Ahead of the 2013 World Athletics Gala in Monaco, two young world champions – Trinidad and Tobago's 400m hurdler Jehue Gordon and US 100m hurdler Brianna Rollins – were described as ‘the future of the sport’ by another former young world champion, Ato Boldon, on Friday (15).
Both smiled a little awkwardly at the compliment but as Boldon, a keen student of the sport as well as an outstanding athlete, pointed out, Gordon had turned heads in 2009 when, aged 17, he ran at the IAAF World Championships and was narrowly beaten to the bronze medal by the experienced US runner Bershawn Jackson.
How, Boldon wondered, had this young athlete managed to bridge that gap, and maintained his promise, to become the world champion four years later?
There were two answers. The first was perhaps more expected.
“In 2009 I had the talent, I had the capability and the physical attributes to be a force to be reckoned with in the 400m hurdles. In 2009, I was running just like a rabbit out of one of those hats. I had the talent, it was natural to me, but I wasn’t really thinking of the technical aspects of the 400m hurdles.
“In 2010, I won the World Junior Championships. I was like, ‘you know what, Jehue, you need to prove yourself.’ So trained hard, I kept my eyes on the prize.
“But after that I had an operation on my foot, and it got an infection, which affected my progress. So I wasn’t able to progress in 2011, and people were saying ‘Jehue showed such promise in 2009, 2010. What has happened to him now?’
“Overall, from 2009 to now is still a learning process that is still going on.”
The second answer was much more stark.
“To be honest, things were never easy for me from a very young age. When I was 17 I went to the Beijing Games to watch them but after I came back our house was destroyed by a landslide, so since then things had gone a bit downhill for my family financially," said Gordon.
"My father is an alcoholic and my mother could not be at home, and I was thinking ‘How am I going to help my family stay together through this situation?’ Friends were supporting me, and I always mention them for that, but at that young age I had to be more disciplined than the regular 17-year-old. I had to know who I was, and what I was about, and where I wanted to go.”
Rollins, 22, who went through the whole of 2013 unbeaten, earned special mentions in Moscow for the way she found a way to win, despite having a poor start in the final.
“I just basically had to stay calm,” she said. “I try not to think too much about different meets, about ‘this is a huge crowd’ or ‘this is a huge race’; that brings a lot of pressure. I just continued to focus and do what I had to keep doing.”
She found running a US record of 12.26 at the US Championships – within touching distance of Yordanka Donkova’s longstanding world record of 12.21 – “kind of scary”, and she is wary of the pressure of expectation.
“Of course I want to break the world record – but we’ll see,” she added.
Having spoken to the pair about the pressures and promise of being young world champions, Boldon – himself a former double world junior champion who also bridged the gap to get a senior world title – introduced them to four-time world 110m hurdles champion Allen Johnson, whom he asked to offer advice.
Johnson told them, among other things, not to listen to too many people telling them how to run faster. “At one point I was just a hundredth of a second off the world record, and everybody was telling me what I needed to do to break it. I think I listened too much to too many people at times.”
The advice appeared to be well taken.
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF