Nigerian sprint hurdler Tobi Amusan ended 2018, her first professional season, with the Commonwealth and African titles. The 21-year-old explains how gold at the 2015 African Games set her on the path to glory.
For my high I have to talk about getting a scholarship and coming to the US. That was when I finally believed in myself in being a hurdler. Before that, I was thinking that I could be a sprinter.
I was born in the western part of Nigeria, in Ogun State. It’s a place where people don’t believe in your dreams until you finally make it big. My school [University of Texas, El Paso] had been contacting me since 2014, before I went for the 2015 African Junior Championships. But there I ran above 14 seconds and they told me it wasn’t up to the standard for recruiting for the NCAAs Division 1 level.
I had three months to prepare for the 2015 African Games in Brazzaville, Congo. That was when one of my brothers in the US told me that I needed to get my standard down before I could be recruited. Not my actual brother – more a like a track brother, who went to the States after training in the same stadium as me. His name is Abiola Onakoya; he has had a huge impact on my journey in the US.
I trained really hard, morning and night, just to make the standard and go to Brazzaville. I made the standard and went there ranked 10th. People were saying I couldn’t make it to the finals, but I thought, ‘No problem’. In the first round I had the fastest time and a PB of 13.11 (an African U20 record). Then, in the finals, I ran 13.15 and I won. It was a huge victory for me. I realised then that I had the talent in the hurdles, so I took it really serious.
You don’t even want to know about the phone calls [from UTEP]! They were killing me with calls! “Can you send this, can you send that?!” At first there was stress with trying to process the US thing, but it was what I always wanted. I did everything I could to pass the exams and send the right things. I made it through and went in January 2016.
Going into the US, my goal was NCAAs, but my first year I didn’t do anything crazy. I had three months to make the Olympic standard, so my goal was to train as hard as I could and make the standard. I went from 13.10 straight to 12.83.
The scholarship changed everything. It made me see track and field in a different way. In Nigeria it wasn’t really as bright as you think it may be; you just do it because you want to do it. Coming to the US college system, I know what I’m capable of doing, especially when you run with the fast US athletes. It made me believe that this girl from Nigeria can achieve great exploits.
There are a few. I would talk about the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz. I went in with the fastest time, but had trail leg problems and went from first to fifth in the final. That got me really heart-broken. I felt like I should quit hurdling after that one race.
I was so emotionally and mentally drained. Going into the competition I had the expectation of, ‘You’re winning this’. And then everything switched around in 12 seconds. That’s one of the lows.
But there’s another, the World Championships in 2017 in London. I went in as the fourth fastest. It was after NCAAs and I was in shape, so my goal was, even if I didn’t make it to the podium, make sure I finished in the ranking I went in with: fourth place.
Before the semi-finals it was cold, I was cramping – I couldn’t even warm up. I felt like everything was going to fall apart in front of my face. I was crying. I couldn’t talk to my coach before the race because there was no Wi-Fi and I had no roaming.
I went in and couldn’t even make the finals. Bydgoszcz was tougher because I wanted to win. London, I wanted to make the finals and possibly win a medal, but my expectation wasn’t as high as it was in Bydgoszcz.
But those disappointments have made me really strong. Every time I step on the track, and in training, I look back and think, ‘None of those girls who beat me then [at World U20s] will ever defeat me again’.
And after London, I learned that the fact that I was in the mix, knowing I was capable of doing stuff at this age – I was just 20 – and being ranked in the top eight makes me confident that when I get my technique right, my speed right, and get a bit stronger, I’ll be fine.
Even after the Diamond League final [where she finished fourth] I sat down and all I could think was, ‘Everything happens for a reason’. At the end of 2017 I wasn’t even seeing myself running professionally. This year, I’m here on the circuit, so next, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just have to focus on me and hope it leads something really great.
Thomas Byrne for the IAAF