Tobi Amusan celebrates her 100m hurdles win at the Wanda Diamond League final in Zurich (© Getty Images)
“I’ll come back stronger.” That was the promise Nigerian hurdler Tobi Amusan made to herself and her fans after placing fourth in the 100m hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics. Narrowly losing the bronze medal to Jamaica’s Megan Tapper, Amusan faced the familiar disappointment of finishing off the podium at a global competition, having also placed fourth at the World Championships in Doha in 2019.
At the time she made that promise, not even Amusan envisaged that she would break the African record five weeks and the same number of competitions later as she approached the end of the 2021 season. But that was exactly what happened when she stormed into the history books of her country and continent in the final Wanda Diamond League event of the year, the Weltklasse Zurich, winning the 100m hurdles in an African record of 12.42 to eclipse Glory Alozie’s record set in Monaco in 1998 by two hundredths of a second.
Drawn in lane 3 and flanked by Gabriele Cunningham on her left and Nadine Visser on her right, with Tapper not too far off in lane 5, Amusan got off to a flying start and after the fourth hurdle she overtook both Cunningham and Tapper who had gone out hard at the start of the race.
The two-time African Games gold medallist took the lead by the fifth hurdle with the pair of Visser and Tapper hot on her heels, but she held them off to secure the first Diamond Trophy of her career, making her the first ever African hurdler to do so, as well as the first Nigerian athlete to accomplish such a feat since the World Athletics one-day series was renamed the Diamond League in 2010. Visser was second in a Dutch record of 12.51, with Tapper settling for third in 12.55.
Amusan also follows in the footsteps of her compatriots Innocent Egbunike, who clocked a then African record of 44.17 in the men’s 400m in 1987 (which still stands as the Nigerian record), and Seun Ogunkoya, who won the men’s 100m in 1998, as the third Nigerian to win an event at the Lezigrund Stadion.
Amusan reveals that she did not expect to run the African record in her penultimate race of the season. “All I was focused on was crossing the line first," she says. "I was not planning to run fast but just wanted to complete my quota of competitions for the year as per contract requirements and to gain points and improve my world ranking, so I wasn’t expecting anything special.
“I knew it was a competitive field and it’s all about getting out of the blocks because I know that is my weakest part of the race, so my plan was to get out and go. Once I get out, I trust my top end speed and God to carry me through, so my emphasis was just on getting to the line first, no emphasis on breaking records.
“But on getting across the line, and then after my little celebration, I heard the commentator saying: ‘That’s a new area record.’ And I thought: ‘Oh, is that me?’ Then I looked up and I was like ‘okay’. It wasn’t that I was overly excited about the record; I was more excited that I won the final, but I’m happy to have also ticked the record off my bucket list."
Winning the Diamond League final with the African record as a bonus is the perfect climax for Amusan after a long and arduous season which started in January and was laced with some major disappointments in the build up to the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s great, it is a great feeling," the 2017 NCAA champion adds. "Looking back, I did not win a medal at the Olympics. It was a very challenging time for me afterwards, but I never gave up, and I came out here and I was like, if I did not get a medal in Tokyo, the least I can do is to get a Diamond League Trophy – I did just that."
Amusan’s first attempt on the African record was back in June during the Olympic trials held at the Yaba College of Technology Sports Complex in Lagos. It was clear to all and sundry at the time that she had that one mission to accomplish, especially as she had set a personal best of 12.48 the month before and clocked wind-aided times of 12.43 and 12.44 respectively in her final races before the trials.
“I wanted to break the African record back at home in Nigeria on home soil. I knew what I had done a week before I came for the trials. The week before, I remember running a 12.3 and 12.44 so it was like: ‘You’re ready'," she says.
At the national championships, Amusan executed a clean race in the semifinals, easily dominating with a time of 12.54. The stage was set for the final later in the day and no one within the sports arena was in doubt as to the significance of the race. Furthermore, Alozie was also at the arena to witness the historic moment everyone anticipated.
When the time came, Amusan sped out of the blocks and executed with perfection, but as she crossed the line, there was no time displayed on the timer, much to everyone’s dismay, especially Amusan’s. She made her way back to the timer and officials, anxiously pacing for a few minutes until it was disclosed that the race had not been timed due to a malfunction and she was subsequently awarded 12.30 (hand-timed).
It was such a rollercoaster of emotions for the UTEP alumnus. Putting her thoughts to paper a month after the unfortunate incident, she said: “Lo and behold! It was not a mirage. The time of the display unit was actually zero. My body grew limp. The initial rush of adrenaline that I felt during the race was quickly being replaced by all the worst kind of emotions - betrayal, hate, sadness, paranoia - all at the same time. God, why was this happening to me? I was shattered. I needed to have a good cry, so I left the arena.”
Nearly six weeks later and ranked No.3 in the world in her event, Amusan shrugged aside the disappointment to open her campaign at the Tokyo Olympics as one of Nigeria’s medal hopefuls and easily crossed the line first in 12.72. She lowered her time to 12.62 in the semifinal, also in first place to become the first Nigerian woman since Alozie at Sydney 2000 to feature in the final of the 100m hurdles at the Olympics.
In the final, she got out a bit late and paid dearly for it by placing fourth, one of the most difficult positions for an athlete to finish in. She said afterwards: “Physically I was ready, but mentally I wasn’t, so I think my mental part let me down. I’m moving forward positively. It’s another lesson, and by the time I come out of this, I will come back stronger.”
Indeed, she came back stronger at the Diamond League meeting in Brussels, clocking the same time of 12.69 as eventual winner Visser. She then won the Diamond Trophy in Zurich, which she dedicates to her mum. She also dominated her final race of the season in Zagreb five days later.
“That trophy is for my mother because I could remember after the Olympics, she fell terribly ill because she was crying so badly," Amusan explains. "I’m happy I gave her one reason to smile this year because she’s been my number one pillar. She’s up at 2am or 3am Nigerian time because she’s always trying to watch my races and she’s like: ‘I won’t sleep’. So, I definitely dedicate the trophy to her.”
Going forward, Amusan has only one target. “I know a lot of people have tagged me the ‘almost’ girl," she says. "I’ve seen and heard a lot of comments. It’s just sad knowing that I’m that girl that people tag ‘almost’ and that’s the main force that’s going to drive me next year. I don’t want to be the ‘almost’ girl. I want to be ‘that girl’, the girl that wins every competition.”
The multiple continental champion certainly has all it takes to be ‘that girl’, so watch out for her in 2022.
Yemi Olus for World Athletics