Nigerian sprint hurdler Tobi Amusan (Getty Images) © Copyright
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High and low – Tobi Amusan

Nigerian sprint hurdler Tobi Amusan ended 2018, her first professional season, with the Commonwealth and African titles. The 21-year-old explains how gold at the 2015 African Games set her on the path to glory.

 

High

For my high I have to talk about getting a scholarship and coming to the US. That was when I finally believed in myself in being a hurdler. Before that, I was thinking that I could be a sprinter.

I was born in the western part of Nigeria, in Ogun State. It’s a place where people don’t believe in your dreams until you finally make it big. My school [University of Texas, El Paso] had been contacting me since 2014, before I went for the 2015 African Junior Championships. But there I ran above 14 seconds and they told me it wasn’t up to the standard for recruiting for the NCAAs Division 1 level.

I had three months to prepare for the 2015 African Games in Brazzaville, Congo. That was when one of my brothers in the US told me that I needed to get my standard down before I could be recruited. Not my actual brother – more a like a track brother, who went to the States after training in the same stadium as me. His name is Abiola Onakoya; he has had a huge impact on my journey in the US.

I trained really hard, morning and night, just to make the standard and go to Brazzaville. I made the standard and went there ranked 10th. People were saying I couldn’t make it to the finals, but I thought, ‘No problem’. In the first round I had the fastest time and a PB of 13.11 (an African U20 record). Then, in the finals, I ran 13.15 and I won. It was a huge victory for me. I realised then that I had the talent in the hurdles, so I took it really serious.

Tobi Amusan after winning the 100m hurdles at the African Games (AFP / Getty Images)Tobi Amusan after winning the 100m hurdles at the African Games (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright

 

You don’t even want to know about the phone calls [from UTEP]! They were killing me with calls! “Can you send this, can you send that?!” At first there was stress with trying to process the US thing, but it was what I always wanted. I did everything I could to pass the exams and send the right things. I made it through and went in January 2016.

Going into the US, my goal was NCAAs, but my first year I didn’t do anything crazy. I had three months to make the Olympic standard, so my goal was to train as hard as I could and make the standard. I went from 13.10 straight to 12.83.

The scholarship changed everything. It made me see track and field in a different way. In Nigeria it wasn’t really as bright as you think it may be; you just do it because you want to do it. Coming to the US college system, I know what I’m capable of doing, especially when you run with the fast US athletes. It made me believe that this girl from Nigeria can achieve great exploits.


Low

There are a few. I would talk about the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz. I went in with the fastest time, but had trail leg problems and went from first to fifth in the final. That got me really heart-broken. I felt like I should quit hurdling after that one race.

I was so emotionally and mentally drained. Going into the competition I had the expectation of, ‘You’re winning this’. And then everything switched around in 12 seconds. That’s one of the lows.

But there’s another, the World Championships in 2017 in London. I went in as the fourth fastest. It was after NCAAs and I was in shape, so my goal was, even if I didn’t make it to the podium, make sure I finished in the ranking I went in with: fourth place.

Before the semi-finals it was cold, I was cramping – I couldn’t even warm up. I felt like everything was going to fall apart in front of my face. I was crying. I couldn’t talk to my coach before the race because there was no Wi-Fi and I had no roaming.

I went in and couldn’t even make the finals. Bydgoszcz was tougher because I wanted to win. London, I wanted to make the finals and possibly win a medal, but my expectation wasn’t as high as it was in Bydgoszcz.

Nigerian sprint hurdler Tobi Amusan at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (Getty Images)Nigerian sprint hurdler Tobi Amusan at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (Getty Images) © Copyright

 

But those disappointments have made me really strong. Every time I step on the track, and in training, I look back and think, ‘None of those girls who beat me then [at World U20s] will ever defeat me again’.

And after London, I learned that the fact that I was in the mix, knowing I was capable of doing stuff at this age – I was just 20 – and being ranked in the top eight makes me confident that when I get my technique right, my speed right, and get a bit stronger, I’ll be fine.

Even after the Diamond League final [where she finished fourth] I sat down and all I could think was, ‘Everything happens for a reason’. At the end of 2017 I wasn’t even seeing myself running professionally. This year, I’m here on the circuit, so next, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just have to focus on me and hope it leads something really great.

Thomas Byrne for the IAAF