Four years ago, Veronica Campbell became the first woman to claim a sprint double at the World Junior Championships. This year, with a pair of gold medals and a bronze, the young Jamaican emerged from Athens as the most heavily decorated athlete in athletics, the premiere sprinter of 2004.
“It is a very good feeling,” the 22-year-old Campbell said when describing her new title of 200m Olympic champion. “It’s real exciting, but I don’t let it really get to my head.”
Yet her performance in Athens, beginning with a bronze medal in the 100m and ending as the anchor of the victorious 400m Relay squad, was hardly modest.
Her eight-day working visit to Athens began in the 100m, where she joined the sub-11 club in the semi final with a 10.93 before finishing third in the final, clocking 10.97.
“My semi-final was a better race, better because I had a stumble at the beginning,” she said of the short dash, “which was a little setback because in the 100, technically you don’t have any time to make mistakes. You can make one mistake and you can lose the race. So I did feel that stumble in the 100.”
But in the 200, she was unstoppable at Olympic Stadium - as she was all season in the event - capped with a personal best and season-leading 22.05 to dominate the final, reaching the line well ahead of Allyson Felix’s 22.18 World Junior record.
“I’ve been working all year towards the 200,” Campbell said. “It was a good race. I had a lot of confidence going into that race, so I was very focused. I don’t think I made any mistakes. I knew it would be a great race, and I knew Allyson would have a great finish, so what I did was I executed that curve. And at the end of the curve I didn’t feel Alyson coming, so I knew I had the race already won.”
Bright eyed and motivated
But after eight races, she wasn’t quite finished. After sitting out the first round, she returned to anchor the 4x100 relay.
“All the ladies are very motivated,” Campbell said prior to the relay’s opening round. “Three of our ladies made the 100m finals, and Aleen [Bailey] and I made the 200m finals. And everybody’s eyes are bright now. As long as we run a perfect relay, and in that I mean get the baton around the track as smoothly and quickly as possible, I don’t see why we should lose.”
They didn’t. Clocking a national record 41.73, their winning margin of 54/100s of a second was the largest since 1984.
I would cry every evening…
Her modesty might stem from her humble upbringing in Warsop, a small inland farming community in Jamaica’s Trelawney Parish, where her early running “career” began.
“Well, I normally used to race a lot, like during our break time at school,” she recalls. We’d have like almost an hour break, so we’d eat lunch and play games. We had this one game where we chased each other and try to catch each other. I used to do well at that, and I always used to compete with boys and I always would beat them.”
After her “discovery” at the national all-ages championships as a 12-year-old, when she won the sprint double, she was granted a scholarship to Vere Technical High School in Clarendon, the same school that produced Jamaican stars such as Beverly MacDonald, Aleen Bailey, Lacena Golding-Clark, as well as sprint legend Merlene Ottey.
The only unpleasant memory Campbell remembers from her time at the school was her coach’s suggestion that she try the 400 metres.
“My coach wanted me to run the 400, and I used to work out with the 400 group,” she recalls, before laughing at the memory. “But I never liked it. I would cry every evening. So I then transferred to the 100m.”
She showed promise early on, reaching the 100m quarter finals at the 1998 World Junior Championships, and the following year, winning the World Youth title in the short dash.
The obvious Ottey comparisons
But it was in 2000 that the athletics world at large would get their first glance of the rising Jamaican star. Soon after, the comparisons with Ottey began.
“I only raced her once,” Campbell recalls, smiling, “at the 2000 national trials in Jamaica.” There, Ottey was fourth in 11.27, just 4/100s of a second ahead of Campbell.
“She’s my role model,” Campbell says of Ottey, who now competes for Slovenia. “She’s like a motivation. I just like the way she runs, and just everything about her. She’s just a great person.”
Ottey went on the finish fourth in the 100 in Sydney, while the pair, with Campbell running the second leg and Ottey the anchor, claimed the silver in the 400 relay for Jamaica. At 40, Ottey became the oldest women’s medallist in Olympic history; at 18, Campbell is among the youngest.
“Sydney was a great experience, and it really motivated me to try and get an individual medal. It was really exciting to run that relay.”
18 days later, she won the World Junior title in the 100, clocking a championships record 11.12. Three days later, she won the 200 as well to become the first woman to claim the sprint double at the championships. Her 22.87 in the half lap was the first legal sub-23 second performance in the meet’s history.
A hamstring injury in 2001 stalled her momentum, limiting her races to a few appearances in the spring. That autumn, she left Jamaica to accept a scholarship to Barton County Community College in Kansas, where she won four Junior College titles indoors and out in 2002. That year, she improved to 11.00 in the short dash at the Commonwealth Games, where she finished second, just two months after clocking a personal best 22.39 in the 200. With injury in 2003 again limiting her competition to less than a handful of indoor appearances, she again moved to the background of the international sprint scene. But she didn’t stay there for long.
She transferred to the University of Arkansas soon after her coach at Barton County, Lance Brauman, made a similar move. But sensing that she was prepared for a monumental summer, Brauman limited Campbell’s collegiate race schedule last spring, ensuring she would be fresh in Athens. It was a strategy that would reap golden dividends. She no longer competes for the university, but she is still doing double duty as a full-time professional athlete and full-time student studying marketing management.
Campbell said she’s had little problem making the move from the collegiate to professional ranks, Her manager, Claude Bryan, emphatically concurs.
She’s a born professional, honestly,” Bryan says. “She’s one of those who just came in, and that’s where she belongs. She has other people around her who are professional. And she’s smart, she knows what to do, where to gravitate. She belongs.”
Her school-career balancing act was brilliantly displayed when she left Arkansas for an extended weekend in mid September to cap her season with a sprint double win at the World Athletics Final. Her dominating 10.91 win in the 100 was the second fastest of the year in the shorter sprint.
“I don’t know how she does it”
With World Youth, World Junior and Olympic titles already in her collection, the only major title missing is a World title, but Campbell said it’s simply too early to tell which event she’ll focus on as she prepares for Helsinki.
“I’m not sure yet,” she said in Monaco. “I’m going to decide when I plan out my season.”
While the comparisons with Ottey’s career continue, Campbell is quick to admit she is not seeking at least one of her idol’s records. Just 22 and at the beginning of her international career, Campbell would have to compete another lifetime before reaching the 44-year-old Ottey’s record for longevity at the elite level of the sport. That, she said, breaking to laughter, is not part of her own career plan.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Campbell said. “I think she just likes it, she just loves to run. She’s just continuing for the fun of it. But me? Oh no. I can’t see myself competing until I’m 44!”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF