Nia Ali competes during the 2014 World Indoor Championships in Sopot (© Getty Images)
Olympic 100m hurdles silver medallist Nia Ali is a top-quality performer outdoors but she is perhaps best remembered for winning back-to-back world indoor 60m hurdles titles in 2014 and 2016 and, remarkably, giving birth to her son, Titus, in between her twin global successes.
Can you recall your first indoor experiences?
Yes, that came aged seven when I went up to New York to compete at the Colgate meet. I always really like the fact that indoors weather conditions were not a factor and also how intimate the experience is with the crowd close by.
In 2013 you won your first US Indoor 60m hurdles title and set a 100m hurdles PB of 12.48. At what point did you specifically target the 2014 World Indoor Championships?
Since returning to training in the fall of 2013 my coach (Ryan Anderson) and I were always shooting for the World Indoors. That winter we switched to training to seven steps before the first hurdle but for whatever reason it wasn’t working out and I became frustrated. A week before the US Champs I told him to win selection for the team (at World Indoor Championships) I needed to revert back to eight steps. He agreed and to compensate for my new-found power and speed I had to put the blocks nine inches further back. (It proved an inspired decision as Ali made the US team by running 7.80 at the national championships).
What was your expectations going into the World Indoor Championships in Sopot?
My expectations were trying to duplicate what I had done at US Championships. I knew I was up against Sally Pearson (the 2012 Olympic 100m hurdles champion from Australia) and that was a huge deal for me because my coach and I watched videos of her and she was the gold standard in terms of hurdles technique. But I am a competitor and I was excited to compete on the big stage against her with a high level of confidence.
Pearson posted a couple of blistering times through the heats and semi-finals (of 7.79 and 7.81) while you were the second fastest qualifier for the final (in 7.88) What was your mindset going into the medal race?
I was definitely going for gold. I had a good opportunity and although Sally had run some quick times, I felt it was my race to lose. I knew I had to be in the mix from the first two hurdles to be able to compete but I saw it as my opportunity to show that I deserve to compete with the best.
What were your memories of the race?
Well, starting nine inches behind Sally was no fun! I moved well over the first hurdle, even better over hurdle two and by hurdle five I was even (with Pearson). I thought, all I need to do is execute. I then remember diving for the line not sure if I had won.
What were your emotions when you knew you had struck gold (Ali equalled her PB with 7.80, 0.05 clear of Pearson in silver)?
It was one of relief. Up until then I hadn’t won anything huge, so I felt I’d laid down a marker and established myself as a good runner. I had a lot of fun celebrating my success. We found a nightclub/lounge and invited along the whole US team. I remember thinking I couldn’t believe Bernard Lagat was at the same party as me and congratulating me!
Later that year you became pregnant. What were your emotions on receiving the news?
From a track point of view, I had to make a quick adjustment and I had to put in place a plan to get myself prepared to be at my best for the 2016 Olympics. I trained as normal during the fall and I was very blessed not to experience any sickness (during pregnancy). I also swam a lot and danced before I gave birth to Titus in May 2015. I then re-started training again in August.
How was the road back to full fitness?
I started back by training on the beach. It was like a new challenge for me and I was excited. I felt I was strong, but I had no speed.
When did you first target a defence of your world indoor crown?
It was always in the back of my mind leading into the Olympic year. I had a wildcard to compete at the World Indoor Championship but I knew I needed a lot of competitions that indoor season to get back into a rhythm and build confidence. At US Indoors, I competed in heats and semi-finals and then I did a high jump for fun.
What was the expectation going into Portland?
I felt I had been running well and my coach was confident. Both Brianna (Rollins) and Keni (Harrison) had run well at US Trials but I was prepared to roll with them. It was also special for me that the championships were held in Portland, USA because I knew a lot more friends and family would be watching on TV. My aunt and my mom were at the meet as well as my son, who was aged nine months at the time. He was an extra motivation for me and I remember thinking, ‘please keep him awake for my competition’. I was very relaxed going into the competition and two days before the meet started myself, Brianna, Erik Kynard and Marvin Bracy had gone to a Justin Bieber concert in Portland, which was super fun.
What do you recall of the final?
I knew I needed to have a great start and execute well off the first hurdle because Brianna and Keni had strong starts. I got out really well and then kind of blanked out to hurdle four when I felt Brianna in another lane was close. I was in a good position, so I took the attitude - just run for your life. I didn’t know where I had finished when I crossed the line but I felt so blessed I was able to pull off a good run.
What was your response when it was confirmed it was gold? (Ali had defeated Rollins by 0.01 in a time of 7.81)
I dropped to the ground and thanked God. Brianna was ready to cry because she was so happy for me. To be able to put it altogether under genuine pressure was an even better feeling than I’d experienced in Sopot. I had been through so much and it was satisfying to prove to myself I could still perform to a high level.
You took Titus on your lap of honour. That must have been a hugely special moment.
Yes, somebody brought to my attention how lucky I was not to walk around my victory lap with my child but to complete the victory lap with him on my hip. It was kind of surreal.
What does the World Indoor Championships mean to you?
Indoors to me is all about setting personal goals and accomplishments. It is a stepping stone for the outdoors and I take it as a huge blessing and with enormous pride in how well I’ve been able to perform at the World Indoor Championships.
Steve Landells for the IAAF