Feature15 Dec 2016

Despite battles with injury, Russell continues her rise through the ranks


Janieve Russell at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)

After a strong breakout season that culminated in an unlikely appearance in the Olympic final, there’s little doubt that Janieve Russell is Jamaica’s latest rising star in the women’s 400m hurdles. Indeed, had it not been for a serious mid-season injury that knocked her off-stride and sent her to the sidelines instead of to a final pre-Rio build-up, her star could have risen even higher.

The jovial 23-year-old first came to international prominence when she captured the world U20 title in the event at the 2012 World Junior Championships. She ranks that performance highly because of the pre-championships injury challenges she faced.

“It’s my most memorable moment in track and field so far,” she said. “I strained the ligaments in my ankle and wasn’t sure about my participation but my coach (at the time, Maurice Wilson) kept me on my feet for two weeks before I went to Spain, and there I surprised myself getting a personal best and winning the gold medal.”

Two years later in Glasgow, at the 20th Commonwealth Games, Russell won her first medal at a senior championships, copping the bronze behind winner and compatriot Kaliese Spencer and silver medallist Eilidh Doyle.

Early on, a multi-talent

Russell’s athletic journey began at age 13 when she first began representing Jamaica in various age group competitions. A multi-talented athlete, she started out with the long jump and 100m hurdles before becoming fascinated with the 400m hurdles.

She had a standout youth and junior career at the CARIFTA Games, the Caribbean’s premier track and field championships for U20 athletes, winning several gold medals before her breakthrough performance in Barcelona.

Russell counts four women as her primary role models whom she looks to for inspiration.

“My mother is always motivating me,” she said, “Brigitte Foster-Hylton is my mentor, I look up to Melaine Walker because she’s injury prone like myself and still does great things at the World Championships and Olympic Games and I appreciate Deon Hemmings for leading the way, being the first Jamaican woman to win Olympic gold in the 400 metre hurdles.”

In 2015, Russell won her first national 400m hurdles title to book an automatic spot to her first IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China. She surpassed her own expectations when reaching the final where she produced a lifetime best of 54.64 to finish a creditable fifth.

“I felt very pleased because during the season I picked up an injury and was worried going into the championships,” Russell explained. “I wasn’t sure if I would survive the rounds because of my knee injury. So I was very pleased to reach the final despite the comments I got afterwards that I should have medalled.”

Strong start to 2016

After serving notice in Beijing, she began this Olympic year in sparkling fashion racing undefeated for the first six months of the year despite an interrupted training programme. She credits her mental fortitude for that early success.

“My mental approach changed. Returning from injury and a subsequent surgery, I was three months behind in background training, speed work and endurance. So I was focussed on eating right, staying healthy and putting in a lot of hard work and listening attentively to my coach Mr. Stephen Francis.”

Russell went on a purple patch during a 26-day period between the months of May and June where she revised her personal best on three occasions.

At the Jamaica International on 7 May Russell shaved 0.03 off her PB with her 54.61 victory. She improved further still at her next meeting, clocking 54.16 in Rabat for another victory, her first in the IAAF Diamond League.

With her confidence at an all-time high, her momentum continued at Rome’s Golden Gala Diamond League fixture on 2 June where she dipped under 54 seconds for the first time with a 53.96 victory. Then another injury struck once again. 

“I was in training one day finishing up my programme when I felt a glitch in my quadriceps. I didn’t take it seriously at the time as I thought it was a muscle contraction because I was pushing my body really hard to catch up with everyone. I found out the next day that I tore my Rectus femoris.”

She was sidelined from the Jamaican trials, but did recover sufficiently to prove her fitness to Jamaican selectors which opened her door to compete in Rio where she performed admirably given her considerable loss of training. 

“I was very satisfied with my performance. The doctors in Miami told me I wouldn’t make the second round because of the nature of my injury.”

Seventh in Rio

Russell finished second in her heat and semi-final to advance to the final where she finished seventh in 54.56.

“I ran reservedly and qualified for the final. I told myself I’m not quitting and was going to give it my all in the final even if my leg popped. And it did pop, at the eight hurdle and couldn’t carry me through the whole race but I was satisfied knowing that I had lost a lot of training and went out there and made the top eight with those wonderful ladies and executed my race despite the setback.”

“I was also pleased and honoured that three Jamaicans made the 400 metre hurdles final, the first time in our country’s history at the Olympics. I was happy to run with those ladies (Leah Nugent and Ristananna Tracey).”

Next on the horizon, London 2017

Her hope now is to build upon those recent international achievements, anticipating better returns at the 2017 London IAAF World Championships London 2017 and beyond.

“I’m looking forward to making another senior team and it depends on what plans my coach has in store for me, however, on a personal level I’m looking forward to running a 52-second PB and winning a medal in London, preferably the gold medal.”

After her athletics career is over, Russell said she hopes to own a business and establish a foundation to help persons with autism in her native parish of Manchester. But before then she is also eyeing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and is cognisant of the recent Olympic cycle where a Jamaican wins the event every 12 years with an Olympic record.

“I want to continue the trend set by my role models.”

Noel Francis for the IAAF

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