After successfully defending his U18 200m title at the Carifta Games in April, Michael Stephens made sure that his remains a name to remember. He certainly hopes so, with the IAAF World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017 on the horizon.
Stephens was born in Kingston and began his love affair with track and field in the second grade at Naggo Head Primary School, an institution renowned for its athletics prowess for students under 12. He also gives credit to his supportive mother who was a good sprinter throughout her high school days.
In 2016, the young Jamaican sprinter announced himself to track and field fans when he defeated his more illustrious high school teammate De’Jour Russell to win the class two 100m final at the ISSA/Grace Kennedy Boys’ and Girls’ Championships at the National Stadium.
Stephens, who ran 10.48, a personal best at the time, was a replacement for another fine sprinter, Tyreke Wilson, who was injured a month earlier at the prestigious Gibson/McCook Relays. The Calabar High school athlete continued to prosper in his breakout season when he claimed the 200m gold (21.43) in the U18 category at the Carifta Games in Grenada.
Inspired by Blake
Interestingly, Stephens has had his fair share of injuries too over the years. It is for this reason he is inspired by 2011 world champion Yohan Blake for his courage and determination in overcoming his injury woes and working his way back to the top.
Besides the sprints, Stephens is good in the sprint hurdles as well as the long jump. But due to the risk of injury, he has narrowed down his choices.
“My favourite event today is the 100m because I have a pretty good start for my height and once I get my start right I’m very difficult to peg back,” said Stephens.
“Training is not my thing; I will just get up and run fast. It just comes naturally,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders.
Stephens proved early in the year that he has the uncanny ability to perform at a high level without much background work. At the Jamaica Carifta trials on 5 March he cruised effortlessly to 20.93, a personal best, in the 200m final. He had only started training in December.
Unlike some athletes in his age group, he doesn’t succumb to race pressure easily. He admits that he doesn’t take things seriously to the point of being overburdened by expectations of others. He does things his own way and is content that his lucky ring, which he has worn on his right hand for the past 18 months, will continue to bring him success.
Fast company for close friends
During the track and field season Stephens likes being around three special teammates at Calabar High School. These include Christopher Taylor, the 2015 world U18 champion at 400m, Tyreke Wilson, the champs class three record-holder in the 200m, and De’Jour Russell, the fastest world U20 110m hurdler in 2016.
The quartet, dubbed the ‘dream team’, has a wonderful chemistry especially in the 4x100m, chalking up several impressive victories and establishing meet records.
Stephens, who stands at 1.85m (6ft 1in), enjoys competing against the best athletes who will offer him a stern challenge and expressed regret that the United States has opted out of the 2017 IAAF World U18 Championships because he was anxious to go head-to-head with the top US sprinters.
“I was looking forward to facing the Americans," he said. "I’m really disappointed they won’t be there."
Nevertheless, the Jamaican’s aspirations remain the same. “I trust that I’ll be healthy and regardless of whoever is there I’m looking forward to bringing home the gold medal.”
If successful in Kenya, Stephens would become the third Jamaican to lift the title behind Dexter Lee (2007) and Odail Todd (2011).
Stephens has so far shown that he can back up his bold pronouncements. On 11 March inside the National Stadium, he ran a 100m personal best of 10.37 which topped the 2017 world U18 list at the time. The amazing thing about that race was seeing Stephens grimacing after 50 metres, bothered by a dodgy hamstring, and still able to run so fast.
Some 19 days later while competing in the senior boys’ 100m final at champs, Stephens was a comfortable winner in 10.41. Two weeks later he journeyed to the Dutch island Curacao for the Carifta Games and successfully defended his 200m title, winning in 21.30.
The 16-year-old doesn’t like making predictions but he, like most top sprinters, has a tremendous amount of self-belief along with big dreams. He feels certain that he can become one of the fastest U18 sprinters of all time and is relishing the idea of achieving that feat on the African continent at the 10th and final edition of the IAAF World U18 Championships.
Noel Francis for the IAAF