Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
Slow down to get faster. Dwight Thomas has heard the experts' advice.
In the quirky, contradictory and often unpredictable world of his sport, Jamaica's best prospect for a medal in the men's 110 metres hurdles at this summer's Olympic Games respects the purists. Thomas even follows their logic. He just doesn't buy all of it.
"There's no way you could run the hurdles like that if you're fast," Thomas argued recently from his United States training base. "No. No way. No way."
No one doubts Thomas's speed. His personal record (PR) in 100 metres is 10 seconds flat. That would make him competitive in an event ruled by names like Bolt, Blake and Powell. Only a handful of the best sprint hurdlers in history - American Terrence Trammell among them - have come close to running that fast.
But in the hurdles, speed not properly harnessed by the proper technique can kill. It's why some wonder if the 31-year-old Thomas, who excelled in the hurdles as a junior, but only returned to the event in 2009 after years of running the 100, will ever topple the world's best.
"Dwight's foot speed hasn't co-related into the actual time he should be running right now (in the hurdles)," explained American Renaldo 'Skeets' Nehemiah, who dominated the hurdles between the late 1970s to early 1980s, set the 110 world record three times and was the first to run the event in under 13 seconds.
"That's all technical. You have to have technique to be able to utilise your speed. Otherwise, your speed kinda works against you."
Not abandoning speed
Today's biggest names in the event, including reigning Olympic champion and current world record holder Dayron Robles of Cuba (PR 12.87) and former Olympic, World Champion and world record holder Liu Xiang of China (PR 12.88) - the two fastest ever - are not as quick as Thomas without hurdles. Jason Richardson of the United States, who won the 110 hurdles at last year's World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, has a PR of 10.78 in the 100. Trammell, who has clocked 10.04 in the 100, has a best Olympic medal haul in the hurdles of silver in 2000 and 2004.
But Thomas, who clocked his 13.15 PR in the 110 hurdles last year, is adamant he will not abandon his speed.
"I have to keep that," he said. "It's my advantage."
Thomas also knows he must supplement that edge. His counter plan should earn the purists' approval.
"I understand where (Nehemiah) is coming from," the former Calabar High star said. "That's why I don't only depend on speed. I also depend on technique."
Thomas has moved in a new direction. He parted company with coach Brooks Johnson last year and now takes instructions from former US sprinter Dennis Mitchell, who coached him before.
"Sometimes changes help," said Thomas explaining the split. "I evolved, gone into a space where I felt I needed a change to go to a higher level."
The launch pad includes two to three days each week spent strictly on improving Thomas's hurdling technique at his Florida training base. His start is still among the best, but he's made significant adjustments elsewhere, such as switching to a seven-step approach to the first hurdle - down from eight. The aim is to prevent the 6' 2" tall Thomas from chopping his strides to the hurdle. He is also focused on getting over each barrier faster.
"I think my weakness is diving over the hurdle," he said. "I need to get lower going over the hurdle. I'm maybe too upright, and the more you're upright, the more you're gonna float over the hurdle."
The corrections appear on schedule.
"I'm mastering that for this year," said Thomas of the work done the past three months.
He is confident all pieces will fall into place by Jamaica's national trials in June, and the Olympics in London, England, later in the summer. Thomas has been told hurdlers peak in their 30s. He's ready to cash in now. But he knows he must lower his PR to have an Olympic medal shot.
"To get a medal in the Olympics, you're gonna have to do that, 13 flat or better, or 13.01 at least," he said.
His competitors realise Thomas is now a real threat.
"Oh, he's progressed a lot," said former training partner David Oliver, who won a 2008 Olympic bronze in the 110. " ... He's definitely in that (elite) league ... If it wasn't for him cramping up in the warm-ups last year he would have had an amazing performance at the World Championships."
That disappointment, when Thomas pulled up after clearing two hurdles in the final in Daegu, is behind him now. So, too, is the tragic death of his father, Aston, who was murdered in Jamaica in July 2011.
Thomas withdrew from a late January indoor meet in New York and travelled to Europe last month but did not race. Both times, he said, were due to injuries from which he has recovered.
"It was just something small," Thomas explained. "Just my hamstring tight. You don't want to risk it."
"He wanted to be smart about it," said Chris Layne, Thomas' agent.
Layne is more cautious over how Thomas will fare in the long term.
"His speed translates beautifully to the hurdles," the agent said. "(But) it has been a process (for Thomas) to relearn the hurdles ... He did hurdle before, but he's had to learn this thing all over again."
That includes controlling his speed.
"He's clearly a 13.0 and sub-13 (seconds) hurdler," said Nehemiah. "But that's gonna take tightening up his technique, refining it a little bit more."
Even without recent competition, Thomas is convinced he's on target.
"You don't have to race to know it's good," he said. "It's the feeling of just coming off the hurdles now in practice that feels good. Fly off faster."
Thomas still plans to run a few 100 metres this season, to stay sharp for the hurdles. He's also up for a 4x400 relay leg later this month at a meet in Florida, before opening his season in April. He believes he's prepped for his best season ever.
"I don't think so," said Thomas. "I know so ... I'm glad I worked out the hurdles before the Olympic Games. So I kinda knocked out back the basics and knocked off the rust."
A balanced formula has emerged.
"You have to adjust your speed without slowing down yourself," Thomas explained. "You can't go in the race and slow yourself down for hurdles. That won't work. That might even cause more problems."
If he gets it right, the problems may shift to the other lanes.