Ackera Nugent at the World Athletics U20 Championships press conference (© Roger Sedres)
In the history of Jamaica’s participation at the World Athletics U20 Championships, only one woman, Gillian Russell, has won gold in the 100m hurdles. It was a feat she achieved twice, winning the title at Plovdiv 1990 with 13.31 and successfully defending it two years later in Seoul with an improved time of 13.21.
Ackera Nugent, who holds the world U18 best in the discipline, is not oblivious to this fact. So, as she gets set to take the track at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi on Friday (20) and make her World U20 Championships debut, the 19-year-old will be focused on becoming the first woman in 29 years to win the title for Jamaica in her specialist event.
Already relishing the prospect in Nairobi, the Jamaican hurdler said: “Actually it is really important for me to make history, having not won gold for Jamaica in the 100m hurdles in like 30 years, and coming here and being able to compete among the great athletes here, it means a lot to me. If I’m able to put up a really good race and execute to the best of my ability and to win the gold medal, it will be a great opportunity to me and a great feeling but at the same time it will show me I need to work a little bit more going into the elite stage.”
The odds are in favour of the Baylor University freshman who is the highest ranked in the 100m hurdles at U20 level. Nugent has recorded phenomenal performances this year despite enduring a very busy season which started in January. She competed in four meetings during the indoors, which culminated in winning the NCAA 60m hurdles title with a scintillating 7.92, equaling the world U20 record in the event.
Outdoors, she has competed in nine meetings including the NCAA Championships, Jamaican Trials and NACAC U20 Championships. The World U20 Championships in Nairobi will be her 10th. Nugent doesn’t look the worse for wear though.
When asked if she is under pressure to win the title in Nairobi, she said: "Diamonds are made under pressure but no I’m not under pressure. Pressure is what you make it and what you do about it, but no I don’t think I’m under pressure at all.”
And while many may feel that her busy schedule may prove counter-productive, the sassy teenager believes it’s an avenue to make up for not being able to compete a lot last year because of the outbreak of the coronavirus.
“All of the competitions I’ve participated in this season have prepared me mentally and physically because it shows me that it really doesn’t matter where you are and where you go, it just matters what you go there and do," she says. "Having so many rounds this season after covid, it has given me a little more urge and a little more strength to compete, so that’s what this season has done for me,"
Going by her U20 ranking in the 100m where she is second only to compatriot Briana Williams courtesy of her 11.09 run at the NCAA Preliminary West Round in May, tying the Baylor school record in the process, there were expectations that she would do the 100m and 100m hurdles in Nairobi.
After all, she has pretty much held her own in both events thus far, because after clocking that personal best, Nugent also posted a blazing 12.63 (3.3m/s) in the hurdles on the same day, making it the fastest U20 100m hurdles under all conditions. Two weeks prior, she had also stormed to victory in both the 100m and 100m hurdles at the Aggie Invitational, winning the former in 11.21 (4.2m/s) and the latter in 12.95 (3.4m/s) within a 30-minute span.
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In spite her exploits in both events, Nugent was only entered for the 100m hurdles and 4x100m at the World U20 Championships, but the decision was certainly to her liking as she has made it absolutely clear that she is sticking with the hurdles, notwithstanding her speed in the flat sprint.
“The sprint 100 was really because I thought I was not ready for the outdoors, so I said to my coach: ‘Hey I’ll like to run the 100’, and I even shocked myself because I did not know I was that good at flat sprints. I’m just going to stick to the hurdles though,” she reiterates.
Winning medals at the NCAA Championships as a freshman is no mean feat, and for Nugent who won gold in the indoors and bronze in the outdoors, finishing on the podium gives a glimpse of things to come.
She says: “So far going into national championships at the collegiate level, it’s basically being elite but not fully elite and being able to go there and win national championships, it shows that I have a great potential in the elite level when I’m ready to move to the senior level.”
Nugent came to global reckoning when she smashed the U18 world best in the 100m hurdles with a time of 12.89 while racing at the Youngster Goldsmith Classic in 2019. At the time, she was only a high school student in Jamaica that had barely scratched the surface of her talent.
She has since relocated to the US to further her education at Baylor University, and though she admits that the transition has not been easy, she is also trying to make the most of the opportunities that have come her way.
“It’s not easy,” she says. “I’ll be so honest and say it’s not easy when it comes to school and practise but when you have a great medical team, a great coaching staff and support management team, it becomes really easy, and you make great adjustment if you’re really willing to give it a try.
"It’s like track; you just have to try and love it. Nobody likes school, I really don’t; but I make it work because at the end of the day if I get hurt or anything, I’ll be able to have my education to further me.”
Like most Jamaicans, Nugent was excited by the clean sweep in the women’s 100m in Tokyo. Hailing from a country where the new generation is spoilt for choice in selecting from the vast array of iconic figures in Jamaican track and field, Nugent reveals the personality she’s most drawn to.
She said: “I think I’m mostly gravitated to Shelly-Ann (Fraser-Pryce) because she’s a people person and she’s really motivated when it comes to speaking with the younger athletes. She’s really outgoing and growing up in the track world you’re gonna want to meet Shelly. She’s really amazing and I think I admire her work ethics and how she does things on and off the track, so I look up to her.”
When it comes to her specialist event though, Puerto Rico’s Jasmine Camacho-Quinn is the NACAC champion’s idol.
“In Rio 2016 she fell and wasn’t able to finish her race, and for the fact that she came back in 2021 and won the Olympics, that really showed me that it doesn’t matter your situation, you can do anything you put your mind to," she explains.
Nugent believes that this generation of athletes should never be defined by the expectations of others because they will continue to smash ceilings and break records. Indeed, the sky is only the starting point for Nugent.
Yemi Olus for World Athletics