The afternoon after Maribel Vanessa Caicedo claimed her surprise victory in the 100m hurdles, the freshly minted world youth champion made her future athletics ambitions perfectly clear.
“I’m going to be Olympic champion, too.”
The 17-year-old wasn’t being brash or cocky. That proclamation was simply shared as a matter of fact by a young woman whose trip to Cali instilled in her a confidence she otherwise might never have found. Considering that Caicedo didn’t even decide to focus fully on the hurdles until this year, her bold prediction hardly seems out of place.
Arriving at the championships with a modest 13.49 best to her name, set when winning the South American youth title in Cali last year, the Ecuadorian standout wasn’t really on the medallists’ radar; even she admitted as much. But that changed as the rounds progressed.
She improved to 13.32 when winning her first-round heat before bursting into medal contention after a 13.11 run in the semis that jettisoned her to the top of the world youth lists.
“I felt very good in the heats and even better in the semis, and even better in the final,” she said. “Honestly I expected to improve with each race. And after the semis I definitely felt that a medal was possible. But I could never expect that I would win gold.”
Standing in her way was pre-meeting favourite Alexis Duncan of the USA who followed up with a sensational 12.95 in her semi, a performance just 0.01 shy of the world youth best.
“Yes, I was scared when I saw 12.95 in the semis,” Caicedo said, before bursting into a wide smile.
But in the final, she never lost focus. Casting aside that fear of her opposition, she concentrated solely on what was in front of her. That ability was spotted early on in her career by her first and only coach Fatima Navarro.
“Ever since she was very young, she’s been very focused and very well concentrated,” Navarro said. “We were training to get to the final. We knew we would get to the final.”
Their road to that final in Cali began nine years ago when Caicedo, encouraged by her aunt Jasmin Garcia, a sprinter, first stepped on to a track in her hometown of Guayaquil at age eight.
“She asked me, ‘Do you want to go?’ And I said, ‘Sure, if you’re going I’ll go with you’.” She took a liking to it immediately.
Caicedo began as many youngsters do, competing in several events to see where her strengths lie and to keep her interest high. Navarro had her run the sprints, the hurdles and long jump. It was only late last year that they decided to focus their concentration on the hurdles.
“Last year she broke the South American youth record in the hurdles so we began to focus more on that,” Navarro said. Caicedo happily agreed with the decision.
“I like the hurdles because it’s the most exciting race,” she said.
Nonetheless, they had tentatively planned to double in Cali and contest the 100m as well – Caicedo has an 11.55 PB in the event – but with the events so close on the schedule, they decided the hurdles would be enough.
In Cali, Navarro said the focus was to use her strengths – her solid start and steely focus and concentration – to her fullest advantage.
“I know that she has a great start, the best of the competitors from the blocks to the first hurdle,” said Navarro, who timed the starts of all the competitors in all the preliminary races.
“She’s very strong and very impulsive. I told her to concentrate on her start, to get out really fast, and then to not worry about anything else. To just enjoy her race. To never look right, never look left. To just look towards the finish line.”
“This was the race we had planned: that she would be first from the start, and she was, and then she was never overtaken. We thought the final would be a photo finish, but in the end as it happened she won by a wide margin.”
Her 13.04 performance landed her in the No. 4 position on the world youth all-time list and secured Ecuador’s first track medal at these championships. She also managed to outdo her compatriot and idol Angela Tenorio, a double sprint medallist at both the 2013 World Youth and 2014 World Junior Championships.
When she’s not on the track competing or training, she keeps busy as the oldest of six brothers and sisters. And, as teenagers do, she sleeps. A lot.
“Yes, I enjoy it,” she says, laughing again.
She’s also entering her final year of high school where she’s focusing on health sciences. For now, her academic interests are geared towards teaching physical education. But that now appears to be a vocation that will wait as her athletics career continues to unfold.
“This is a huge opportunity for me,” she said. “I know that now. I’m going to train even harder and concentrate even more on my training.”
But her season’s not over. She’s got more national team duty coming up at the Pan-American Junior Championships in Toronto later this month. This time, there will be no mistaking who she is and what she’s capable of.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF