Nigerian sprint hurdler Tobi Amusan (© Getty Images)
Every athlete embarks upon a unique journey, but for World Championships fourth-place finisher Tobi Amusan, her unorthodox arrival upon the hurdles is a story worth explaining.
Disappointed to have been replaced as a member of the Nigerian 4x100m relay squad at the trials for the 2014 African Youth Games, she asked what other event could she enter outside of the sprints.
When organisers suggested the 100m hurdles and with the top two automatically selected for a place in the Nigerian team for those Games, Amusan figured she had nothing to lose.
“If it is run and jump, I thought I’ll do it,” she recalls. “I had played around with hurdles in practise but I had never competed before.”
Discovering she had only one other opponent that day, Amusan, much to her surprise, triumphed in the 100m hurdles trials race before going on to earn silver at the African Youth Games in Botswana in only her second hurdles race.
Rapid rise to podium finishes
Six years on from her quirky introduction to hurdling, Amusan has come a long way, winning gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, African Games, African Championship and NCAA Championships. Last year she finished just 0.02 shy of a medal at the World Athletics Championships in Doha.
Still just 23, Amusan will be a potent medal threat at next year’s rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Games.
Raised in a disciplined household in the town of Ijebu Ode in Ogun State in Nigeria, her parents, who are both teachers, set the tone.
“My life centred around going to school, sleeping, eating and reading books,” recalls Amusan. “The same cycle that I have taken into my later life.”
A member of the high school soccer team, her running journey began at the age of 15 when she entered and won the 100m sprint in an inter house competition.
Inspired to take up the sport after that day defeating a runner who trained at the local athletics stadium, Amusan started formal training – although initially it was a covert operation.
“My mum was in full support of my athletics career but dad wanted me to focus on school,” says Amusan. “He limited my time at the stadium, but I used to sneak to the track thanks to mum telling dad I’d gone to church!”
Her mother’s white lies paid dividends when in 2013 Amusan qualified to compete for Nigeria at the African Youth Championships, earning 200m silver. Later that year she competed at the World Athletics U18 Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine, qualifying for the 200m semi-finals only to be disqualified for a lane infringement.
While disappointed to be disqualified, on her return home she and the returning squad were hosted by the President of Nigeria – a moment which led Amusan to be totally smitten by the thought of a future athletics career.
“Back then I thought by competing in track I’d get to meet the President all the time,” she adds with her trademark laugh. “I thought if this is true I’m going to take track seriously.”
Her unlikely conversion to the hurdles came about in 2014, and after undergoing a period of specialist hurdles coaching, the following year she saw her PB tumble across a two-month period from 13.69 to an African U20 record of 13.11, capped by gold at the African Games in Brazzaville.
“It was one of the biggest milestones of my career; winning that championship set me up for who I am today,” she adds.
She accepted a US scholarship to attend the University of Texas at El Paso and from her arrival in January 2016 she hooked up with new coach Lacena Golding-Clarke, a three-time Olympian for Jamaica and the 2002 Commonwealth Games 100m hurdles champion.
Given the benefit of Golding-Clark’s vast international experience, Amusan has thrived.
“She has been like a teacher, mentor and role model to me,” she adds. “Lacena was a fierce competitor and she has instilled in me those same qualities.”
Within three months of working together, Amusan set a blistering (but ultimately unratified) world U20 100m hurdles record of 12.83. Despite being strongly tipped to strike gold later that summer at the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, she wound up a disappointing fifth in a high-quality final.
“That was a day in which my life flashed right in front of me,” she recalls.
She completed an eventful year by reaching the Olympic semi-finals but Amusan was determined to deliver more.
“I sat down with my coach at the end the season and I said to her, ‘I want to go undefeated in 2017’,” she explains. “I don’t care what you tell me to do, I’m just going to get it done.”
Diligently completing every session and competing across multiple events – 100m, 200m and 100m hurdles – her speed endurance made rapid gains and she delivered on her promise to remain unbeaten in the 100m hurdles in the outdoor collegiate campaign, securing the NCAA title in a PB of 12.57.
Beaten by the London chill, but rebounds with Commonwealth title
Touted as a potential dark horse for a medal at the World Championship in London, unfortunately the chilly conditions badly compromised her efforts as she exited the semi-finals in a relatively pedestrian 13.04.
“Everything crashes down when I compete in cold conditions,” she explains. “London took me from 100% to zero. I couldn’t even warm up for my semi-final because I was cramping so badly.”
Despite her World Championship disappointment, Amusan took the decision at the end of the season to turn pro and quickly gained rewards by securing 100m hurdles gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
Following the late withdrawal of 2017 world champion and home favourite Sally Pearson through injury, the path was cleared for Amusan to make her mark. She scorched to victory in 12.68, defeating 2015 world champion Danielle Williams of Jamaica.
“It was a significant win,” she explains. “I was just 20 at that time. Standing on the podium was one heck of a minute or so. It was amazing.”
Later that year she maintained her Midas touch by securing the African title in front of her home fans in Asaba and tasted the European circuit for the first time.
As a rookie pro, she described the experience as a “learning phase” but emerged out of the season with a clear goal in mind.
“I knew I wanted to consistently finish in the top three in races and reach the top like the other girls, too,” she adds.
Building and showing confidence
Leading into the 2019 campaign, she continued to refine her technique but also focused on improving her mental resilience.
“My coach taught me that when I walk into a room full of my rivals to look like I own the damn world record,” she explains. “She always reminds me that I’ve practised hard to trust myself and translate that aggressiveness on to the track.”
Adopting that attitude last year, she claimed top-three finishes at the Diamond League meetings in Doha, Stockholm and Birmingham and captured the African Games title in Rabat.
Then, after running a blistering personal best of 12.48 to win her heat at the World Championships in Doha, she looked like a potential medallist in the making.
But elation was quickly replaced by deep concern. Post-race she started to feel quad pain. As the condition worsened, she underwent frantic physio treatment to be ready for the semi-final, where to Amusan’s surprise she managed to match her time from the heat to claim victory.
Still managing a lot of pain, Amusan suffered a horror start in the final. Trailing the field after hurdle one, she set off in hot pursuit of the leaders but with too much ground to make up she finished fourth in 12.49 – 0.02 short of bronze.
“I was playing catch up and at this level, it is not possible,” she says. “After the race I broke down, it felt like my whole world had crumbled.”
After using the 2020 indoor season to refine her start, the project proved a success as she claimed 60m hurdles victories in Karlsruhe (in a PB of 7.84), Satra and Berlin.
Approaching the World Indoor Championships as the third fastest woman this year for 60m hurdles, she was fancied to claim her first global medal, only for Covid-19 to make its unwelcome entrance and stuff up her plans.
Meeting the lockdown challenge
Amusan has undergone a challenging journey over the past six months or so. Based in El Paso, she has had no track or gym access in that time. From March through to June she was forced to carry out workouts on a concrete surface around her apartment complex.
However, this brought with it an extra strain on her body. Shin splints and quad issues resurfaced and she wisely opted to take a six-week break from training.
On the insistence of her coach, she returned to training to race in a couple of low-key 100m races in late July and early August in Texas before opting to fully shut down her season in preparation for 2021 and the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics.
Possessing a deep faith, she prefers to leave her future in God’s hands, and while reluctant to make too many predictions, you can be assured that Amusan will continue to approach her sport with 100% commitment.
“There is little doubt the discipline my parents showed me helped shape who I am today on the track,” she explains.
“I don’t party, I don’t drink and when I am on the track it is serious,” she adds. “I know my next pay cheque is dependent on my next performance. That is what helps put food on the table.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics