After years of near misses and frustration, Kaliese Spencer has finally stepped up in 2014 and delivered her first major senior medals. SPIKES speaks to the shy, modest Jamaican about her patient journey to the top.
When Kaliese Spencer won the 400m hurdles last month in Birmingham, it was her 17th Diamond League victory. It also clinched her fourth Diamond League title with a race to spare. Only pole-vault demigod Renaud Lavillenie has a more dominant record in the competition’s five-year history.
The 27-year-old has been in the world’s top 10 for each of the last six seasons, five of those in the top four. She is also the joint ninth fastest in the history of her event.
Yet when the current season began, her senior medal count was one: a silver in the world 4x400m relay from 2009, where she ran only in the heats. It was a record in no way befitting an athlete of such quality.
And cruelly, on three occasions, she fell shy of a podium spot by less than half a second.
She missed out on a world champs medal in Berlin 2009 by 0.36 and Daegu 2011 by 0.16, and an Olympic medal in London 2012 by 0.28.
Spencer finished fourth at three consecutive major champs between 2009 and 2012
Then, in August last year, she was disqualified in the heats at the Moscow 2013 World Championships after her lead leg drifted outside of lane six.
“It took me one day to get over it,” says Spencer in a deliberate, measured voice. Four days later, one of her team-mates committed a lane violation in the women’s 4x400m heats and her Jamaican quartet were DQ’d.
“I was disqualified twice in the same championships,” she says, chuckling.
The Kingston-based Spencer is the most phlegmatic of athletes, though her refusal to display overt disappointment should not be mistaken for a lack of commitment.
Kaliese Spencer cares. She has always had an unwavering belief in her ability, and has been a winner since junior level.
This summer, she won Commonwealth gold by almost a second, in front of a packed stadium at Hampden Park.
“I never doubted one day I would win gold,” she says. “I knew I just needed to focus, train hard and stay healthy.”
A 52.79 in London in 2011 was the joint-ninth fastest time in history
Spencer’s international career started in similar fashion. At 19, she won the world junior 400m hurdles title in Beijing in 2006. A year later the statuesque Jamaican performed well and made the semi-finals at the world champs in Osaka – a good performance for a 20-year-old.
In 2008 she switched her attention to the 400m flat, recording an impressive lifetime best of 50.55. At the Berlin 2009 World Championships, 22-year-old Spencer unleashed the best run of her career in the 400m hurdles final – slashing more than three quarters of a second from her lifetime best to stop the clock in 53.56 for fourth place. Spencer craved more.
“Even after that meet I thought I can’t go crazy, I knew I could still faster, so I went back into training and trained harder.”
By 2011 Spencer was the world’s dominant 400m hurdler. Just three weeks before the Daegu 2011 World Championships, she ran a blistering 52.79 in the rain at the London Diamond League meet. That performance elevated her into the all-time top ten.
But disaster struck soon after that career high. “My quad, started acting up and I missed some training because of it,” she says. “There went my medal.”
At the London Olympics, Spencer committed a tactical error in her semi-final, which proved costly. She was ran out of first spot by Lashinda Demus and consequently missed out on a middle lane in the final.
“Unfortunately, I ran my semi-final in a way I shouldn't have, so I regret that,” she recalls. “I was forced to run blind [in lane nine] in the final. By the time I got to the last hurdle I wasn't able to finish the race the way I wanted.” Once again she was fourth, just 0.28 off a podium spot.
Kaliese Spencer: “I never doubted one day I would win gold”
After Moscow’s double disqualification debacle, it became apparent that something had to change. Coach Stephen Francis – the man who has guided sunny sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Melanie Walker to Olympic gold – suggested a change of scene, and in 2014 Spencer raced indoors for the first time.
Never having raced on the tight indoor tracks before, she admits to being naive in her indoor debut in Birmingham, going out too fast and placing second in the 400m.
Yet just three weeks later at the Sopot 2014 World Indoor Championships, only her second indoor competition, she claimed silver in 51.58 behind the USA’s Francena McCorory.
“It just felt like that silver medal was my breakthrough,” she says. “For so long, I’ve been fighting for a medal and coming fourth. So to move up from fourth to second was a big moment for me.”
Buoyed by the extra belief the medal has given her, the 27-year-old has once again dominated the Diamond League season with four wins and one early-season second place. In Brussels tomorrow she can make it a fantastic five.
In July, she finally took home Commonwealth gold for Jamaica – her first gold medal since winning at the world juniors eight years ago. Even the idea of racing against Eilidh Child, the Glasgow games’ poster star, wasn’t going to get in her way.
“I had to stay focused, compete and get the job done,” says Spencer. “I didn’t feel any extra pressure, I was just relieved, it was a long time coming. It was my first stadium gold medal, and I’m very happy about that.”
A long time coming, and so richly deserved.