Entering a competition as a favourite is one thing, but leaving with the title of world champion is another. Just ask Marcus Krah, who admirably shouldered that pressure en route to a convincing victory in the 110m hurdles at the IAAF World U20 Championships Bydgoszcz 2016.
“It still hasn’t hit me all the way yet, I’m still getting congrats from family, friends, people on Twitter, people I don’t even know, it feels good,“ said the Durham, North Carolina native, still savouring the 13.25 victory that brought him his first international laurels.
“I’ve been waiting for this for I don’t know how long. I never thought that I would be a world champion but I’ve been waiting to get on a USA team for years.”
Hearing an 18-year-old say he has been waiting “years” for something could seem over the top, but in Krah’s case, it’s not really that hefty of an exaggeration.
Hurdling an early career choice
Beginning in the sport as a five-year-old – “I didn’t skip a year,” he said – Krah was already excelling at age-group events regionally and nationally by the time he was 13. First it was in the long and triple jumps, his first loves in the sport, and then the hurdles which he took up that year. It was a passion strong enough for Krah to already whittle down his career path choices.
“I made the decision that I wanted to (eventually) go pro in the hurdles and run in the Olympics, when I was 13,” he said. If he is half as determined as he is affable, Krah is already well on his way.
His early inspirations included his father, Myer Krah, who played professional soccer in Liberia, and his older brothers, who excelled in American football. Krah was also an accomplished wide receiver on his high school football squad, but he didn’t allow that to take away from his love for track and field.
On the track he progressed quickly. Before moving on fully to the national stage this year, Krah capped his high school career in May with three North Carolina 4A, or large school, titles, taking the long jump, triple jump and 110m hurdles crowns on the same day, with 7.01m, 14.83m and 13.32 performances respectively. It was the latter, one that landed him on the doorstep of the world U20 all-time top 20, that attracted the most attention.
Just four days later he was on his first international flight as part of a squad selected to compete in the junior portion of the Barrientos Memorial in Havana.
"It was an amazing experience," Krah said, seemingly more enamoured by the travel experience and the hospitality and pride of the people he met on the Caribbean island than by the competition itself. On the track, he suffered his only outdoor high hurdles defeat of the year, ending up on the short end of a 13.56 dead heat with teammate Trey Cunningham.
He followed up in mid-June with a 13.39 victory at the New Balance Games – the de facto national high school championships – before cruising to victory at the US Junior Championships in 13.25, a performance he equalled in the Bydgoszcz final.
“I had an amazing start, one of the best starts I ever had,” he said, reflecting on the final. “I was really focusing on that. I think I hit the third to the last or the fourth to the last hurdle but I just kept my momentum. It was a really good race.”
That victory has already put him in the footsteps of some of the greatest high hurdlers of all time. In Bydgoszcz, he became the first US hurdler to win the world U20 crown since Aries Merritt’s triumph in 2004, eight years before he would claim the Olympic title and break the world record.
Next month, when he begins the next chapter of his journey as a student at the University of North Carolina, he’ll be shadowing Allen Johnson, the 1996 Olympic and four-time world champion, who attended the same university.
The comparisons bring on a smile and then a laugh. Emulating those greats may come down the road, but there are more immediate concerns, the first being his transition to the higher senior hurdles.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a big concern, but it will be a challenge,” he said, “especially because of my height, since I’m only 5ft 9in – I think. Hopefully.” Again he laughs.
“I know I can do it. I just have to believe in myself. I’m probably going to be frustrated at times – I just have to continue to focus. Hopefully my times will continue to drop once my sophomore season comes. They may drop even during my freshman year.”
'I really love helping people'
Adjusting to the academic demands of the university will be another challenge he is ready and eager to tackle head-on.
An honours student at Durham’s Hillside High School, Krah impressed his teachers and administrators when he and a close friend co-founded a peer-tutoring programme at their school so they could help others excel in the classroom as well. An offshoot project of that one will eventually help provide academic scholarships to students throughout the state.
“I really love helping people,” Krah said. “I can help people pretty easily.”
He hasn’t yet decided what field of study he’ll pursue, but is considering business studies so he can later help expand and finance the mentoring and scholarship projects he has started.
Likewise on the track where, despite his success over the hurdles, he’ll be keeping his options open. For now.
“I want to hopefully be just as good in the jumps,” he said, emphasising that it was the long and triple jumps that attracted him to the sport early on. But with PBs of 7.07m and 14.85m, he realises it will be an uphill battle to be truly competitive in those events as well.
“I know that it’s kind of rare, but I know it’s possible. I’ll be shooting for it. I have goals I set for myself. Hopefully I’ll meet them.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF