When Maurice Wignall came crashing through the final hurdle en route to a bronze medal last month in Budapest, it was more than a "breakthrough" for the 27-year-old Jamaican. It was also an historic first for sprint hurdlers from the Caribbean nation.
National record – national first
Wignall’s 7.48 national record came in the first-ever appearance by a Jamaican in the men's 60m Hurdles final at a World Indoor Championships. As successful as Jamaican sprinter hurdlers have been on the world stage, none have reached the final of a World Outdoor Championship, and none have reached an Olympic final since Keith Gardner finished fifth in Rome in 1960. As the Olympics approach, Wignall is clearly poised to enter waters uncharted by his fellow countrymen.
"I don't want to seem cocky but it didn't surprise me," he said of a performance that made him the third fastest of the indoor season. "I knew it was going to be fast. There were a lot of good athletes in the race and really good competition." Lining up next to defending champion Allen Johnson might have intimidated some, but Wignall seized the opportunity. "It did affect me, but in a positive way. It made the race fast."
2003 hampered by injury double
With a string of indoor victories early in 2003, Wignall appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough last year, before a pulled left hamstring in late February brought his indoor campaign came to an abrupt halt. He missed six weeks of training before resuming competition in May.
He won his third straight national title in June, and after his 13.28 win on a rain-soaked track in Linz in early August, lowering the national record by a full tenth of a second, he seemed to be prepping nicely for the World Championships later that month.
Disaster struck again, this time in the form of a minor pull to his right hamstring, forcing him to drop out of the Zurich Golden League race. Subsequent treatment in Paris indicated that he was not ready to compete, ending his season then and there.
"It was very traumatizing for me," he said of his two injuries in six months. "I felt very scared coming back this season, and trying to run fast again." But now he says he's ready. "This year I've done a lot of strength work, and I've tried to conserve my legs as much as I can."
Cautious approach to competition
Taking no chances, he plans to run much more selectively in the months preceding Athens. He will open his outdoor season at the Japan Grand Prix in Osaka on 8-May, and will add one other race before the Jamaican Olympic Trials in June. "Last year, I really wasn't as confident as I am now," he said. "After the bronze medal in Budapest, I would say that my confidence did shoot up a little bit. I'm not feeling any pressure to race. I plan to run a lot more sparingly in order to prepare for the Olympics."
Long Jump career beginnings
Wignall began his track career as a school boy in St. Andrew, competing in both the high hurdles and long jump, and displayed promise early on. As a bright-eyed 18-year-old, he captured the bronze medal at the 1995 Pan-American Junior Championships, in a race won by another unknown, Cuban Anier Garcia, who used the continental meeting as a stepping stone to the 2000 Olympic title.
But he first attracted attention in the long jump. After a runner up finish at the 1997 NCAA outdoor championships as a sophomore at George Mason University, he spanned a PB 8.09 at the 1997 World Championships before fouling his three attempts in the Athens final that year. In 1999, he won the 1999 NCAA indoor long jump crown, while his sprint hurdle performances hovered in 13.70 range -relative obscurity in elite high hurdling.
"In high school," he said, "I did it because I loved it. There was no other motivation." That same motivation -along with a free college education-guided him through his collegiate career. He graduated in 2000 with a degree in psychology, but still pushed by his love for the sport, he decided to continue.
Hurdles wins the contest
His turning point came at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton after a sixth place finish in the heats of the high hurdles. "I did very poorly," he said, and the time came to make a tough decision - continue his doubling efforts, or sacrifice one of his events. His agent and several coaches suggested his future was with the hurdles, which is where his focus has since remained.
Eyeing 13 seconds
Now based in Alexandria, Virginia, Wignall has trained with hurdles specialist George Harris for the past two years. By all indications, his choice after Edmonton seemed the right one. From a PB 13.70 that year, he improved to 13.49 in 2002, and claimed the bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games, Jamaica's first sprint hurdles medal since 1970. Before his injury cut his season short last year, he improved again by the same hefty margin, 21/100s of a second.
A similar improvement this year would put him near 13-second territory, but he refuses to make any predictions as to how fast an Olympic medallist will have to run in Athens. Not for fear of jinxing himself, but rather, to avoid limiting his possibilities.
"My agent asked me that in Budapest," he said, "and I told him, 'I can't give you a time.' But I can tell you that it will be very fast. If I give you a time, I limit myself."