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CLOSE-UP: Amusan, the ‘accidental hurdler’ who became Nigeria’s first world record holder in athletics

CLOSE-UP: Amusan, the ‘accidental hurdler’ who became Nigeria’s first world record holder in athletics
July 25
14:43 2022

After nine days of track and field events on the Hayward Field in Oregon, Nigeria was battling a drought of medals at the 2022 World Athletic Championship. Results were not going in tandem with the expectations and quality of talents of the Nigerian contingents. Several events completed, no podium finish and little excitement. But everything changed when Tobi Amusan lined up for the semi-final of the women’s 100 meters hurdles on the final day of the tournament. 

With the wind to her spikes, she glided over all the 10 hurdles with swooshing ease to become the fastest female hurdler in the world. At 12.12 seconds, she buried US Kandra Harrison’s record of six years ago. And that was only the beginning of a night that an Ijebu Ode-born girl would chisel her name in gold on the summit of world athletics history.

Barely two hours later, she returned to the tracks and, with her braids behind her like a cape, blitzed to the finish line at an even faster 12.06 seconds — it was wind-aided and ineligible for a world record — to become the first Nigerian to win a gold medal at the World Athletic Championship.

But Amusan probably did not fully digest the magnitude of the feats she had spurned on the night until the patriotic tunes of Nigeria’s national anthem blazoned during the medal presentation. The 25-year-old’s face was wet with tears as she sang “the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain.”

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Amusan suddenly realised she’s one of those “heroes” now.

Her name will be taught as a source of inspiration to millions of children. Her feat is an oasis for Nigerians inundated by the acridity of the country’s security challenges. Her reign as Nigeria’s “queen of the track” has begun.

Amusan’s ascendancy into athletics royalty had been foreseen years prior, with different coaches marvelling at her lightning-quick box of talent. However, it has been a rugged climb to the top rather than a quick dash for the fast legs of the Nigerian.

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FROM IJEBU TO EL PASO

Amusan was born 0n April 23, 1997, in Ijebu Ode, Ogun. She was born into a family with a sports background as her mother once played volleyball. Her track and field talent was discovered at the Our Lady of Apostles Secondary School in her hometown.

She began considering the path of professional athletics when she represented Nigeria at the first edition of the African Youth Athletics Championship in 2013. At 16, she competed in the 200 meters sprint and won silver for the country.

Two years later, she was part of the contingent for the 2015 African Youth Athletics Championship and she won the gold medal with 14.26 seconds in the women’s 100 meters hurdles. It was a huge feat for the teenager but it would cost her a potential scholarship in the US.

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“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,” she had said in one interview.

However, she funnelled her disappointment into a three-month training for the 2015 African Games in Brazzaville, Congo. She went into the competition ranked distant 10th. Amusan would then break the African U20 record twice as she ran 13.15 to win the gold medal in the women’s 100 meters hurdles. The school came calling again, this time with ferocity and desperation.

“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?!” Amusan said.

‘ACCIDENTAL HURDLER’

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Amusan’s sprint career did not start as a hurdler but fate and a blessing in disguise of disappointment sent her down that path.

Replaced as a member of the Nigerian 4x100m relay squad at the trials for the 2014 African Youth Games, a resilient Amusan enquired about other events she could participate in. The organisers suggested the 100 meters hurdles and with the top two automatically selected for a place in the Nigerian team for those games, Amusan figured she had nothing to lose.

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“If it is run and jump, I thought I’ll do it. I had played around with hurdles in practice but I had never competed before,” she had said about the change.

She surprised herself and went on to earn silver at the African Youth Games in Botswana in only her second hurdles race.

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From then onward, Amusan, like a butterfly reaching a full circulation of metamorphosis, soared above the hurdles and shatter records, and accrued medals.

In 2018, she became the first Nigerian female hurdler to win gold at the Commonwealth Games. She also won gold at the 2018 African Athletics Championship and 2019 All African Games.

THE “ALMOST” GIRL

Despite her dominance and consistency, Amusan hit the wrong side of luck in major championships between 2019 to 2021.

At the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, she finished fourth in the final of the women’s 100-meter hurdles with 12.49 seconds.

She also fell short in the final at the Toko Olympics when she dipped 12.60 seconds to place fourth in the race.

Amusan was apparently hurt after she was labelled the “almost girl” for all the near misses at the grand stages.

“I know a lot of people have tagged me the ‘almost’ girl. I’ve seen and heard a lot of comments,” she had said.

“It’s just sad knowing that I’m that girl that people tag ‘almost’ and that’s the main force that’s going to drive me next year. I don’t want to be the ‘almost’ girl. I want to be ‘that girl’, the girl that wins every competition.”

MALFUNCTION OF TIMER DENIED HER AN AFRICAN RECORD IN LAGOS

In 2021, at the Olympics trials of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) at the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, Amusan swooshed easily to the finish line in the women’s 100m hurdles — only to discover that the electronic timer at the stadium had failed to display the time at the end of the race, remaining at 0.00secs.

However, her hand timer recorded that she won the race by dipping 12.3 seconds, which would have erased Gloria Alozie African record of 12.44 seconds set in 1998.

FIRST NIGERIAN TO WIN DIAMOND LEAGUE TROPHY

Away from the disappointments of the months before, Amusan’s consistency and hard work paid off in September 2021.

She became the first Nigerian athlete ever to win a World Athletics Diamond League trophy as she placed first in the women’s 100 meters hurdles final.

Amusan clocked 12.42 seconds to break Alozie’s 23-year-old national record and become Africa’s fastest hurdler in the women’s category.

SETTING AND BREAKING AFRICAN RECORDS 

There was no stopping Amusan from there on as she continued to break and set a new African record thrice in a year.

On June 19, the Nigerian set a new African record in the women’s 100 meters hurdles as she dipped 12.41 seconds at the Diamond League meet in Paris.

On July 23, Amusan also set a new African record of 12.40 seconds when she won heat three in the women’s 100m hurdles.

She then reduced the time further in the semi-final to clinch the world record of 12.12 seconds

From sandy tracks of inter-house sports at Our Lady of Apostles Secondary School, Ijebu-Ode to the bouncy arena in Hayward Field in Oregon, an accidental hurdler has gone on to become Nigeria’s first-ever world record holder in athletics.

Amusan has also immortalised her name in the history of track and field events.

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