Jeanette Kwakye went from being the fastest woman in Europe to an injured athlete on crutches within the space of a few months. Now back to her best, she is looking forward to a successful campaign in Daegu.
In the 28-year history of the IAAF World Championships, Great Britain has previously won medals in all track events from 100m up to 1500m, apart from one discipline – the women’s 100m.
Not only has Great Britain never won a medal in that event, but there has never even been a British finalist. In fact, the best performance by a British female 100m sprinter at the World Championships is a seventh-place finish in the semi-finals, achieved by Heather Oakes in 1983 and Laura Turner in 2009.
For a country that has won seven medals in men’s sprint events at the World Championships and even three medals in the women’s 200m and 400m, the stats of the women’s shorter sprint makes for sobering reading.
Jeanette Kwakye could well be the athlete to break new ground as she goes into this weekend’s IAAF World Championships as Britain’s best female sprinter. Not that she has ever been content to simply be the best in her country, however.
After showing much promise through the age-groups on the domestic scene, her first big international break came in 2007 when she missed out on a medal by the narrowest of margins in the 60m at the European Indoor Championships in Birmingham, clocking 7.20, the same time as the bronze medal-winner Darya Onysko of Poland.
One year later, Kwakye came out all guns blazing at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia. Determined not to miss out on another medal opportunity, Kwakye broke the UK 60m record in the semi finals with 7.13 and smashed it again in the final with a 7.08 clocking to clinch the silver, just 0.02 away from gold. It was the best ever performance in that event by a British woman at the World Indoor Championships.
The momentum carried through to the outdoor season too. Setting a 100m PB of 11.14 in still conditions, Kwakye finished sixth and top European in the Olympic 100m final in Beijing, becoming the first British woman to reach an Olympic 100m final since Oakes in 1984.
But just as her career was taking off, a freak training accident in the winter of 2008 put the then 25-year-old out of action for several months after she slipped down a hill. “My knee just degenerated,” Kwakye told AW. “I had quite significant knee surgery where the cartilage was taken out, then I had Achilles surgery as well.”
It took Kwakye the best part of three years to fully recover. She ran a few low-key races throughout 2009 and 2010, but was only present at last year’s UK Championships as a track-side interviewer.
After two years stuck running 11.5s and 11.6s, Kwakye feared that she may never get back to her best. But then earlier this year the Woodford Green with Essex Ladies athlete showed a glimpse of her former self, clocking 7.28 in her first indoor competition of the season and going on to finish third at the UK Championships.
It may not have been her fastest run, but there was definite progress. And it was enough to give Kwakye a good boost of confidence leading into the 2011 summer season. After victories in Manchester, Regensburg and Cottbus, Kwakye notched up another win in the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds – a Mecca for sprinters as the meeting is often held in perfect conditions, assisted by a fair bit of altitude too.
But that’s to take nothing away from Kwakye’s UK-leading run of 11.15 there – her second-fastest time to date and just 0.01 outside the PB she set in the Olympic final.
Kwakye backed it up with a 11.23 victory at the UK Championships in less favourable conditions in Birmingham at the end of July. She was finally and undoubtedly back at the top of British sprinting.
“It’s been a massive, massive journey. Going from being one of the fastest women in Europe to being on crutches is pretty tough.”
“Just thinking that this time last year I wasn’t even sure what was going on with my career, then to come to Birmingham and run a faster time at the Trials than I did in 2008, that bodes really well,” said Kwakye, who heads to Daegu with times of 11.15 and 11.23 under her belt. Compare that to Beijing, when she went into the Olympics as an 11.26 sprinter.
“It’s been a massive, massive journey,” she added. “There were so many things going on and every day I was in pain. Even this year I’ve had a few niggles, but I can be positive now that I’m over the worst, and there’s a lot more to come.
“The darkest moment was not being able to walk, and I was on crutches for three months. Going from being one of the fastest women in Europe to being on crutches is pretty tough. While I was out injured, I’d see Anyika (Onuora, the UK silver medallist who is also competing in Daegu) also going through her rehab and we’d tell each other that we’ll be back soon, so it’s so good for us both to finish in the top two.”
Kwakye feels that she is no longer the same athlete to the one she was before her injury nightmare, and she says a lot of it is thanks to her coach, Mike Afilaka.
“My injuries and my surgeries have made me a completely different athlete,” said Kwakye, a graduate in politics and economics at Loughborough University. “I’m a lot more hungry, a lot more cut-throat and I just get on with it. I do what I’m told and I’ve got an amazing coach who helped me through every single minute of that injury.
“This is shaping up to be a good year, and hopefully I can build on it for next year for London 2012,” she added. “It’s my home town and I’ve got to represent.”
The women’s 100m heats in Daegu get underway this Sunday, with the final taking place on Monday. If the last edition of the World Championships is anything to go by, Kwakye will need to run close to the British record of 11.05 to simply make the final. But for someone with big – albeit realistic – goals, the 28-year-old is not fazed.
One thing is for sure, anyway. She is aiming a lot higher than just finishing seventh in the semi-finals.