behind the 5000m gold medallist, Medina Eisa of Ethiopia, and knows now where the bar is set by her teenage peers around the world. The performance brought much interest from US colleges, keen to bring Caune to the NCAA on a scholarship, but she has no plans to follow that route.
“I have a great coach in my home,” she says. “I have everything: stadium, forest. I can do everything in my city, my country, so I want to stay at home.”
She recently finished school and after the summer, she plans to enrol at a university in Riga, where she will study business. With her academic work finished for the summer, Caune is enjoying the luxury of giving running her full-time focus. She typically runs about 100km per week, though it’s lower in competition season, and she is unsurprisingly too quick to train with other female athletes in the region, though that has a simple solution.
“I train with boys,” she says. “They help me to be faster, they push me to do the best I can.”
Her year began in promising fashion, with Caune dipping under nine minutes to win the Latvian indoor 3000m title in 8:59.28 before going on to the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Istanbul, running a PB of 8:56.88 to finish 11th in the 3000m.
Her progress continued outdoors, with Caune coasting to victory in division two at the European Athletics Team Championships in June, clocking 15:15.21 on a roasting-hot day in Chorzow. Wary that she was “not so fast in the last metres,” Caune cranked up the pressure on Slovenia’s Klara Lukan with several laps to run, and had her chief rival – a 15:01 athlete – quickly struggling. She came home with 18 seconds to spare.
Caune’s performances this season have put her a long way clear of her nearest European rival on the top lists ahead of the European Athletics U20 Championships, making her a big favourite for the 5000m in Jerusalem. But she’s taking nothing for granted. “We’ll see,” she says when asked about her medal chances.
After that, her first World Athletics Championships could await in Budapest, which could be a surreal experience for the teenager.
“I really like competing for Latvia with different athletes,” she says. “You see these girls on Instagram and now you are standing next to them. It’s amazing for me.”
And with only a year until the biggest show of all, Caune has every reason to believe she will make it to Paris.
“My dream is the Olympic Games, it’s every athlete’s dream,” she says. “You do a lot of work and if you can run there, it’s something special because it’s your life. For me, it’s life.”
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics