Danniel Thomas-Dodd in the shot put at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018 (© Getty Images)
Late last month, when Danniel Thomas-Dodd arrived in Birmingham, she looked at the snowy streets, the iced canals, felt the freezing wind on her face and thought to herself: perfect.
If that seems an usual reaction for a Jamaican, one who grew up in the tropical climate of Westmoreland on the west side of the island, it’s because Thomas-Dodd has for many years dealt with severe winters at her training base in Ohio, USA.
“I was like, ‘perfect, this is my kind of weather,’” said Thomas-Dodd. “Right now it’s very similar in Ohio to here.”
The temperature indoors, however, felt much more Jamaican on Friday night as Thomas-Dodd claimed the first global medal in a women’s throwing event in her nation’s history. To defy the odds in such fashion, you have to be wired a little differently to the rest, and that’s been the case for Thomas-Dodd ever since the age of 15.
In her early teens, Thomas-Dodd was better known as a netball player, following in the footsteps of her mother, but that soon changed when she transferred schools to Edwin Allen High, a renowned factory for athletics talent.
There, she came under the guidance of coach Roderick Myles, and he encouraged the youngster to transfer her talent to sprinting, highlighting how it would stand her a much better chance at getting a college scholarship to the US.
So how was it that she ended up a shot putter, in Jamaica of all places?
“Funny story,” said Thomas-Dodd. “My high school coach didn’t know but I was doing something silly and I hurt my groin, and I started to put on a little bit of weight because I couldn’t sprint, so he put me in the throws. I started with the discus because that’s my heart and I transitioned from that to the shot put.”
By the age of 19, she improved her discus best to 51.02m and shot put to 14.58m, which earned her a scholarship to Kent State University in Ohio. In 2012, she left Jamaica for the city in the United States midwest, where at this time of year there’s typically a 35-degree difference to Jamaica – and we’re talking Celsius.
“It was a big decision, to leave home to a cold state was a big change,” said Thomas-Dodd. “But it has paid off.”
Early in her college career, there was scant trace of the world-class ability that would later emerge. At the age of 20 she improved her best to 16.10m and finished 19th in the shot put at the NCAA Championships. The following year, she threw 16.82m and went on to finish ninth at NCAA’s.
In 2015 she threw 17.76m and qualified for her first IAAF World Championships, a valuable learning experience despite her elimination in the first round in Beijing. In 2016 she plateaued but experienced her first Olympic Games in Rio, and then 2017 brought the breakthrough she had long sought.
In the NCAA final in Eugene, she unloaded a whopping heave of 19.15m, a Jamaican record, to take victory, which catapulted her into medal contention for the IAAF World Championships in London.
“I was a late bloomer,” she said. “But I’ve learned that the more consistent you are, the better you’ll be able to manage a good series on a bad day. Practice makes perfect.”
In London, she came up against three titans of the women’s shot put – Lijiao Gong of China, Anita Marton of Hungary and Michelle Carter of USA – and despite throwing a decent 18.91m in the final, she was demoted from third to fourth in the final round, just 23cm off a medal.
“That left me down a little bit,” said Thomas-Dodd, “but it drove me to perform this time around.”
Heading into the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018, Thomas-Dodd knew a medal was on the cards, having thrown a national record of 19.05m in Kent, Ohio in early February. But after that final-round letdown in London, she was taking nothing for granted.
She opened with 18.92m to seize an early lead, but was usurped by Gong in the second round, the Chinese thrower hurling the sphere 18.98m. “I had to relax, work my technique,” said Thomas-Dodd. “Consistency is key.”
In the third round Marton seized command with 19.48m, though the Jamaican kept her composure to launch a lifetime best of 19.22m moments later. In the end, that proved enough for Thomas-Dodd to end her nation’s long wait for a medal in the women’s throws.
But in a country obsessed with sprints, do many back home take an interest in the throws?
“I think they are,” said Thomas-Dodd. “Last year in London I was close to getting a medal and [the reaction] showed that the whole country is developing an interest.”
And having blazed a trail for her countrywomen, Thomas-Dodd hopes others will now re-align their ambitions.
“It shows kids that you can venture into other events,” she said. “Jamaica is not just a sprint country and if all the younger athletes are listening, I hope they realise that if I’ve done it, they can do the same.”
Next up for Thomas-Dodd will be the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, and she has no intention to relent now that she’s got a major medal in the bag. When asked how she planned to celebrate her silver, she responded with one word: “sleep”.
“Even though I’ve got a medal, this doesn’t mean I‘m going to relax and not work as hard as I’ve been working,” she said. “I’m not there yet, so I’m going to keep doing the things I’ve been doing…and even better.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF