The subtitle of Melaine Walker’s life story should be, ‘How I Stopped Worrying, And Learned To Love The 400 Metres Hurdles’. Because, on the frank admission of the new quarter hurdles Olympic champion, “I hated the event, I absolutely hated it. I never wanted to do it, but I was good at it.”
“I really wanted to sprint,” Walker admitted. “I was so excited by the sprint. Even Veronica (Campbell) couldn’t beat me. But my coach persuaded me. He said, please try the 400 hurdles, and you can go on and do the four by one (relay) afterwards. So, really, I only did it to be able to run the sprint relay.”
It was as a sprinter that she made her early mark, finishing fifth in the 200 metres final at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Annecy at the age of 15. She won silver at the same event at the IAAF World Youth Championships the next year.
But after a surprise victory over colleague, Deon Hemmings, Jamaica’s first female Olympic champion (400H, 1996), in Barbados, she was ‘persuaded’ to run the 400H in the next ‘World Juniors’ in Santiago de Chile in 2000, where she finished fifth. Yet by the time of the next world juniors, at home in Kingston, she showed her versatility by finishing fifth in the high hurdles.
The last of six children, she was born in Kingston, Jamaica on New Year’ Day, 1983, to Joseph Walker and Jennifer Wilson. “My mom said she did some running, but I don’t think it was too much. I guess I always loved running, I probably started when I was about three or four. I wasn’t good at it at first, but I just felt, ‘you should do this’.
“I was best in my kindergarten, best in High School, then best in the NC’s (US National Collegiate Championships).” Walker, now 25, is probably one of the last generation of Jamaicans, who went to college in the USA, in her case, to the University of Texas in Austin.
But she says the only thing that kept her there was the camaraderie of the track team. “After Texas, I didn’t know what to do without track. I wanted to be around my family, so I decided to go back home.” She is now part of the group trained by Stephen Francis, ie Asafa Powell, and new Olympic sprint champion, Shelly-Ann Fraser.
The turning point came after Osaka where, injured, she went out in the semi-finals. “That was a disappointment, I was hurt, but didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t want to feel like a punk.”
“I still hated it (400H), and asked myself, ‘why am I doing this? But then I thought, some athletes would pray to run like me, so this year I decided to do it properly. I had to love it, because I did it so well. And I started reading about the star athletes before me. And a few days before the Trials, someone asked if I could repeat what Deon Hemmings did.”
She could. And she did!
Pat Butcher for the IAAF