It’s a tale you’ve heard many times before: a rare sprinting talent from Jamaica takes their first steps into the daunting world of global competition, but unlike their competitors, anxiety is absent from their preparations.
That’s because back at home, competing against their peers in the famous Jamaican High School ‘Champs’, they have already encountered an atmosphere so wild that little can compare.
Pressure can turn coal into diamonds, though, and ahead of the IAAF World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017, Jamaica has unearthed another rare sprinting gem in the form of Kevona Davis, the 15-year-old who is overwhelming favourite for gold in both the girls’ 100m and 200m.
On a visit to the 60,000-seater Kasarani Stadium on Tuesday (11), the teenager was calmness personified ahead of what should prove the biggest week in her fledgling career.
“I’m not nervous,” she said. “When we compete at Champs, it’s a lot of people, a lot of noise, a lot of supporters. When you compete anywhere else, you’re ready for it.”
Davis has competed at Champs on three occasions – her first time in 2015 when, as a 13-year-old, she finished second in the 100m in 12.05 and second in the 200m in 24.23.
Last year she lowered her best to 11.63, taking her first title at the event in the U15 100m, then returned the following day to streak to victory over 200m in 23.91, proudly carrying the colours of Edwin Allen High School to gold.
Chasing the rush
While such extraordinary talent at that age suggests she was a product of nature more than nurture, that’s not necessarily the case. Davis took up the sport at the age of nine, a call from her PE teacher beckoning her to try sprinting at a school sports day.
Back then, she was not even the fastest kid in her class, never mind the world.
Throughout her early teens she combined athletics with netball, but says it was “the excitement” of sprinting that eventually made her leave the court behind for the track.
At Edwin Allen, she is coached by Michael Dyke, who has led the school’s all-conquering girls’ team to multiple successes both in Jamaica and internationally at the Penn Relays in recent years.
“He’s motivating, encouraging, easy to talk to and fun,” says Davis, who trains six days a week and takes Sundays off.
In a nation as sprints-mad as Jamaica, word of talent like Davis’s tends to get around, and it’s no surprise that their finest female sprinter of all was quick to offer the youngster some advice when they met.
Meeting her hero
Just like Davis, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was a winner at the Jamaican Schools Championships in her teens, and has often credited it for preparing her for international competition down the line. To date in her career, Fraser-Pryce has won two Olympic 100m gold medals and four individual world titles – in addition to a cache of relay medals – so when Davis met her for the first time, she was sure to heed her advice.
“She was telling me that I must choose the right college, that I’m a talented girl and must not let anyone influence me in the wrong things,” says Davis. “She is my hero.”
So far this year, Davis has been the standout U18 sprinter in the world, lowering her 100m best to 11.24 when winning the Jamaican U18 title in Kingston last month and clocking a PB of 22.97 when she doubled back for 200m gold.
Unsurprisingly, those times put her well ahead of her rivals here in Nairobi, at least on paper, but while some may view that as a pressurising burden, Davis thinks otherwise.
“It gives me confidence,” she says. “Competing against athletes from all around the world will push me to run fast.”
In the relatively thin air of Nairobi, which sits at an altitude of 1795m, Davis may well produce something special when, barring any mishaps in the earlier rounds, she takes to the track for the girls’ 100m final on Thursday night (13). After that, she will return for the 200m, which she says is her favoured event due to her ability to run a strong curve.
That final will take place on Sunday evening, and when the eight athletes take to the blocks, few would bet against Davis becoming just the third athlete in history to win the sprint double at these championships. Jamaica’s latest diamond looks set to shine.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF