It’s not just the gold medallists who gain valuable experience from competing at the IAAF World U20 Championships. Many athletes who exit the championships in the heats or qualifying rounds go on to become stars of the sport in their senior years.
Olympic 110m hurdles silver medallist Orlando Ortega of Spain looks back eight years to his fleeting appearance at the 2010 World U20 Championships in Moncton.
Few events in athletics can so cruelly rip apart dreams than the sprint hurdles – as Orlando Ortega can attest
When he lined up for the heats of the men’s 110m hurdles at the 2010 World U20 Championships, he was among the potential medal favourites, yet less than four seconds later his quest had abruptly unravelled.
Clobbering hurdle one and thrown badly off balance, he crashed through the second barrier before slamming to the floor after the third hurdle, his hopes and ambitions in tatters.
“At that moment I felt very sad and angry with myself because I was sure that I was in good shape to fight for a medal,” explains Ortega, who represented his country of birth, Cuba, at that competition. “After this happened, it felt like my world had come crashing down.”
Ortega, who back then was coached by the influential Cuban hurdles coach Santiago Antunez, the man who guided Dayron Robles to 2008 Olympic 110m hurdles gold, had approached the competition in Moncton in the eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick in great shape.
That season he had twice set a PB of 13.45 for the 110m hurdles (at the 99cm U20 height) and he went into what was his first competition outside of Cuba ranked fourth and among the main medal contenders.
“The main aim before every major championship is, in the first instance, to reach the final,” says Ortega. “Then, once in the final, the aim is to try to make it on to the podium.
“It was my first time overseas and I was very nervous and very excited.”
Aged 18 at the time, he has only good memories of the city and being part of a small but successful Cuban team, which finished fourth on the medals table after winning three gold medals – Dailenys Alcantara in the triple jump, Irisdaymi Herrera in the long jump and Yaime Perez in the discus – plus one silver medal.
“It was a good experience and the competition was of a high level,” he says. “I remember some good performances by the Trinidadian athletes (led by 400m hurdles gold medallist Jehue Gordon).”
Competing in the second heat of the 110m hurdles, and the quickest in the six-strong field, Ortega remembers his blocks were not quite right.
“It is normal to feel nervous before a competition and psychologically I felt well prepared,” he says. “I felt the starting block was in a bad position before the race and I think that is why I crashed into the first hurdle.”
By hurdle three, his World U20 Championship quest was at an end.
Ortega recalls watching France’s Pascal Martinot-Lagarde, the No.3-ranked 110m hurdler coming into the competition, strike gold in the final. Although Ortega was bitterly disappointed with his personal display, his focus quickly switched to the next big competition: the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara.
There he enjoyed great success, winning a surprise 110m hurdles bronze medal in 13.30 behind Robles, and so announced his arrival as a top-class hurdler.
In 2012 Ortega finished sixth in the 110m hurdles final at the Olympic Games in London and in 2015 set a blistering personal best of 12.94 in Paris, before the following year earning Olympic silver in Rio.
Today aged 26, the adopted Spanish athlete is among the world’s best sprint hurdlers, but does he ever reflect back on what he learned from his World U20 Championships mishap?
“I think I learned to focus and concentrate more in order to produce a better race,” he explains.
It also taught him the unpredictable nature of the sprint hurdles. And for the athletes set to compete at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018, he offers some words of wisdom.
“The most important thing,” he says, “is to enjoy yourself and try not to feel under too much pressure to do your best.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF