Eight years ago, Brianna Rollins didn’t know an elite hurdler from a high jumper.
She wasn’t remotely interested in athletics. In fact, she didn’t consider herself an athlete at all, even though she possessed all of the traits and pedigree to become one.
“Before high school, I didn’t do anything,” said the woman who heads this year’s 100m Hurdles world list with 12.39, which she ran to win the American collegiate (NCAA) title last week.
She is 0.21 faster than any other woman in the world at this stage in the season.
“I had no interest in doing anything with other sports, to be honest. But I was always fast and had people telling me I should try out for the track team, so I decided to do it when I got to high school.”
Flash forward and people are still recognizing Rolllins’ speed, only now they are telling her she has a very good chance to make the US team going to the IAAF World Championships in Moscow.
The 21-year-old has been the buzz of both domestic and international track circles following her efforts at the NCAA Outdoor Championships at Hayward Field, which at the start of the month had been the venue for the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene.
In her semifinal, Rollins broke the American collegiate record, winning her race in 12.47. She came back even faster in the final, winning by a preposterous 0.40 against some quality opponents.
The time is the fourth-fastest ever by an American; trailing only the 12.33 clocked by three-time World 100m Hurdles champion Gail Devers, and the 12.37 clockings achieved by 2004 Olympic champion Joanna Hayes and 2008 Olympic champion Dawn Harper-Nelson. It also makes Rollins the ninth-best performer in history.
It also would have earned her a bronze medal at last summer’s Olympics behind Sally Pearson of Australia and Harper-Nelson, and the track in London is generally accepted to be much faster than the one in Eugene.
To quote a Facebook post by TV athletics analyst and the IAAF Inside Athletics host Ato Boldon, “A star is born.”
Only she doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t see myself any different,” said Rollins who, in the last week, has turned professional having signed with Stellar Athletics and manager John Regis.
“I try to stay as humble as I can be, don’t let anything go to my head, and continue to work hard.”
A star may have emerged, yet Rollins claims she wasn’t born to run, even though her mother, Temperance, was a promising 800m runner in her youth.
Rollins started hurdling at Miami Northwestern High simply because, “it looked like so much fun.”
The reality of hurdling set in quickly thereafter.
“I smashed my knee more times that I could even count,” she said. “I fell so many times and got hurt so many times, but you get used to it.”
By the time she was ready to go to university, Rollins had won Florida high school titles in the 300m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles, and also earned All-America honours in the 100m Hurdles. With several college scholarship offers, she chose to continue her running at Clemson.
Clemson clear choice
“When I started running track, I wanted to see how far I could go with it, maybe get a college scholarship,” she said. “I decided to go to Clemson because Coach (Lawrence) Johnson is an amazing Hurdles coach. I watched him when he had (2008 US Olympian) Queen Harrison and Kristi Castlin at Virginia Tech.”
Her first year at Clemson began promisingly as she qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships in three events and was named Atlantic Coast Conference Indoor Freshman of the Year, but an injury forced her to miss the outdoor season.
As a second-year student, she won the 60m Hurdles at the NCAA Indoor Championships, becoming the university’s first national champion over the barriers, but was again hampered by a back injury when the outdoor season came around.
Last year, Rollins began showing her potential for greatness when she finished second to Christina Manning in the 100m Hurdles at the NCAA Championships before eventually reaching the final of her specialist event at the US Olympic Trials, where she finished sixth in 12.94, after clocking a 12.70 in the semifinals.
Her final season as a collegiate runner saw her pick up a second NCAA Indoor title in the 60m Hurdles back in March and she added her first crown in the 100m Hurdles with her blazing performances last weekend, when she took down the previous collegiate record of 12.48 set in 2006 by University of Southern California’s Ginnie Powell, and then lowered her own mark in the final.
“On Wednesday before the semifinals, I kept telling my teammates, ‘I’m going to break this record. I know I can run [that time],’” said Rollins.
“My teammates were really happy for me after the race. They said, ‘You actually spoke those words and you broke the record.’ On Saturday, I didn’t think about trying to break the record again. I just wanted to go out and run a relaxed race and try not to press because I ran so well Thursday.”
Destiny lies in Des Moines
Rollins has turned her attention fully towards the USA Outdoor Championships next weekend, where she will compete for one of the three positions on the US team headed to the World Championships in Moscow.
In Des Moines, she will face a veritable who’s-who list of hurdlers with US athletes holding eight of the 10 fastest times in the world in 2013.
Among them will be Harper-Nelson, the two-time Olympic medallist and Beijing 2008 winner who has run 12.60 this season; Harrison, who has run 12.64; Vashti Thomas, who won the NCAA Division 2 Championships in 12.70 at altitude; Lolo Jones, the two-time Olympian and hometown favourite who has run 12.70; and Kelli Wells, the London 2012 Olympic Games bronze medallist who has run 12.73.
Rollins insists she is not frightened by those names or their credentials.
“I never ran track until I got to high school so I didn’t really know any of the big names until then.
“I didn’t actually start to watch them until I got to college and got a lot better. I’m not intimidated at all. I don’t think about my competitors. I try to do what I have to do, work hard, and just compete at my best.”
Will that best bring another personal best and world-leading time? That remains to be seen, but it isn’t Rollins’ primary aim.
“My goal is to make the team, but again I am focused on running good races. I don’t try to put any times on myself. I am just trying to stay technically sound so I can do what I need to do at the USA Championships.
“This is such a blessing and such a huge opportunity. If I am fortunate enough to make it on to the Worlds team, I will take advantage of it the best that I can.”
Joe Battaglia for the IAAF