Hubert Lawrence | Women's 400m hurdles soon to be track's best event?
When Janieve Russell candidly told The Gleaner of her goal to break the national 400-metre hurdles record, she omitted a small detail. That mark - 52.42 seconds, Melaine Walker's brilliant run to win the 2009 IAAF World Championships - is just 0.08 off the world record. For all we know, that might be Russell's real target.
Walker and her longtime rival LaShinda Demus swapped world titles in 2009 and 2011. In the process, they pushed the best out of each other and produced personal bests of 52.42 seconds for the Jamaican and 52.47 seconds for Demus. Like Walker, Russell has plenty of competition to push her forward to her goal.
The Commonwealth champion's prime opposition may well be American wunderkind Sydney McLaughlin. Less than two weeks ago, McLaughlin set a world junior record of 52.75 seconds. Last week, the 25 year-old Russell lowered her personal best to 53.78 seconds. The race is on.
The 400 metres hurdles requires running power and hurdling proficiency in equal parts. Walker, a 2002 World Junior 100-metre hurdles finalist, was a sprinter who grew into the longer event. While Russell flies high over the hurdles set in the final straight, Walker set a 100m hurdles personal best of 12.75 seconds in her last year at the University of Texas.
Demus was no slouch in that event either at 12.96. Neither is the World 400m hurdles champion Kori Carter, who has rushed through the 100 hurdles in 12.76 seconds.
The sprint hurdle numbers on McLaughlin and Russell are 13.34 and 13.80 seconds, respectively.
On the plus-plus, Russell is in good hands. Walker and Kaliese Spencer, the fastest two Jamaicans of all time, honed their skills at the MVP. Long before she was the 2017 World Championships bronze medallist, Ristananna Tracey slashed her best from 55.81 seconds in a short 2011 stint at MVP to a national junior record 54.58 seconds.
Added to that, Markino Buckley made it into the 2008 Olympic men's 400 hurdles final while he was at MVP.
The only trouble for Russell is that the world record could be faster when she gets there. The 18-year-old McLaughlin is also well coached by Edrick Floreal at the University of Kentucky and already has an admirable mix of speed and hurdling skill. Although the 52.75 makes her jointly the eighth-fastest woman of all time, she seems likely to improve.
Given that she trains with Carter, Jamaica's hurdler supreme Omar McLeod, World record holder Kendra Harrison and Puerto Rican whizz Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, McLaughlin's sprint hurdling might quicken too.
As things stand, McLaughlin will be under pressure to remain as amateur for much longer. With 52.75 seconds as her personal best, she is an attractive prospect for those who would have her go professional. If that happens, Russell, Carter, Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad and the likes of Spencer could be seeing much more of the young American.
Two others deserve consideration. Shamier Little followed Russell as World Under-20 champion. She's the other woman with a personal best of 52.75 and has a senior World Championship silver medal from 2015. Shian Salmon of Hydel broke Tracey's ISSA Boys and Girls' Championships record this year. She might soon be in the reckoning.
Together, they might eventually push and pull Russell past Walker's national record and the 15-year-old world mark of 52.34 seconds by Russia's Yuliya an Pechonkina. The only question is, who will get there first? The races that will provide the answer could make the women's 400- metre hurdles the best event in athletics for the next few years.
- Hubert Lawerence has made notes at trackside since 1980.