It’s not just the gold medallists who gain valuable experience from competing at the IAAF World U20 Championships. Many other medallists and competitors go on to become stars of the sport in their senior years.
World 4x100m gold medallist and IAAF Diamond League 100m champion CJ Ujah goes back in time six years to his appearance at the 2012 World U20 Championships in Barcelona and what it meant for his career development.
Last year CJ Ujah proved the 100m master on the IAAF Diamond League circuit. A winner in Rome, Rabat, London, Birmingham and in the final in Zurich, the British sprinter found a way to repeatedly get the job done in the sport’s blue riband event.
While his senior record is one to be proud of, the Londoner was no superstar as an age-group athlete, instead gradually earning his spurs and learning from each and every competition.
Taking up the sport seriously in 2010 aged 16, he ran 10.83 for the 100m that year before making a sizeable improvement the following year, lowering his PB to 10.58 to win selection for the 2011 IAAF World U18 Championships in Lille. In France, the Briton performed respectably, reaching the 100m final, where he placed eighth in 10.69.
“It was an interesting experience and the first time I had seen people from all over the world,” he recalls.
Leading into the 2012 campaign, where the World U20 Championships in Barcelona represented Ujah’s pinnacle event, he made some changes to his coaching set up. Guided by Jonas Dodoo, that year he also received input from legendary US coach Dan Pfaff, who was then part of the British athletics system.
“It was good mixing things up,” he says. “I was operating on a higher level and I think they pushed me to new limits.”
Making the two-man British 100m team alongside Adam Gemili was the first part of his mission for the year. Part-two for the sprinter who that season had lowered his PB to 10.44 was to make the final in Barcelona.
Ujah, who shared a room with Gemili during the championships, recalls the fun of the trip and admits the British relay squad got up to mischief in Spain.
“Barcelona was a crazy experience,” he says. “I remember we got to the beach a few times and so many members of that squad have now been part of the British senior team like Jazmin Sawyers, Desirée Henry and Dina Asher-Smith. It is nice to see people who you grew up with (on British age-group teams) develop and be a part of the senior team today.
“The World U20s was a bit of a step up from World U18s; it was a bit more serious and intense and maybe that is because you are that much closer to competing as a senior.”
Ujah recalls the thrill of competing in the large open stadium, which staged the 1992 Olympic Games, and he responded positively to the challenge to show glimpses of his big-game temperament.
He qualified second from his heat in 10.48, before slicing 0.04 from his lifetime best in the semi-final to run 10.40 for third and advance to the final.
The final itself was secured by Gemili in a stunning championship record of 10.05 but behind Ujah trimmed a further 0.01 from his best to place a respectable sixth.
“At a major championship you can only ask to run your best, so to run a PB by a hundredth of second felt good,” says Ujah. “At that point I was a junior, I had finished sixth and I knew there was a long road ahead. It made me hungry for the future, and maybe if I had finished first or second I would not have had that same hunger. I just hoped to go away, work hard and try to become a serious contender.”
He has been true to his word. In 2013 he secured the European junior 100m title in Rieti and the next year blitzed to a British U23 100m record of 9.96. Over the past few years he has established himself on the international stage and last year largely dominated his event on the IAAF Diamond League circuit.
So, looking back on his World U20 Championships appearance, what did he principally learn from the experience?
“That anything can happen on the day,” he explains. “At a championship, it is not about what you have won in the past, it is all about the intensity you bring on the day. If you do your best, anything can happen.
“Having said that, no matter what PB any athlete brings to the start line, you should never underestimate their ability. To this day, that is the mentality I bring into every race.”
With the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018 fast approaching, Ujah very much believes athletes should use the competition as a stepping stone for the future.
“Try to gain as much experience as you can,” he advises. “That experience will help you for the next few years of your career.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF