Given Jamaica’s recent sprint history, featuring the likes of Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Yohan Blake, it is no surprise that one of the brightest young prospects on the planet is in Jamaica. But though that future star lives in the sprint capital of the world, he is not of Jamaica.
Zharnel Hughes is Anguillan. About 14,000 people inhabit the British overseas territory of Anguilla. Yet, Hughes took on the might of Jamaica at the 2014 Boys’ and Girls’ Athletics Championships at the National Stadium in Kingston. The 18-year-old Kingston College student emerged from the battle with gold in the Class 1 Boys’ 100 metres event.
And there was a bonus for Hughes. His personal best 10.12 seconds run in the championship race was a new meet record, bettering the 10.21 standard established by Blake back in 2007.
Hughes was thrilled with his run.
“I’m speechless right now. 10.12 sounds good.
“I enjoyed it to the finish line. I was focusing on winning, I wasn’t focusing on the record, but it came and I’m thankful.”
Hughes attends the IAAF High Performance Training Centre (HPTC) at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. This has given him the opportunity to train with Blake and sprint legend Bolt at Racers Track Club.
“Blake was teasing me that I can’t beat the record, so he actually motivated me to beat it. I give him credit for that.”
Hughes, whose mother is Jamaican, says that moving to Jamaica has resulted in significant improvement.
“I’ve noticed I’ve gotten much stronger, a lot faster. I’m more focused in training. I used to have this fear going up against athletes, but now I’m training with the big guys like Bolt, Blake, Warren (Weir). It’s just an amazing feeling. Sometimes I’m at the track and I feel like giving up...I look at those guys and when they’re finishing their programme, they’re falling down, they’re getting back up and they’re continuing. That’s my motivation.
“In 2012,” he continues, “I was blessed to get a scholarship to come here. And then when I got here I heard that Usain Bolt was once in this (HPTC) building. So now that I found out that he was in this building and I’m training with him, it’s something special. Sometime in the future I might be the next Bolt...Well, I want to make my own name instead, so look out for me.”
Hughes seemed set to beat a Bolt record at Boys’ and Girls’ Champs. In the semi-final round of the Class 1 Boys’ 200m event, Hughes won heat two in 20.32 seconds, the personal best clocking earning him joint top spot on the 2014 world performance list.
Bolt’s 11-year-old 20.25 seconds standard was clearly under threat. But a strained hamstring forced the teenager to withdraw from the final, and the living legend held on to his record.
Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA) president Dr Warren Blake is very impressed with young Hughes.
“The times Hughes is running, I’m sorry he’s not Jamaican because he’s something to look forward to as a replacement for Usain Bolt.”
That’s a huge endorsement coming from the man in charge of athletics in Jamaica.
Dr Blake also praises the role of the HPTC in Jamaica’s athletics.
“Usain Bolt is a product, Yohan Blake went to the Centre, (Antigua’s) Daniel Bailey and a number of future stars.”
The current crop of nine HPTC athletes includes one each from Anguilla, Dominica, Jamaica, Maldives and Montserrat, as well as four Mauritians.
Teddy McCook, who died while serving as president of NACAC (North America, Central America and Caribbean Athletic Association), had a passion for the HPTC. His daughter, Nikki Miller is the acting director, and is keen to honour her father by building on the foundation that has been laid.
“He really enjoyed this project. He was not a techie so there were a lot of things that needed to be put in place so you’re able to follow an athlete’s progress a little better and know which areas they may be weak in or where they need assistance. It’s very important to get things going to see more results, so I’m working towards that.”
Miller wants to ensure that the already successful HPTC programme grows from strength to strength. Coach Leo Brown is playing his part, and is particularly pleased with Hughes, describing the young man as a “good listener”.
“Just tell him and he’ll do it.”
That teachable spirit has a lot to do with the success Hughes has so far enjoyed.
Last year, in Nassau, Bahamas, the Anguillan captured the Carifta Games Boys Under-20 100m title in 10.44 seconds. With Jamaican Jevaughn Minzie and Trinidad and Tobago’s Jonathan Farinha showing early season form, a much faster run is likely required for a successful title defence at the 2014 Games in Martinique on Easter weekend.
Hughes, though, is not getting caught up with names.
“My coach always tells me it’s not who you’re going up against. It’s the clock and your lane, so I’m focused on the clock and my lane.”
Hughes is well equipped for success at the highest level—natural speed and a learner’s heart.
He’s the real deal.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Trinidad Express writer Kwame Laurence is among a select group of sports journalists chosen to be part of the latest IAAF Day in the Life series, a project featuring some of the Caribbean’s best athletes as well as other major players in the sport of track and field. Next Friday, we examine the heart of The Beast.