World indoor 60m hurdles champion Nia Ali is returning to the heptathlon. It’s a vow that Ali made after winning the 2011 NCAA 100m hurdles title during her last season at the University of Southern California.
Ali, 25, planned to focus on the 100m hurdles for her first post-collegiate season as her best channel to lure a steady sponsorship deal before going back to the heptathlon. Those plans are now on hold – at least until after the 2016 Olympics – after Ali’s breakthrough over the barriers.
“That was the plan and as you can see it ended up being a little longer,” Ali said with a laugh. “The heptathlon is always in the back of my mind. There is some unfinished business.”
Validating world indoor title in IAAF Diamond League
Along with her world indoor triumph, success in the 2014 IAAF Diamond League is equally important. A strong showing will validate her victory in Sopot.
“World Championships are more of what you can do on this day,” Ali said. “The Diamond League is more of a series of tests on different days. I want to be consistent and consistently faster.”
Ali’s outdoor season has been slowed by a hamstring injury in her right (lead leg) while warming up for her outdoor season opener at the Drake Relays in late April. Ali initially had a cramp in training in the weeks leading up to the competition.
“It turned out to be something bigger than I thought it was,” said Ali. “I want to be 100 percent or close to 100 percent. I don’t want it to be a reoccurring thing that keeps coming back.”
She made her 2014 outdoor debut on Monday (2) in Bydgoszcz, but the whole experience was far from ideal. After travelling from LA to the east coast, she realised her passport was still at home and ended up arriving in Poland the night before the competition.
Cold weather and rain in Bydzgoszcz made for difficult hurdling conditions and the jetlagged Ali ended up crashing into a hurdle, bruising her heel in the process, and jogged over the line in fifth place in 13.76.
She is hoping that her IAAF Diamond League debut in Rome on Thursday (5) – where she will be up against world champion Brianna Rollins and Olympic champion Sally Pearson – will be an altogether better experience.
Despite not being able to toe the starting line at the Drake Relays, Ali watched intently as Kristi Castlin defeated Rollins to end the US record-holder’s 19-race winning streak in the 100m hurdles which dated back to the 2012 US Olympic Trials final.
“To a lot of people, it came as a surprise,” said Ali, a self-proclaimed student of the event who can rattle off the PBs of her competitors. “But if you have been following Kristi (Castlin) closely, she is in pretty good shape. I don’t think it came as a surprise. The event is constantly evolving.”
There has also been change for Ali during the indoor campaign.
She went from seven steps to eight to the first hurdle. Ali, who hadn’t used an eight-step approach since high school, found herself running up on the first hurdle. So at the suggestion of 2004 Olympic champion Joanna Hayes, Ali pushed her blocks back so that she started nine inches behind the starting line.
“I thought this isn’t going to work at first and a few times, I started winning races,” said Ali. “I definitely got faster with eight steps and the rhythm and cadence of doing it correctly.”
Winning combination with coach Ryan Wilson
It’s also been a winning combination for Ali with 2013 US 110m hurdles champion and world silver medallist Ryan Wilson as her coach.
Last season, Ali lowered her PB in the 100m hurdles from 12.73 to 12.48 in her inaugural year coached by Wilson. During the indoor campaign, Ali moved to fifth on the US all-time list in the 60m hurdles with her 7.80 victories at the US Indoor Championships and the IAAF World Indoor Championships.
“The fact that he is an athlete kind of helps,” said Ali. “He can cater to the fact that sometimes an athlete needs space sometimes and not to be bothered. As an athlete and coach, he has an understanding to be able to pick everything a little a part to find out what works for you.”
Wilson has placed an emphasis on technique and strength. Ali has been running 250m and 300m intervals for conditioning and will run in 100m races throughout the year for speed training. Wilson estimates that Ali’s training is two to three months ahead of where she was in 2013.
“She needs to be more consistent on a consistent basis,” said Wilson. “She has to be focused on being a better hurdler. The only way to do that is to do better technically and iron out specific issues.”
Ali and Wilson trained together for a year before Ali approached Wilson about coaching her. Wilson believes the previous experience as training partners helped foster the quick transition.
“Getting to know her as a training partner and a peer really helped me to work out what was going to be the most effective way to coach her,” said Wilson. “I wasn’t coming from square one.”
Juggling their competition schedules was another matter. It was particularly harrowing when Ali and Wilson competed in their respective finals in back-to-back races at the 2013 US Championships. With Ali placing third and Wilson winning his first national title, both earned trips to the 2013 World Championships.
Wilson was more stunned with Ali’s performance than his first national team appearance at age 32.
“Her progression in such a short amount of time is incredible,” Wilson said. “Nia has a kinetic awareness of herself and picks up on concepts very well.”
Wilson said he planned for eight days before the US Championships to map out the warm-up and racing regimen for Ali and himself. The World Championships were simpler with the women’s and men’s races run on separate days.
On a typical day, Wilson trains in the morning with his personal coach Darrell Smith at UCLA. Then it’s a drive across town to USC to coach Ali and NCAA 400m hurdles champion Reggie Wyatt, followed by his responsibilities as USC hurdles coach.
“I am convinced he is a superhero the way he figures everything out,” Ali said about Wilson.
Heptathlon success followed by personal tragedy
Ali won the South-Eastern Conference title in the heptathlon with 5490 points in her first attempt at the event at Tennessee in 2007 before transferring to USC the following year.
USC coach Caryl Smith Gilbert, who recruited Ali to Tennessee while an assistant coach at Tennessee, called Ali the greatest pure athlete that she’s seen.
Ali placed fourth at the 2009 NCAA Championships with 5824 but her career came to a crossroads on the morning of 21 April 2009.
Her father Aleem Ali killed himself in a murder suicide in Philadelphia after shooting his mistress in front of her 11-year-old daughter and then turning the gun on himself. Her father had tried unsuccessfully to contact Ali in Los Angeles for two months before the shooting.
At the 2009 US Championships, Ali dropped out of the heptathlon after completing six out of seven events. It was the last heptathlon that Ali has competed in. In the 2010 season, Ali was declared academically ineligible and stopped training.
“I didn’t even care at the end of that year (2009),” Ali said. “I was emotionally drained. That was the first time that I felt like I really needed to take a break from track. I knew that I was going to come back and reach what I want to do.”
With the help of then USC assistant coach Tommie Lee White, a licensed psychologist and former 60m hurdles world record-holder, Ali returned in 2011 and enjoyed her best season ever, winning the NCAA and World University Games titles in the 100m hurdles and running under 13 seconds for the first time.
Memories of the heptathlon, though, still linger for Ali.
“I will always have a love for the heptathlon and my mind goes back and forth, but my focus is the hurdles,” said Ali. “I feel like I have a lot more left in the tank in the event.”
Kirby Lee for the IAAF