CJ Ujah won the British 100m title and now has his sights on the UK record and making an impact in Rio, writes Alex Mills
As Chijindu Ujah stepped on to the start line for the IAAF World Championships 100m semi-finals at the Bird’s Nest Stadium earlier this year, the 21-year-old was filled with nerves. Not just the usual pre-race jitters, but something far greater.
Faced with the biggest test of his career, in the stadium in which he had first fallen in love with athletics while watching the 2008 Olympics on television, Ujah was ready to give his all against the best in the world on the notoriously super-fast track.
“For me the World Champs semi-finals were a different experience to anything I’ve ever felt in the Diamond League races or any other championship,” he said, as AW caught up with him at the close of the outdoor season.
Although he could have wilted under the pressure as he competed in his first major senior championships, Ujah held his own to come home in 10:05, the fifth fastest time of his career. He finished in fifth place, only marginally missing out on a spot in the final by five hundredths of a second.
He may not have made it all the way this time, but he had come through and performed. What is more, just being in Beijing meant he removed some of the demons created by his championship disappointment of 2014 as well as gaining a taste for the big time while doing so.
“The weird thing is I got off the track after the semi-final and I spoke to [Richard] Kilty and even he agreed that there was something really different about it. There will be the same sense in Rio as well.”
You sense Ujah will not be wrong either, except perhaps in terms of knowing just how big a spectacle next year will be.
“For me the World Champs semi-finals were a different experience to anything I’ve ever felt in the Diamond League races or any other championship”
Nevertheless, one thing that is certain, despite his disappointment in China, after his best season to date, Ujah is ready to respond in 2016. His prime focus now is on qualifying for the grand finale of sport’s most coveted race next August, before he embarks on another world championship quest far closer to home a year later at the London Olympic Stadium.
With that in mind, Ujah is looking to use his recent experiences to lead on to even greater things. “This year I’ve established myself as being consistent, running around the 10.0s and also running another sub-10 and now being British champion indoors and out and then going to the world championships as an individual,” he says. “So it’s a stepping stone for where I want to be next year and hopefully I can go on and make next season a better season.”
He continues: “To be British No.1 and to have made the world championships semi-final is great, but it’ll have to be one step above that [next year] and then at the 2017 World Championships in London hopefully I can win a medal,” he adds confidently. “I’m just taking it as it comes in terms of competition and being familiar with the environment every time I race,” he said.
While he is correct in saying that he will have to adapt to many more alien environments and settings in the years ahead, it will come as a relief to Ujah that he has already started to master the art of competing against the top athletes on the Diamond League tour.
In this competition, by and large he has held his own in every instance. Not least at the London Anniversary Games earlier this year, where he ran superbly to equal his personal best of 9.96 seconds to finish fourth in a high class field that included six-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt.
Understandably, Ujah rates this as his favourite Diamond League race to date, saying: “I liked London. I may be a bit biased as it was a home Diamond League but that was the one where I ran sub-10 with these guys, especially with the main man himself, Usain Bolt, so that was a good experience and it made me believe that I belonged here.”
A sense of belonging is something that he can now also attribute to his position at the top of domestic athletics, especially since wearing the GB vest in an individual capacity as a senior for the first time this season.
“It’s a stepping stone for where I want to be next year and hopefully I can go on and make next season a better season”
For a big part of 2014, the sprinter was considered somewhat enigmatic, as firstly he shocked the British athletics world by running his first sub-10 second time in Hengelo, then failed to claim selection for either the Commonwealth or European championships after finishing third at the trials.
Ultimately, though, it was to be a knockback that fired up the young sprinter to prove a serious point, and now he is at the top of the tree Ujah is hoping never to be eclipsed. “This season for me, after I didn’t get picked in Zurich for the European Championships, was definitely to solidify my position in British sprinting so I had to make sure I was No.1 and going forward I want to make sure I’m No.1 until the end.”
If he can maintain that position then thoughts of the British record will undoubtedly start to creep into Ujah’s head, especially as he currently sits only a mere nine hundredths of a second off Linford Christie’s time of 9.87 set in 1993.
Given that he will probably have to run at least that time to achieve his aspirations of winning a medal at London 2017, I wonder whether he views chasing the time as a short or a long term goal. “It’s a long term goal … (pauses), yeah long, or maybe it is short term … Actually I don’t know!” he laughs. “I would say long term, but it’s not far away, 9.87 is not far away.
“I would like to take it because it’s been a very long time, it’s been there since I was born so I’d like to see that [the record] go.”
If it happens, it will be a landmark Ujah cannot say he has been dreaming off all of his life in the same way that some of his contemporaries could.
After all, although he says he has learnt a lot about the history of British sprinting since getting involved, Ujah admits that his inspiration comes from a source across the Atlantic. “You know what, credit to these British guys, but it was actually Bolt [who inspired me] watching him in 2008, I actually hadn’t been doing athletics then,” he says.
“The earliest I really watched it was 2008. I did follow athletics a little bit when my parents used to watch it and have it on the television but I just used to watch the finals. In 2008 it was the first major championships or Olympic Games where I actually followed heats, semis and finals and I was actually waking up early to come and watch everything. So that really inspired me.”
Now that he is slightly more clued up, the Enfield & Haringey athlete is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the former Olympic champion, saying: “When I got into athletics then I began knowing who certain individuals were and what they had done for the sport, especially in terms of Linford Christie, the most decorated British sprinter. If I can emulate half of what he’s done, I’ll be just as happy.”