The Jamaican sprint star is aiming to win her third Olympic 100m title this year, writes Stuart Weir
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is quite simply the most dominant woman sprinter in the world. She was Olympic champion in the 100m in 2008 and 2012, world champion in 2009, 2013 and 2015 and world indoor 60m champion in 2014. She has won Olympic silver and world gold at 200m, plus a plethora of sprint relay titles.
She grew up in a deprived community in inner-city Kingston and describes her own family background as poor. When speaking at the Christmas lunch at the South Camp Juvenile Correctional and Remand Centre for Girls last year, she referred to her difficult start in life, saying: “I suffered from self esteem issues because I didn’t have the nice clothes and the nice house and had to take the bus. I wanted to fit in and would make up stories just to be accepted, so I can relate to the issues related to poverty.”
Her first sprinting success was in the famous Jamaican Schools Championships, winning the 100m aged 16. She recalls the pressure of the event: “Our championships in Jamaica are intense. The crowds are verbal … and you will hear them shout ‘make sure you win!’ and ‘beat that girl in lane three!’ It is very hostile and something we get used to.”
In 2007 she was in the Jamaican World Championships relay squad but did not make the team in the individual event until the following year. Even then she went to the Beijing Olympics without expectations.
“I did not know what to expect,” she says. “So I went in, just wanting to do well. So there was no pressure and nobody expected anything of me and I was able to compete better, relaxed and be my best.
“I was inexperienced. I was young and I never believed I could win.”
She won her heat, won her quarter final and won her semi-final. In the final she ran 10.78 to beat her compatriots Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart in a Jamaican clean sweep.
“I was inexperienced. I was young and I never believed I could win” – Fraser-Pryce on the Beijing Olympics
She won the World Championships 100m in 2009 but was only fourth in 2011 behind American Carmelita Jeter.
In the 2012 London Olympics, she won the 100m final in 10.75 with Jeter second. She said afterwards: “London was completely different to Beijing because here I believed I could win. This time I was a bit nervous, but I believed in God and I trusted him to carry me through.”
That she was only the third woman in history to defend the 100m title delighted her. “I don’t know much about track history, but I am honoured to be part of a club like that,” she said.
She was also delighted that in London the women’s 100m was scheduled before the men’s, which ultimately allowed her the honour of winning Jamaica’s first gold medal in 2012. That had added significance. She said: “2012 is Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence from England so it’s great to win gold here in England.”
Four days later she was in the 200m final, taking silver behind Allyson Felix – not bad for her first major championships competition at that distance.
“I don’t know much about track history, but I am honoured to be part of a club like that” – Fraser-Pryce on being only the third woman to defend the Olympic 100m title
The following year was arguably her greatest to date as she won three golds in the Moscow World Championships – 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay. It was a monumental achievement as she was carrying an injury through the latter part of the championships. She also won the Diamond Race in 100m and 200m, all of which resulted in her being named IAAF world athlete of the year.
It was also her first year as a full-time athlete, having completed her university degree.
How do you top a year like that? By finding a new challenge!
In 2014 she did her first ever indoor season – as she put it in a rather cold Birmingham: “I am from Jamaica, why would I need to run indoors?”
Fraser-Pryce adapted quickly, winning the World Indoor Championships 60m. She also competed in her first Commonwealth Games that year, in Glasgow. She missed the Jamaican trials through injury and decided not to ask to be selected for individual events, saying: “The girls who finished in the top three in the trials deserved their chance. I don’t want to take someone’s place”. She ran only the relay, bringing the team home for gold and otherwise played a kind of ambassadorial role, supporting the Jamaican team in all manner of other sports.
In 2015 there was speculation as to what she would run in the Beijing World Championships. Early in the year she said she would definitely not contest three events after what it did to her body in Moscow. Then at the Stockholm Diamond League she surprised everyone by saying her coach seemed to be changing his mind and saying that she would run the 200m. In the end she settled for the 100m and the sprint relay, winning both.
Athletes sometimes talk about getting their “championship face” on. In Fraser-Pryce’s case it is her championship hair. In Moscow 2013 she had pink hair extensions and that year opened her own hair salon, Chic Hair Ja, which is about “accentuating the natural beauty of women – targeting all women who aspire to have that chic look at an affordable price”.
In Beijing last year, her hair was green with added flowers, which was a subject of interest at her press conference. She said: “I like colours and to be bright. It is about being comfortable and enjoying the moment. It helps take my mind of the pressure of the event.”
She also runs her own project, the Pocket Rocket Foundation. “When I started high school I got funding from some who saw my potential. So when I won the 2008 Olympics, I decided to do something similar to what happened to me. I had the privilege of going to college and being an athlete. My foundation is geared to helping young athletes to see that they can excel in the classroom as well as on the track.”
She has said that one of the joys of winning is that the prize money enables her to help others, to give something back. In 2014, for example, the foundation was able to support seven students. She explained: “We paid for their books and their school fees, uniforms, lunch and everything.”
Despite having had so much success, she still has ambitions. “I am honoured to be one of thee women who have defended the Olympic 100m title – if I can manage to defend that in Rio next year then perhaps I would be seen as a legend,” she said.
“I am honoured to be one of thee women who have defended the Olympic 100m title – if I can manage to defend that in Rio next year then perhaps I would be seen as a legend”
Then there is the world 100m record of 10.49 set by Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988. Fraser-Pryce is fourth fastest in history with 10.70. She said of the world record: “10.49 is phenomenal. For me to say I am going to break it would be crazy. I just try to work hard and train hard and improve every year.”
An athlete who smiles a lot – even when she loses, she says: “I try to get people to understand why I am always smiling and laughing at the line – because it is an honour and a privilege to know that when I line up to run God has said he is always with me, no matter what,” she said. “So whether I win or lose it doesn’t matter to me because my talent is a gift from him”.
Despite her amazing achievements, she has not seemed to gain the recognition she deserves. Asked if she is recognised when she goes out in Jamaica, she replied: “I go to the supermarket and people recognise me and ask, ‘How is Usain Bolt?’”
If she manages to become a three-time Olympic 100m winner in Rio, then she will certainly deserve recognition in her own right. And either way, she will be smiling!