Dalilah Muhammad calls it her epiphany, the moment that set off a chain reaction for all that came next: Olympic gold, world record and – on Friday night at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 – a long-awaited world title.
To get that gold, she not only had to be the fastest athlete on the night, but the fastest of all time. Ten hurdles, 52.16 seconds, one lap of the track and a place firmly established among the all-time greats.
But back to that epiphany. It was early 2016, Muhammad was 25 years old and coming off a season where her talent had failed to truly fire. Two years prior, she had won world silver in Moscow but 2014 and 2015 were mediocre seasons, the New York native struggling with a string of injuries.
She picked up a quad strain in an early-season race in 2014, ran on with it and made things worse, her form never hitting the highs of the previous year. Her issues lingered in 2015 and in February of 2016, she parted ways with coach Yolanda Demus and linked up with Lawrence Johnson, who trains a group of high-level hurdlers at his base in Northridge, California.
It was around then she had a realisation.
“Why not me?” Muhammad recalls herself thinking. “Someone’s going to win the 2016 Olympics so why can’t it be you? You fought really hard in 2013, so let’s go for it.”
She adds now, almost four years on, “that’s what I’ve been going with ever since.”
She was always fast, for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Queens in New York City, Muhammad would have to go far before she found a peer who could hold her pace.
“I used to run around my neighbourhood and my first coach saw me running around and he begged my Mom for me to join a track club. He thought I was fast. I would beat all the boys.”
She dabbled in a bit of swimming in the early years, but her entry into athletics was not in the discipline you’d imagine. “I started off with cross country,” she says. “I didn’t start with sprinting until I was in high school.”
There had been no other runners in her family, but Muhammad clearly had a talent for it. She clocked a swift 54.89 to win the US U17 400m title in 2006 and the following year she got her first taste of global competition, winning gold in the 400m hurdles at the IAAF World U18 Championships in Ostrava.
That brought multiple scholarship offers, and Muhammad elected to cross the country to enrol at the sprint powerhouse of the University of Southern California. She finished third in the NCAA Outdoor Championships in her first year, but that was a result she couldn’t better for the rest of her collegiate career.
In 2012 she was knocked out in the first round of the US Olympic Trials and watched from afar as several of her USC teammates made the trip to London for the Games.
“I felt like I could be one of them,” she says. “Looking back, it was definitely the motivation I needed. I was nowhere I thought capable of being.”
Only after graduating and linking up with Yolanda Demus, mother of 2011 world champion Lashinda Demus, did she truly ascend to world-class. After being backed by her family and running unsponsored, she won that world silver in 2013 and earned a deal with Nike. Then there were those two years in the doldrums before the move to train with Johnson rekindled her career.
What followed, of course, is a highpoint that will remain hard to top, even in light of Friday night’s exhibition in Doha.
Muhammad claimed Olympic gold in 2016 in Rio, the humble, hard-working daughter of parents Nadirah and Askia suddenly catapulted to international stardom.
She ran 53.13 to win gold, a few ticks down on the 52.88 she ran to win the US title earlier that summer, and what both races showed was that she had within her the capability to rewrite the world record of 52.34, held by Russia’s Yuliya Pechonkina since 2003.
That magical day arrived in July this year, Muhammad blitzing her opponents to take her event to a new level with her world record of 52.20. She believed then and still does now that it was a long way from the perfect race, but Muhammad was not one to pore over the video.
“I have not watched that race that much and the reason is just because I didn’t want to relive that moment and have that be the highlight of my career,” she says. “I was so happy but ultimately the World Championships title was the goal this year.”
She took a week off training after Des Moines, then went back into base work with her focus on Doha.
There was no disguising her biggest threat, the woman who could force Muhammad to settle for her third world silver medal. Sydney McLaughlin had been a 16-year-old sensation and her US teammate when Muhammad took gold in Rio, but in 2019 in Doha, she was by far the woman most likely to beat her to gold.
McLaughlin beat Muhammad into third at the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich and the 52.85 set a worthy standard ahead of Doha. Both kept their powder dry as they advanced to the final, and when Muhammad was drawn in lane six, McLaughlin in four, the world record-holder saw it as a chance to apply some early pressure on the 20-year-old.
“Sydney finishes great, I just wanted to use my technique and my abilities to the best I could. I think I’m a better hurdler and just wanted to use my speed and put as much distance as I could.”
For many previous races Muhammad would tell herself highly specific things as she settled into her blocks, but this time her mind went blissfully blank.
“I think sometimes we get too in our heads and try to do everything perfect, sometimes you just have to trust in what you’ve been doing all year, trust in your training,” she says. “I wasn’t really thinking about anything: just go for it.”
Muhammad had run 15 strides as far as hurdle nine in the past, but the exuberance of her start on Friday night meant she was only able to hold that until hurdle eight this time, with fatigue setting in that bit sooner.
“I definitely did think the race was pretty fast from the start. Sometimes you tell yourself to back off a little, that you’re going too fast, but in this race I knew there was no holding back. By the last 100 you zone out and then you’re trying to hold on.”
McLaughlin came charging at Muhammad off the 10th hurdle, but Muhammed wasn’t for catching. She hit the line exhausted, elated in 52.16, 0.07 clear of McLaughlin.
So was this, at long last, the perfect race?
“I definitely think it was better set pattern-wise but to make it more perfect I think my hurdling technique could be better. I definitely think I can improve on the finish, maybe taking it out a little slower or try to push to 15 steps all around.”
It said much about her attitude that she could, no more than an hour after crossing the line, reel off multiple ways she can improve. With McLaughlin’s swift ascent, she knows she might have to if she is to retain her Olympic title in Tokyo next summer.
Not that she has any reason to look too far up the road.
In recent weeks her coach had often said to her that the short turnaround to Tokyo – now less than 10 months away – meant Muhammad would only get two weeks’ break for her off-season, but the world record-holder, with some justification, feels she’s earned more.
“There’s no way I’m taking two weeks,” she laughs. “He’ll see me in a month.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF