Feature25 Jan 2017

Coach’s sage advice sparked Thompson’s launch to double Olympic triumph


Elaine Thompson wins the 100m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)

It is hard to comprehend the impact a few well-chosen words from Elaine Thompson’s coach played in the career of the double Olympic sprint champion.

Back in early 2014 the long-striding Jamaican was a fringe performer on the international circuit with little to suggest of star potential when Stephen Francis pulled her aside to offer some blunt advice.

"He told me I could do better in training and that I was not producing the times on the track that I should be," recalls Thompson. "He told me not to be scared of people, be less serious, smile more and shake it up."

The words had the desired impact. From that moment on, she decided to push herself "100% in every session" in an effort to wring every drop of potential out of her 1.67m tall frame.

It worked.

In 2014 she made a sizeable breakthrough to scalp 0.24 from her 100m best to run 11.17. She also made her major championship debut at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow by competing in the 4x100m heats for gold medallists Jamaica. But she wanted more.

"It (competing at the Commonwealth Games) gave me the motivation to compete (at major championships) in the individual events," she says. "I didn’t just want to make the relay team."

Thompson was true to her word and the next year not only made the Jamaican 200m team at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 but also earned a memorable silver medal in a high-class final. Then earlier this year she made history as the first Jamaican woman to complete the 100m and 200m double at an Olympic Games.

Inspired by cartoons

It has been some ride for the 24-year-old, who originally hails from the small rural community of Banana Ground in the parish of Manchester in the central south of Jamaica.

Raised by her grandmother Hycenth, also known as Gloria, from the age of seven, it is easy to see the foundations of her future success. Walking a ten-mile round trip to school every day honed her endurance while she recalls regularly sprinting to the shops on behalf of her grandmother as a child. 

"I used to memorise what my grandma told me to get, so I sprinted to the shops," she explains. "I then used to sprint back as fast as I could to watch cartoons and movies. As soon as I was sat in front of the TV, I did not want to move again."

Always one of the fastest kids at primary school, she later studied at Manchester High School – former school of Olympic 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod – but she was no schoolgirl superstar. Her best performance at the iconic Jamaican High School Championships came when finishing fourth in class two of the 100m in 2009, running 12.01.

She missed out competing on her final year at high school due to disciplinary issues, but that did not dissuade her college coach Paul Francis from approaching her on behalf of his brother, Stephen, head of the world-class MVP group, who was keen to recruit her.

It was a move which Thompson found appealing.

"I don’t know what it was but Stephen saw something in me that I did not see," she explains. "Paul said he wanted me to study at UTech and join the group. I was very excited and as my parents wanted me to stay in Jamaica, it was a good fit for me."

However, she initially found life tough in her new training environment. In her first year in 2012 she suffered several injuries and failed to make the progress she had hoped. The following year she lowered her 100m PB to 11.41. 

Yet it was to be Francis’ motivational words which transformed the young Jamaican. Learning from a high-class group, which includes double Olympic 100m champion Fraser-Pryce, she started to make significant progress in 2014.

Focus on 200m for 2015

In April of the following year she blitzed to a stunning 10.92 in Kingston for a sizeable 100m PB and then ran 10.84 in Eugene in the B race, recording the same time as race winner English Gardner.

Yet Francis decided because of her start – which was viewed as a weakness at the time – to focus her efforts for the rest of the season on the 200m.

"I was not happy with it (at the time) because I wanted to see how good I was at the 100m," she admits. However, once again the coach had pulled a masterstroke.

Thompson secured the half-lap title at the Jamaican Championships in 22.51 and at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London she once again lowered her PB to 22.10. Then inside the Bird’s Nest Stadium at the World Championships the then inexperienced 23-year-old ran 21.66 to claim silver behind 'Flying Dutchwoman' Dafne Schippers and climb to fifth on the world all-time list. 

Surprised and shocked by the stunning performance, she hit 2015-16 winter training with renewed confidence and purpose as she set herself the target of competing in both the 100m and 200m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

She ran a sensational – albeit wind-aided – 10.71 in Kingston in May before a hamstring strain disrupted her campaign. But Thompson revealed her gold medal-winning potential by taking out the national 100m crown by matching Fraser-Pryce’s Jamaican record of 10.70 before withdrawing as a precaution from the 200m after winning her first-round heat.

Growing confidence fuels historic Rio double

Opting not to compete for the next two months until the Olympic Games naturally created doubts in her mind. Yet after comfortably winning her 100m heat in Rio in 11.21 – into a -1.0m/s headwind – her confidence returned.

"It was, wow," she says of that moment. "Then after running 10.88 in my semi-final I knew I was in the right shape to race."

In the final, Thompson destroyed the field to assume the Olympic title from her training partner, Fraser-Pryce. She stopped the clock in a blistering 10.71 to defeat Tori Bowie by a victory margin of 0.12 with Fraser-Pryce – on this occasion – settling for bronze.

Then she reversed the finishing result from the previous year's World Championships to defeat Schippers and record a time of 21.78 in the 200m to make history as the first double Olympic female sprint champion since Florence Griffith-Joyner some 28 years earlier.

"It means a lot to me as a Jamaican because we are such a strong sprinting nation," she says of completing the cherished double. "The 100m and 200m are such special events and we (Jamaicans) like to put our marker on that podium."

There is little question that Thompson’s life has transformed since her double success in Rio. She has attended glittering movie premieres and met tennis icon Serena Williams. The Jamaican sprinter can no longer walk down the street without being overwhelmed with attention and the dancehall-loving Jamaican is trying to become more accustomed to her new-found status.

As for the 2017 campaign – highlighted by the IAAF World Championships in London – she plans to adapt the same philosophy which has served her so well in recent seasons. She intends to focus, work hard in training, and live up to the tattoo on her shoulder which reads, ‘One Life, One Chance’.

Yet when the subject of world records is mentioned, she has a realistic assessment of whether she can close in on the aforementioned Griffith-Joyner’s long standing global marks of 10.49 and 21.34.

"The record(s) are not really in range and will be a stretch for me, although I hope to break one," she says of her ambition. "All I’m doing is taking my training step by step."

Steve Landells for the IAAF