It all started with a chase, a terrified sprint from a snarling dog near her home in New Orleans.
Aleia Hobbs was eight years old at the time, scared senseless – still is – at the sight of a mutt, and so she followed her instinct when she saw it approaching her outside church.
“I just took off running,” she says.
As churchgoers looked on – the dog chasing, the young girl sprinting for her life – something soon became apparent: it wasn’t going to catch her.
“That’s the first time everyone realised I was fast,” says Hobbs. “I started running track after that.”
She laughs about it now, sitting in a hotel lobby in Las Vegas, tracing her path from anonymous kid to one of the world’s fastest women, NCAA 100m champion, US 100m champion – all at the tender age of 22.
But of all the twists and turns her life has taken, she now finds herself at the biggest crossroads of all: leaving behind a glorious collegiate career to try to cut it as a professional.
“I’m really excited,” she says. “The things I thought of in high school and college are finally coming through.”
To go forwards, though, sometimes it’s necessary to first back up, and over the past three months that’s exactly what Hobbs has done.
After travelling to her first IAAF Diamond League meeting in Lausanne in July, she had no choice but to withdraw after a niggle in her knee morphed into full-blown pain, the 22-year-old shedding no shortage of tears in the treatment room after deciding to pull the plug on the race.
Surgery followed on her right knee in August, the same procedure Hobbs had on her left knee in 2015.
“I was like, ‘dang, again?’” says Hobbs, her southern accent in full flow. “It was the cartilage. They drilled a couple of holes in it and cut off a bit of loose flap that was catching.”
Recovery has been slow, but most importantly steady.
Hobbs spent 30 days on crutches, lounging around her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the late-summer heat, cursing the fact she lived on the third floor in a building with no elevator.
“That sucked,” she says. “I got a little sad. I didn’t want to leave the house because I didn’t want to walk up and down the stairs. I’d just call friends and be like, ‘can you pick me up some dinner?’
“But eventually I had to get out because I can’t just be in the house all the time. Nowadays I find the positive in things so I was like, ‘okay, after this I’m going to feel better’.”
A welcome distraction came from an unlikely source: bowling.
Hobbs took herself down to the local alley a couple of nights a week, standing in the lane on one leg and firing that ball for all she was worth. “I suck at bowling but it’s really fun,” she says. “When I went with a crutch, I somehow got three strikes.”
Unable to train for several weeks, she had ample time to reflect on a memorable season.
“This past year was perfect,” she says, and few would argue.
In her final year competing for Louisiana State University – the powerhouse programme overseen by coach Dennis Shaver – Hobbs won the 60m title at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Texas before blazing to victory on a rain-soaked track in Oregon to take the NCAA outdoor 100m title in 10.91.
The previous year Hobbs blitzed a 10.85 PB at the SEC Relays in April, but when it mattered most she could only finish fifth at the 2017 NCAA Championships in Eugene, running 11.12. She could easily have turned pro then, but something told her the time wasn’t right.
“I felt like I had a lot of work to do and I wasn’t in that much of a rush – I was being patient,” she says. “I loved LSU, even to this day. The team environment feels like a family and that’s very important.”
In her final year, Hobbs proved unbeatable, winning every 100m she contested and breaking the 11-second barrier in 10 out of 12 races.
Going into the NCAA Championships in June she was the overwhelming favourite, though on the day of the women’s 100m final the skies unleashed a torrent of rain, lashing down on runners who were trying their best to stay warm in cold weather.
“My coach played a big part in keeping my mind right. He always told us you gotta be prepared for everything,” says Hobbs. “I kept telling myself, ‘I’m here now, I can’t turn back’.”
She dug out every piece of gear she had to warm up: running tights under sweatpants under rain gear; t-shirts under a sweater under a hoodie under a waterproof jacket.
“I was telling myself I’m really cold,” she recalls, “but I have to run in it.”
Through driving rain, Hobbs left her rivals trailing, clocking 11.01 into a headwind (-0.7m/s) to win with ease.
“Everybody was expecting me to win, but it wasn’t bad pressure – it was a good pressure,” she says. “My senior year, I went out the right way.”
It would not be her last time in the LSU kit, however. That came two weeks later at the US Championships in Des Moines, Hobbs powering to victory there in 10.91.
“I was seventh the year before and missed the [World Championships] team so I wanted to redeem myself,” she says. “It was amazing, though it was my last time with the LSU kit on so it was also bittersweet.”
Her love affair with LSU will go on, however, as Hobbs will stay based in Baton Rouge and work out with a group of post-collegiate athletes for the upcoming year. “I can still go out to my coaches, be with the team, be with people who ran in previous years,” she says.
Like most graduates (Hobbs took inter-disciplinary studies) she has little idea what she’d like to work in down the line, but she knows this: “I want it to stay in track and field.”
These past few weeks, the return to fitness has been measured in tiny increments – jogging won’t happen until next month, sprinting much later still. “But I’m walking faster,” she says with a laugh. “That’s progress.”
As she looks to 2019, there will be three main targets: “Diamond League meets, USA Champs and Worlds,” she says.
The latter of those, the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, will offer the perfect chance for Hobbs to announce her talent on the global stage, and given no woman in the world ran faster than her PB of 10.85 this year, she appears to have all the credentials to strike gold.
“It’s definitely motivating me,” she says. “When I’m doing rehab and training, that’s what I think about: I’m about to start my professional career.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF