Never meet your heroes, they say, or you’ll only be disappointed.
For Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser, though, it was quite the opposite at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 – the 19-year-old not just meeting, but also beating, Allyson Felix and Shaunae Miller-Uibo in Wednesday night’s 400m final.
Midway through the race, Naser was last of the eight athletes, her strategy to conserve her energy for the home straight appearing a risky gamble. But as she entered the final turn there was a noticeable acceleration, even if as she turned for home she was still only fourth, appearing to have far too much ground to make up on both Felix and leader Miller-Uibo to get among the medals.
But then the unthinkable happened.
Miller-Uibo began to tread water with just 40 metres remaining, Felix could find nothing, while alongside Phyllis Francis, Naser was producing the finish of her life. As she said afterwards, shortly after crossing the line second to Francis in a national record of 50.06: “Anything can happen in the finals.”
Long road to London
For Naser, it capped a remarkable journey that started many years ago in Nigeria, continued in Bahrain, and had memorable moments of glory in China, Colombia and finally the UK along the way.
Born in Nigeria to a Bahraini father and a Nigerian mother, Naser was aware of her talent early in her childhood, outsprinting kids in street races and winning her first competitive race at the age of 11. She also won her first 400m race soon after, though it hurt so much that afterwards she resolved never to do the event again.
Luckily, though, she did, and in 2014 she took gold over both 200m and 400m at the Arab Junior Championships in Cairo. Later that summer she ran a personal best of 52.74 to take silver at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China.
It was in 2015, however, that the world of athletics truly got to know her name, Naser taking gold over 400m in 51.50 at the IAAF World U18 Championships in Cali, Colombia.
Back then she was coached by Bulgarian Yanko Bratanov, but she has since come under the guidance of John George Obeya who, like Naser, was also born in Nigeria but has been based in Bahrain for several years.
Obeya, a former triple jumper and 400m runner, knew early on he had a special talent on his hands with Naser. He progressed her training steadily over the past two years, a blend of gym training (three times a week in winter, once a week in summer), explosive plyometric and bounding drills and the inescapable grind of distance runs to build endurance, along with track sessions to build speed.
“She’s the most talented athlete I’ve coached” said Obeya.
Last year Naser bowed out at the semi-final stage of the Olympic Games in Rio, clocking 50.88 to finish third in her semi-final, but this year both she and her coach knew a breakthrough was on the cards.
A training camp in Baku, Azerbaijan, put the finishing touches on preparations, and Naser set national records to win both her heat (50.57) and semi-final (50.08) here in London.
Doing her thing
Heading into the final, her coach mentioned some of the names she would be up against, those like Olympic champion Miller-Uibo and reigning world champion Felix. “I don’t care who is there,” responded Naser. “I just want to go do my thing.”
All the same, lining up alongside such titans of her event with the knowledge she could beat them felt a little surreal. “Allyson Felix is someone I watched for many years,” said Naser. “She’s my role model.”
Wednesday in London felt a long way from Bahrain, with cold weather and incessant rain greeting the athletes when they arrived at the stadium, and though the nerves were building throughout the day Naser knew all would be fine once she got on the track.
“Everyone is nervous,” she said, “but once you are there in the starting blocks everything is gone.”
Her coach knew that despite her age, few would be better equipped to deal with the inclement weather and pressure of a world final. “She has a very strong mentality,” says Obeya. “I wasn’t surprised because I know what she’s capable of doing.”
When she turned into the home straight, Naser saw nothing around her – so was completely unaware of Miller-Uibo’s impending collapse – and kept her eyes trained on her path to the finish.
“I just had to push through and try,” she said. “I didn’t see anyone in front of me so I didn’t know what position I was at until the results came through.”
When they flashed up on the big screen, she first saw the name of Phyllis Francis, the winner in 49.92, then her name, second in 50.06, followed by that of Allyson Felix, who she had out-leaned at the line to demote to third in 50.08.
“I feel so happy,” said Naser. “It wasn’t about beating Allyson Felix. It was about getting a personal best and a medal.”
But did she ever think such a feat was on the cards, given she was taking on seasoned seniors who were several metres better than her on all previous form?
“No, I didn’t,” she admits. “But I was training hard and hoping for the best. Coming here I really hoped to do something.”
At 19, it made her the youngest ever woman to reach the podium over 400m at the IAAF World Championships, and her coach is in no doubt what that means for her future.
“I’m looking forward to her taking over the quarter mile,” says Obeya. “I have no doubt in my mind.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF