Zharnel Hughes is one of the finest 200m exponents on the planet. The British sprinter reflects on a memorable race against his former training partner, Usain Bolt, and the disappointment of his 2016 and 2017 campaigns for his high and low moments.
“The year 2015 was when I introduced myself to the world. That year I won the 200m at the Lausanne and London Diamond Leagues and I finished fifth at the World Championships in Beijing but my most treasured memory was racing Usain Bolt – whom I had trained with since 2013 – at the New York Diamond League earlier that year.
“As soon as I knew I was racing Usain, my coach (Glen Mills) told me not to focus on Usain, to focus on myself and execute my own race. I got to the track and during warm up I recall Usain making jokes and fist pumps. He was the same in the call room, and he talked about anything other than the race.
“After the gun went and I entered the home straight I realised I wasn’t too far behind Usain. It is a crazy feeling to run alongside Usain. He has these giant legs and a huge stride and you feel you need to take two strides to his every one, just to keep up.
“As the line was getting closer I realise we were almost together and we dipped for the finish line at the same time. Usain gave me a first pump to say ‘you almost beat me’ (Bolt ran 20.29 to win 0.03 ahead of Hughes in second).
“Returning to the warm up area everyone was buzzing. People were saying you almost beat Usain. I received so many messages that day my phone froze.
“It was surreal for me, at the age of 19, to be given the chance to run against the greatest athlete in the world and push him hard to the finish line. I don’t think any other youngster had pushed Usain that close before. It is a moment I will always cherish. My mother still has a huge portrait of that image of Usain and I dipping for the line together hanging from her wall in her house in Anguilla.”
“The 2016 season and 2017 World Championships would be my two low moments. In 2016 I was in great shape when I made my seasonal 200m debut in St. Martin. I recall falling about a metre from the line suffering a bone bruise on my right knee and bruising to my face. A weeks later in my next 200m at the Cayman Invitational meet about 120m into the race, I felt an excruciating pain behind my right knee. Adrenaline took me the finish line (where Hughes finished second in 20.70). The knee was badly swollen but for the next month or so I battled on in training. It was only the day after I flew into the UK to compete at the British Trials did an MRI discover I had torn 75 per cent of my PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) behind the right knee. The doctor said if you run at the trials you are taking a high risk.
“Stubbornly I decided to compete at the Trials because I was so determined to make the Olympics. I made it through my heat but then in the final my knee gave out straight away. I did manage fourth even though I had a torn ligament. A couple of weeks later I competed at the European Championships, but competing in huge pain I finished seventh in my heat. I just could not run anymore. It felt as if someone had ripped my heart out. Looking back, I was young, naïve and desperately wanted to go to the Olympic Games but I should have shown more patience.
“The rehab from the injury slowed down my preparations for the 2017 season. I was running well but still feeling pain in the knee, although I was optimistic of running well in London (at the IAAF World Championships). Two days before I was due to compete in the 200m heats, I completed a heavy session. I recall vomiting because of the effort I had put in but by the time I competed I had nothing left in the tank. I made it through the heat, but then in the semi-final I had the same empty feeling and I finished seventh. I got back to the call room, with my head in my hands, lost for words. I had worked so hard, but to perform so disappointingly was devastating.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF