In one sense, Candace Hill is just your average teenager.
“I like to get my nails done, hang out with friends, go to parties,” says the 17-year-old from Conyers, Georgia. “As long as practice gets done and I show up on time for meets and I’m not slacking, my coach is alright with that. I can party all I want.”
In another sense, of course, she is anything but your average teenager.
Hill is the fastest teenager in the world, the speediest schoolgirl in American history, a sprint prodigy so gifted that many of the most knowledgeable minds in the sport say they’ve never seen her kind before.
On Thursday night in Bydgoszcz, it took her just 11.07 seconds to demonstrate why.
Hill was widely expected to deliver a world U20 title, despite facing the strongest line-up in the event’s history. At certain times, the pressure began to show. Ever since the day she blasted down a track in Shoreline, Washington last year, shaking up the world with her time of 10.98 for 100m, she has carried with her a certain burden of expectation.
Hill fidgeted anxiously as the camera panned towards her for the pre-race introductions, the youngster almost forgetting the obligatory smile and wave as she stared down the track.
“I was definitely nervous,” she admits. “Running against those girls is nerve-wracking because I’ve never been in a junior championships that was this fast before.”
Two lanes to her right stood Ewa Swoboda, the local favourite who had blitzed her semi-final in a Polish U20 record of 11.17. Swoboda, the fastest U20 athlete in history over 60m, was bound to be in front at halfway, but how would Hill cope with being in a position that was most unfamiliar to her at this level?
Brilliantly, as it turned out.
Hill matched Swoboda until halfway, then gradually began to forge ahead. At the finish, there was no celebration, no hands-in-the-air victory salute; Hill just slowed to a stop and turned to congratulate her Polish rival, who finished second in 11.12, and Trinidad and Tobago’s Khalifa St Fort, who was third in 11.18.
Relief, it seemed, was the overwhelming emotion.
Trials and tribulations
“This season has been so up and down,” said Hill. “After not making the US Olympic team I was kind of down but this meet uplifted me. Bringing the title home to the United States is an honour.”
In many ways, Hill had the perfect year in 2015, so good that it was always going to be a tough act to follow.
She took the sprint double at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Cali, broke the US high school and U20 records with that 10.98 in Washington, then in December she turned professional, signing a 10-year deal with Asics.
Of course, that in itself brings pressure, and Hill had made it her goal this year to make the US Olympic team for Rio. She fell short, however, and was bitterly disappointed to exit in the semi-finals of both the 100m and 200m at the US Trials in Eugene.
Perhaps it was for the best, because after a year when everything happened at lightning speed, it gave her the chance to take a much-needed time out.
When the US Olympic team departs for Rio in the coming weeks, she’ll be back at school in Rockdale County High in Georgia, where classes begin next Thursday for her senior year.
“It’s really, really hard going to training then coming home and doing tonnes of homework,” she admits. “It’s a school with a lot of gifted classes, so it’s twice the workload of a regular high school, but I manage to get it all done and it’s worth it.”
Though she will be ineligible to compete in the NCAA system, Hill plans to attend the University of Georgia in 2017, studying either sports medicine or sports journalism.
It should offer her a steady transition to the senior ranks, where she will eventually have to leave behind the starry-eyed excitement of competing against the best in the world. Hill admits that standing on the start line at the US Trials, looking across at athletes she had only ever looked up to, was hard to get her head around.
“It’s definitely strange,” she says. “You see them warming up and you’re kind of star struck. When they’re on the line next to you, you’re staring at them but at the same time thinking: ‘I’ve got to focus on my race.’ I feel like I got all that out of my system now, so next year I’ll be ready.”
Far from being discouraged, Hill found it only increased her desire to reach the top. Despite the fact she seems poised to depose the best US sprinters in the years to come, her elder rivals in Eugene were always quick to offer their advice.
“I got a lot of words of encouragement from English Gardner, Tori Bowie, Jeneba Tarmoh,” says Hill. “They said ‘keep on pushing, you have a bright future ahead so keep on working hard'.”
That’s never been a problem for Hill, despite her absurd allocation of natural ability.
In preparation for life as a professional, she began working with a new coach, Tony Carpenter, late last year. He has recruited a squad of top-ranking high school athletes and post-collegiate sprinters for her to train with.
Hill trains five days a week – she hits the track on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays for running workouts, while Wednesday is her one day of the week in the gym, her distinctly slim build offering proof that there's much room for improvement when it comes to strength training.
“My coach is going easy on me,” says Hill. “He’s not giving it to me all at once so I feel like I have a lot more time to grow.”
Having conquered the world at U18 and U20 level, all that remains now is to take that final leap and do it as a senior. Even from these lofty heights, Hill is under no illusions about how difficult a climb remains before she reaches the ultimate summit.
“There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement,” she says. “These girls are fast but I know there are so many faster women out there. I just want to be strong, go for it and win more titles.”
The way she's going, that only seems a matter of time.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF