Feature30 Nov 2023

World champion Watson, no longer flying under the radar


Jamaica's world 400m champion Antonio Watson (© Getty Images)

At first, he appears quiet and mild-mannered off the track, in stark contrast to his fierce competitiveness on it. But don't be fooled by his gentle and unassuming nature; a strong sense of determination fuels him.

Meet Antonio Watson, the newly minted world 400m champion. His stunning victory on that beautiful evening in Budapest in August saw him join a distinguished group of Jamaican 400m runners who have won senior global titles.

In 1983, Bertland Cameron won Jamaica's first 400m gold medal at the inaugural edition of the World Championships held in Helsinki, Finland. Cameron followed in the footsteps of Dr. Arthur Wint and George Rhoden, who won Olympic gold medals in the 400m in 1948 and 1952, respectively.

Early days

Watson hails from the Duncans community in Trelawny, a parish known for producing many of Jamaica's top athletes, such as Usain Bolt, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Omar Brown, Warren Weir, Lerone Clarke, Marvin Anderson, Ricardo Chambers and Inez Turner.

Watson's prodigious talent came to light over a decade ago at the prestigious JPS Western U12 Primary Championships, when he was competing for Duncans All-Age School. After attending a coaching seminar in Montego Bay, Watson's primary school coach teamed up with Machel Woolery to create a roadmap for Watson's success.

This resulted in him travelling 90km to attend the Petersfield High School in Westmoreland. Despite limited resources, he became a top performer in Jamaica's high school system. He recalls excelling in football, briefly following in his father's footsteps before discovering his true calling in athletics.

Initially, he competed in strength and endurance events due to his natural athleticism and potential. “I did the 800m and shot put at Western Champs and the 1500m at the Boys and Girls Championships,” Watson says.

Despite his versatility, Watson realised early on that specialising in one or two events was needed to reach the pinnacle. He chose sprinting and identified with the 200m and 400m, earning several gold medals, including the 400m world U18 title in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2017. 

Antonio Watson at the 2017 World U18 Championships in Nairobi

Antonio Watson at the 2017 World U18 Championships in Nairobi (© Getty Images)

Just as his stocks began to soar, Watson faced a few setbacks. He was frustrated by a hamstring injury in 2019, forcing him to miss the 200m and 400m finals at the Jamaican high school championships. The following year, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, leading to the cancellation of numerous global events.

Youthful exuberance

In the 2021 ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys and Girls Athletics Championships, held behind closed doors, Watson won his favourite event, the 200m. This cemented his legacy as one of the few athletes to achieve this feat across all age groups. “I love the 200m because it’s not just about raw speed; you have to combine speed and strength, and I appreciate that,” says Watson.

There was controversy surrounding his victory celebration, but Watson learnt from the experience. Raising his left hand, Watson appeared to make a pointing and shooting gesture when crossing the finish line, but his sincere apology for the pre-planned quirk demonstrated responsibility and commitment to making things right.

“I learned a valuable lesson that not everything one thinks, they should do,” he says.

He remained resolute in not letting the incident affect his morale and enthusiasm.

A few months later, he faced an important decision. Unlike many of his peers, Watson never considered training overseas and believed that staying home was his best option. “I had received offers from abroad, but I was never a foreign-minded individual,” Watson explains. “After having a conversation with Coach Glen Mills earlier in the year, I felt he was the right person to take me to the next level.” 

After graduating high school in 2021, Watson joined the Racers Track Club under the guidance of Mills, who led the legendary Bolt to multiple Olympic and world titles. “I got a good reception at the club,” he says. “Everyone was welcoming and fun to be around.”

Winning formula

The partnership proved successful within two years, as Mills produced his first 400m world champion. During an impressive 2023 outdoor season, Watson won nine out of 10 400m races, setting multiple personal bests. He suffered his only defeat in early July during the Jamaica National Senior Championships.

“I went to Budapest with the right mindset,” explains Watson. “After reaching the final of the World Championships, running 44.13 in the semis and becoming the third fastest Jamaican ever, I promised myself I would make it on to the podium no matter what.”

Antonio Watson celebrates his world 400m title win

Antonio Watson celebrates his world 400m title win (© Getty Images)

In the final, he ran 44.22 – the second-fastest time of his career behind his PB from the semifinals – to triumph ahead of Great Britain’s Matthew Hudson-Smith and USA’s Quincy Hall.

"I am really proud I am bringing gold to Jamaica," he said at the time. "This is an amazing season for me. After winning the world youth title in 2017, it is amazing to win the gold medal at my first senior World Championships. I believed in myself."

His motivation to succeed comes from his close-knit family, which includes his parents, grandparents and three younger sisters. They inspire him to be the best version of himself.

While preparing for major championships, Watson’s unwavering steadfastness and unrelenting work ethic sets him apart. “I always try to focus and execute the plans of my coach and avoid social media and other distractions,” he says.

It is difficult for athletes to achieve their life goals without trusting their support staff. Watson acknowledges the value of his mentors, who have influenced him to understand his perspective. “Thanks to my agent, Cubie Seegobin, I am now financially responsible and equipped with the necessary skills to prepare for life beyond sports,” Watson adds.

During his free time, Watson enjoys playing FIFA and listening to music. Returning home following his world title win, Watson, who received the keys to the city of Savanna-la-Mar, the capital of Westmoreland, found ways to deal with his newfound fame. "Coping with international stardom has been hectic, but I’m managing,” he says. “I remain grounded and humble. I’m never letting fame get to my head.”

With the Paris Olympics next on the horizon, Watson understands he can no longer fly under the radar.

“Being world champion, I know I need to step up my game and work even harder,” he acknowledges. “The competition will be fierce, but I’ll be heading back to the drawing board with my coach and coming up with a plan.”

Noel Francis for World Athletics

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