Kerron Clement wins the 400m hurdles at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
Just what is it about 400m hurdlers and large spans of time between major global successes?
Back in 2000 Angelo Taylor snared the Olympic title in Sydney from the inside lane, only for the tall and gifted US athlete to regain the crown unexpectedly in Beijing eight years later.
Precisely the same time span bridged Felix Sanchez’s twin Olympic successes between the Athens and London Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, this year, it was the turn of Kerron Clement to join the trend as his dazzling victory at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games ended a seven-year itch between his last global success, which came back at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin.
“I always believed in myself,” explains Clement, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Halloween. “It was hard after injury and surgery but I never lost focus. I knew one day I could return to the podium and I made up my mind 2016 was the year to do it.”
How right he was.
Rewind back to 2009 and Clement was touted as the man to dominate his event for a generation. Aged just 23 at the time, he had already secured back-to-back world 400m hurdles titles in Osaka and Berlin. He had smashed Michael Johnson’s world indoor 400m record as a teenager and scooped the silver medal behind the aforementioned Taylor at the Beijing Olympics.
He began his 2010 campaign in blistering fashion with comprehensive Diamond League victories in Oslo and New York, yet a mystery virus picked up in Lausanne in which he woke up on race day with a badly swollen face and body brought a premature end to his season.
Nagging injury issues hampered his 2011 campaign and after pulling his groin muscle in the semi-final of the 400m hurdles at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, he had to concede his four-year grip on the world title. The Trinidad-born Clement was devastated.
“It was the first time since I was freshman that I had not made the final of an event,” says Clement, who moved with his family to live in the US at 12.
Pre-London return to Florida
In late 2011 Clement opted to leave his then coach Bobby Kersee and move east to reunite with his former coach at the University of Florida, Mike Holloway. Unfortunately, Clement’s injury problems persisted. He aggravated the groin problem in February 2012 and he underwent two surgical procedures. He faced four months on the sidelines.
On the long road back to fitness, he walked four to five miles a day with his mother, although at that point a spot in the London Olympic team looked a long shot.
Badly undercooked at the US Olympic Trials, Clement surprised many by squeezing into the Olympic team in third, 0.05 clear of Bershawn Jackson. For Clement, booking his ticket to London was like “winning a million dollars”.
“I really had to fight my way back,” he explains. “I was not close to 100% and while some of these guys had six or seven races under their belt, I only had one (400m hurdles race)."
He went on to perform with distinction in the British capital, placing eighth in the final after summoning up a season’s best of 48.12 in the semi-final. Post-race he was proud and emotional.
“Just making that Olympic final after all I’d been through was one of the best moments of my career,” he admits. “After the final I went into the mixed zone and started crying. I felt like I had accomplished a lot.”
His efforts in 2012 came at a cost. Mentally depleted in 2013, he finished eighth in the World Championship final in Moscow but he needed a break.
In 2014 he took that sabbatical from hurdling, preferring instead to compete in a few low-key 400m flat races. He took a vacation in the Dominican Republic, he avoided watching athletics on TV, had some fun and recharged his batteries. The ploy worked.
“By the fall of 2014, I felt like a new person,” says Clement. “It was like I had pressed the reset button on the next chapter of my career. I was hungry to hurdle again, having not completed a hurdle drill for a year.”
In late 2014 he made the decision to reunite with his former strength and conditioning coach Mark Campbell and he believes the significance of the move should not be overstated.
With an ability to push Clement “mentally” in the gym, Campbell’s programme, coupled with his motivational skills, has bolstered Clement's strength and allowed him to unleash that trademark late burst off the last hurdle, making him once more a genuine global force.
Last year he showed signs he was approaching his best when placing fourth at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, where he missed out on a bronze medal by just 0.01 to Jeffery Gibson of The Bahamas.
Then in January this year he took another significant step towards his Rio triumph on the back of watching a video of his 2007 World Championships victory in Osaka.
“I thought I looked really skinny back then,” he admits. “That made me want to go on a diet and look skinny again.”
Limiting his carbohydrate intake and restricting his fluid intake to water, he lost more than 10 pounds. Feeling much lighter on his feet, he knew he was ready to run fast in 2016 and his confidence was not misplaced as he triumphed at the US Olympic Trials in 48.50 to win his first US 400m hurdles title for 10 years.
Winning Olympic gold lifts ‘weight of the world’ from his shoulders
Adopting a more relaxed attitude in Rio compared to previous Olympics, Clement opted to fully embrace the experience. He caught some of the other sporting action, played table tennis and had some fun.
A sloppy first-round heat where he placed third in 49.13 after some technical errors shook Clement out of his complacency.
In the semi-final he rolled back the years to produce a majestic performance to win in 48.26.
Then in the final he proved unstoppable as he held off a late charge from Kenyan Boniface Tumuti to set a world-leading time of 47.73 and record his quickest time for nine years. He was Olympic champion at last.
“It was surreal,” he says of winning Olympic gold. “It felt like the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. I felt complete. I suffered all those years of injuries and setbacks, but never wanted to quit. I always knew something big was going to happen.”
“Complete” Clement may be, but Rio most certainly does not represent the end game. He has returned to training, determined to improve as a hurdler and already has his sights set on next year’s IAAF World Championships London 2017, where he is looking to create his own piece of history.
“I’m chasing titles and I would like to become the first 400m hurdler in history to win three world titles,” he adds.
It is a second chapter to his career Clement fully intends not to waste.
Steve Landells for the IAAF