At her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, US sprint hurdler Jasmin Stowers keeps a large board hanging on her bedroom wall.
On it, a number – one she gives careful consideration to before deciding upon each year, for it will ultimately define what she does on the track as either a success or failure. Then it sits there, a little memo to herself each day to remind the 26-year-old how fast she hopes – and believes – she can run for 100m hurdles.
“Most years,” she says, “I’ve run faster than what I wrote.”
Ahead of the upcoming season, Stowers admits the slate is blank for now, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t set any specific goals.
While many may refer to 2018 as an ‘off-year’, given the absence of a global outdoor championships, Stowers sees it as anything but, and though she is polite and modest to a tee, she’s doesn’t hesitate when asked what would constitute a successful season.
“I want to win a medal at world indoors, and also become the diamond league champion,” she says.
At 5ft 9in (1.75m), Stowers may be at a natural disadvantage compared to her shorter rivals when it comes to the 60m hurdles, but her ability suggests a medal may be on the cards at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018.
Her best time is 7.82, run to finish second at the US Indoor Championships in Albuquerque behind Kendra Harrison last March. It’s a time that would have won silver at the last five editions of the IAAF World Indoor Championships, and Stowers believes she can go quicker.
“My start,” she says, when asked what areas of her race need to improve. “I also need to be more efficient over the hurdles.”
Traditionally a strong finisher, Stowers has been working with coach Dennis Shaver to become more explosive from the blocks, something she will need to be to get on the podium in Birmingham.
“It’s like 10 times the nerves before [a 60m hurdles] because as soon as you leave the start you’re at the finish,” she says. “You have to put together a great race because there’s no time to gain on people.”
The highest barrier: making the US team
Of course, being a medal contender at a global championship is no guarantee of even getting there, something Kenyan marathoners and American sprint hurdlers have in common.
“It’s crazy,” says Stowers. “Our sport is so tough but it makes it 10 times better at the end when you succeed because you know all those efforts and hard days were worth it. You know you can be a medallist once you make it on Team USA.”
Despite being one of the world’s best hurdlers for the past three years, Stowers has never made the podium at the US Outdoor Championships, and due to their first-past-the-post selection policy, has yet to represent her country in a senior global championship.
You have to go back 10 years to the last time she represented USA, Stowers finishing fourth in the 100m hurdles at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Ostrava at the age of 15, a run which drew the attention of college coaches across the country.
When the time came to make her choice, she settled on Louisiana State University, more than 600 miles from her home in Pendleton, South Carolina. Stowers has been based there ever since, remaining under the guidance of coach Shaver since graduating with a degree in Nutrition and Food Science in 2014.
That summer, she finished second in the NCAA Championships in a wind-assisted 12.54, then turned professional and came home fourth in the US Championships. In 2015, without the distractions of college, she hacked her personal best down to 12.35, which ranks her ninth on the all-time lists.
But she couldn’t get it right when it mattered most.
Learning to pick herself back up
Stowers finished fifth in the US Championships in 2015 and eighth in both 2016 and 2017. She made critical errors that cost her a podium place in each race, but having been a high-level hurdler for more than a decade, she’s no stranger to hard knocks.
“We go through a lot of falls,” she says, “but it’s how you pick yourself up that defines who you are.”
Earlier this year she had to remind herself of that after suffering a severe and high-profile fall at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London. Stowers crashed to the track at the final hurdle, and athletics fans winced as slow-motion replays showed her head thudding off the ground.
“It was scary,” she says. “I remember getting up and being worried that I hit my head, but I did not know if I actually did. You feel confused.”
Stowers was diagnosed with concussion and told to avoid hurdling for two weeks, and it took that long before she felt back to normal. “I was really, really sore,” she said. “I had to stay in a darkened room and stay off my phone because of the light.”
When she returned to the US and had another check-up, she was happy to have heeded the advice she got in Europe.
“The doctor told me that was a crucial time because if I fell again and got another concussion it would be really bad; I could have got brain damage,” she says. “As a hurdler you expect it to be a broken arm or a broken leg, but not a head injury that keeps you out.”
Stowers, however, is now able to see the light in what was a dark experience.
“What people may not realise is that a hurdler has fallen 20 times in training because you’re going to be trying to figure out ways to correct your trail leg or lead leg, adjusting, and eventually you’re going to hit it, but this experience can prepare me for the next Olympics, the world indoor champs. I’ll use it as motivation.”
In the off-season, Stowers did some travelling with friends, occasionally lifting weights and doing some minimal running to keep her body prepared for the winter training that lies ahead. Besides that, she’s been “at the beach, relaxing, keeping my mind together so it’ll be ready for the upcoming season.”
If she can become the IAAF Diamond League champion in 2018, she will secure qualification for the IAAF World Championships Doha 2019, and that’s another big step on the path to her ultimate target.
“My goal is to be Olympic champion,” she says, “and to be one of the top hurdlers in the world for the next few years.”
What she writes on her bedroom board for the 2018 season will be her secret, but rest assured that it’ll be quicker than the 12.47 she clocked this year. Her fearless attitude may have caused a few spills in recent years, but it’s a powerful asset in an event that rewards risk-takers.
“You can always go faster,” she says.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF