Omar McLeod after winning the 110m hurdles at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Birmingham (© Getty Images)
Scrappy, inconsistent and out-of-character; Omar McLeod’s races for the first half this season were essentially a reflection of the difficulties he has faced throughout the year.
The Jamaican has been the stand-out performer in the sprint hurdles in recent years, winning the world indoor and Olympic gold medals in 2016 followed by the world title in 2017. McLeod won 21 of his 25 races – including heats – between April 2016 and May 2018, having been under the tutelage of Edrick Floreal for most of that period.
But McLeod picked up a mid-season injury in 2018, then later that year Floreal moved from Kentucky to take on a new coaching role in Texas. McLeod had to make some changes and decided to move to Florida to be coached by Tony Ross.
McLeod’s 2019 campaign started promisingly enough, winning his first IAAF Diamond League race of the season with a 13.12 clocking in Shanghai. What made the feat all the more impressive is that it came one day after the death of his aunt, one of his closest relatives.
But as the season progressed, McLeod started to struggle and was beaten in Nanjing, Rabat, Stanford and London. Never before in his professional career had he suffered four successive defeats.
After McLeod finished third in London – the same track on which he won the world title less than two years prior – Ross parted ways with him. McLeod knew that he had to make some significant changes if he wanted to be ready to defend his world title later this year.
“Hurdling is so unforgiving,” he says. “When you have a winning streak going, it builds your confidence. But when you start losing and things start going bad in the race, you question a lot of things. And you get this same psychological effect in any event, that’s just how it is in this sport.
“I was going through the season feeling unsure about a lot of things: I lost my aunt, things went downhill, I was unsure of my situation, I was getting hurt. I just didn’t think I was in the best situation to defend my (world) title and run fast.
“I was miserable, I honestly was miserable,” he added. “I just needed to make sure that I fixed that. I owed it to myself to change things. I had to tell myself, ‘you’re the defending champion, you need to act like that, and you need to put yourself in the best situation to go defend that title and don’t have a pity party for yourself. You know, you look like **** out there running’. So I just fixed that.”
New coach, new group, new location
Few athletes make changes to their coaching set-up in the middle of the season. For McLeod, though, his move to Rana Reider seems to have already lifted a weight off his shoulders.
Just two weeks ago McLeod relocated to Germany, Reider’s temporary summer base, where he now trains alongside an all-star multi-talented group that includes the likes of world and Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor, triple Olympic sprint medallist Andre De Grasse, two-time world indoor 60m hurdles champion Nia Ali, 2014 European 200m champion Adam Gemili, Asian 200m record-holder Xie Zhenye and double German sprint champion Tatjana Pinto.
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“It’s a happy environment,” says McLeod. “I’m around athletes who are equally as hungry as I am and they inspire me every single day.
“The situation I’m in is almost like boot camp. We’re in a dorm and all we do is eat, sleep and train. It’s a good situation because I want to go out there and train, I’m eager to be around my teammates, I’m eager to listen to my coach and do whatever he tells me to do. I’m happy.”
In much the same way that his off-track struggles manifested themselves into his early-season results, McLeod’s newfound contentment was reflected at the recent IAAF Diamond League meeting in Birmingham.
In less-than-perfect conditions at the Alexander Stadium, McLeod returned to winning ways with a 13.21 victory, looking every bit as smooth as he did during his dominant 2016-2017 period and beating a field that included US champion Daniel Roberts and Asian champion Xie Wenjun.
No clattered hurdles, no strained finish, just smooth hurdling. Happiness personified.
“I was happy that I was able to put myself in the best situation to come out here and get a win and a good booster going into the Diamond League final,” he said.
The 110m hurdles in Birmingham may have been a non-scoring discipline in the Diamond League, but for McLeod the win was more valuable than any points score. He had finally turned a corner.
“Winning feels good,” he said. “I feel like myself again.”
Path back to gold
McLeod’s season up until now hasn’t exactly been plain sailing, but the 25-year-old is relishing getting back into a championship setting among the rest of the world’s best.
“I’m the defending champion and I’ll be up against the same people I run with every year,” says McLeod, who, as defending champion, will have a wildcard entry to the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019. “They’re all getting stronger and stronger. Most of them, like Shubenkov and Ortega, are approaching 29 which are like the peak years.
“But I can’t really watch that, I just need to stick to what works for me. I know myself so well, I know what works for me, I just need to be honest with myself and pull off the win.”
He also already has an eye on the 2020 indoor season and hopes to use it as a springboard to Olympic success later that year in much the same way he did in 2016.
“We definitely want to do an indoor season next year,” he says. “I didn’t do indoors this year, but I know that will propel me towards being in the best shape for the Olympics. We’re definitely going to go after that world indoor title next year.”
Before that, though, he has far more imminent goals. On 30 September – exactly six weeks from today – McLeod will line up for the 110m hurdles heats at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019. Two days later, he hopes to be standing on the top step of the podium at the Khalifa International Stadium.
“Winning the world title would mean a huge deal,” he says. “I’m a championship performer, I know exactly what it takes to win a title.
“I know me so well that if I’m in the right situation with a coach that knows what he’s doing and has confidence in me and trusts that I can get the job done and I have equal trust in him, then we can do magic, we can win whatever title.
“I don’t take my competitors for granted, they’re all great athletes,” he adds. “But I know me and I can only stick to what I know.
“I know that if I’m healthy and happy, I’m unstoppable.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF