Dalilah Muhammad admits that ending 2019 as the World Athlete of the Year wasn’t something she expected at its outset. Certainly not in mid-July, when a freak accident during a routine training session nearly ended her season just as it was getting underway.
Muhammad was running some speed drills, she said, when a minor misstep dropped her head-first on to to the track. She landed with a hard, heavy thud.
“I bumped my head pretty hard but I jumped right back up,” she said. “I just walked into the bathroom and I looked at myself in the mirror. My coach came in there with me, asking, 'Are you ok?’ I said, 'Yeah, I'm fine.’ But the second I stepped back out into the light, I had absolutely no idea where I was. I was asking him and my training partners, 'Where are we?' And at that point they knew something was clearly wrong."
She was rushed to a hospital where she was diagnosed with a minor concussion. That was ten days before the opening round of the 400m hurdles at the national championships where she needed to finish in the top three to earn her way on to the team bound for the World Championships in Doha.
But she recovered quickly. Eleven days later she smashed the world record with a stunning 52.20 run at those championships, eclipsing the 52.34 mark Yulia Pechonkina set in 2003 when Muhammad was just a 13-year-old middle schooler in Queens, New York.
As it turned out, that race was just the prelude to her sensational season.
Just over two months later at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, Muhammad again reset the record book, breaking her own mark with a spectacular 52.16 performance to edge rising star Sydney McLaughlin in one of the most eagerly-anticipated finals. The last time the women’s 400m hurdles world record was broken twice in the same season was in 1986.
It was also Muhammad’s first world title, following up silver medal-winning runs in 2013 and 2017 – finally a global gold to place beside the Olympic gold she won in Rio three years ago.
“This year I was working my hardest and it's so nice to have it recognised and appreciated on such a grand scale,” she said, briefly glancing at the Athlete of the Year trophy that will likely rest somewhere near those medals.
The two world records certainly loom large when she looks back on her 2019 accomplishments, but so too does the training and sweat that laid the foundation for them.
“Everyday I was being pushed to the max. It was a hard year, and we got through it and we got world records, and now this. So it's been a good one.”
World record target
Many athletes will say that they don't intentionally target world records. Muhammad isn't among those.
She didn’t say if the journey towards those records began after she won the 2007 world U18 title in Ostrava, or nine years later, when she raced to the Olympic title in Rio. But it was a long time coming.
"Every year I've been able to take a little bit off my time. I definitely had my heart set on the world record, my sights set on the world record."
Brutal competition helps, too, something in ample supply in the US where national team selection battles routinely rewrite the all-time lists.
Despite Muhammad’s resume, much of the event’s spotlight this year fell on McLaughlin, the prodigy who made the US Olympic team at 16 and was already, at barely 20, one of the best one-lap hurdlers in the world. The young upstart drew first blood this season, running down Muhammad at Oslo’s Bislett Games in June, the pair’s first meeting of the year. Muhammad returned the favor in a big way in Des Moines where McLaughlin watched from behind as the Olympic champion shattered the record. But McLauglin struck back at the Diamond League final in Zurich, winning in 52.85. Muhammad finished a well-beaten third in 54.13 to set the stage for what was to be an epic showdown in Doha. There, Muhammad once again illustrated what a champion she’s become.
“Competition definitely motivates you,” said Muhammad, who capped her Doha campaign with another gold medal, this one in the 4x400m. “It definitely pushes you to be at your very best. (But) the world record was definitely something I was aiming towards this year regardless of the field. It was something I was aiming for because of the field. I knew that the field would be strong and that this would be a great year, and a great opportunity to push for the world record.”
Looking ahead, the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo loom large, where Muhammad is aiming to become the first woman to win a second Olympic 400m hurdles title.
“I definitely would love to (successfully) defend my title,” she said, but if it comes, it’ll be as part of a more balanced approach to life and sport.
“I think, for me, I'm really going to enjoy the year. This will be my eighth year as a professional athlete and I'd really just like to see the places we get to visit and enjoy track and field as it comes. But of course I'll be working hard to defend the title.”
And to get there, she’’ll travel the same familiar road that led to her appearance on a glittering Monaco stage last night.
Nothing has changed for me,” she said. “It's just the beginning. I'll be the same person on that track and I’ll approach each race the same way. Running is something I truly do love – for me it's what gets me up everyday. I love the training aspect. I love the process of running. The meets are just secondary to me.”
She also firmly believes she can go even faster.
“I think I have things that I can improve on. I think the other women have things that they can improve upon. There's definitely still room for growth.”
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics