The ever-critical hurdler tells Stuart Weir why she is always trying to improve as she looks to add to her vast medal collection
Tiffany Porter has an enviable collection of championship gold, silver and bronze medals from world championships indoors and outdoors, European indoors and outdoors and Commonwealth Games.
Her bronze medal at the 2016 World Indoors was her seventh senior championship medal. Only an Olympic medal is needed to complete the collection.
Championships seem to suit her. “I think [championships] bring out the best in me,” she said. “It steps up my level of focus, my level of determination, my level of excitement. It brings out a different side of me that is sometimes a bit hard to achieve in smaller races. I thrive off the competition. I pride myself on being able to perform when it matters the most. Getting a medal makes you feel that all your hard work has paid off.”
This year’s World Indoors also represented a chance to get out of her system the 2015 World Championships, where a stumble after the last hurdle deprived her of what seemed a certain medal. She said after the Portland final: “I’m just so pleased to come away with a medal after the disappointment I had last year after Beijing. I’m going to use this momentum to hopefully just build up some confidence for outdoors.” She ran an excellent final after what she called “a horrendous preliminary round” when she said she “fell asleep” in the blocks.
Going back to her recollections as a child, she said: “Racing against other kids in the streets around our apartment complex I was able to beat those in my age group.” She realised she was fast and her love of running thus started. Then in her first year at high school, the track coach said to her: “Tiff, with your height, athleticism and coordination, you should consider the hurdles. You are a fast sprinter and I think hurdles might be your cup of tea.”
Within a week she was competing with girls who had been doing it for years. She felt she had found her calling.
In 2006 she took bronze in the World Junior Championships. It was the first time she had competed on the world stage and it opened her eyes to a bigger world of athletics outside the US university circuit she was accustomed to. She looks back on it as a pivotal moment in her career because running against the best in the world gave her the momentum to move forward.
She recalled: “To win a medal was special – it was also my first time in China and a bit of a culture shock.”
“We are all trying to perfect our craft and improve in every competition and I don’t think I will ever have that perfect race”
In 2013 she took a brave decision to change coaches, leaving James Henry to join Rana Reider’s group in Loughborough and then followed him to the Netherlands when Reider took up a position with the Dutch athletics federation at the Olympic Training Centre in Papendal, Arnhem.
“You need to keep developing as an athlete and it just seemed time to go in a different direction,” she said at the time. “Rana gives me great training, a great programme, reinforcement of belief in myself and belief in my talent. I like our training group, we all get on very well and spur each other on. Different disciplines and different personalities and we all come together for one common goal and it all works out pretty well. Papendal is a good set-up we have going there. I am able to focus on training with very few distractions.”
Porter took a certain amount of stick when she switched her allegiance to GB. She graciously pointed out that she had held a British passport from birth and that, with her father, Felix, being Nigerian, her mother, Lalana, being British and growing up in the USA, she had always felt British, American and Nigerian.
“I’m all three,” she said. “It is a big part of my identity. I embrace all of my ethnicities and am just so proud to be a person who represents much more than just myself.”
Anyone who has talked to Porter after a race will know she is always very self-critical. “I think you can’t ever have the perfect race,” she said. “We are all trying to perfect our craft and improve in every competition and I don’t think I will ever have that perfect race.”
A strong Christian faith is also part of who she is. “A rule of thumb for me is that I never let my highs get too high or my lows get too low, which has helped me to have such a long career in athletics and not lose my mind,” she said.
“Sometimes it is easy to forget that whether I win or lose a race, I am no more and no less of a person and there are great lessons to be learned in every victory and in every defeat.”
Porter holds the British record at 100m hurdles (12.51) and 60m hurdles indoor (7.80). She has broken the British 100m hurdles record on four separate occasions. “The one that resonates most deeply with me is the Continental Cup (September 2013) because I had not run a PB in two years – until the Moscow World Championships (August 2013) – so to be able to run that fast again so soon and do it at the end of the season at a time when I was literally least expecting it was very special and an important point in my career,” she said. “I was so relaxed that I did not expect to run fast. I wasn’t pressing. I wasn’t focussing on anyone else other than myself and it showed in my performance and in my time.”
“Sometimes it is easy to forget that whether I win or lose a race, I am no more and no less of a person and there are great lessons to be learned in every victory and in every defeat”
She regards her World Championships bronze medal in 2013 as her greatest achievement, partly because it represented a great bounce back from not reaching the Olympic final the year before and because it was a medal she felt not many had predicted for her.
She added: “But a very close second would be the European title in 2014 because being on top of the podium is like nothing else so that was kind of special.”
She won the 2014 European Championships from the front, being the fastest qualifier from the heats, then fastest in the semis before winning the final. She reflected: “Some athletes like to hold back in the preliminary rounds but that is not really my style. In every race I want to go faster and I wanted to put a mark down.”
She also took inspiration from the GB team captain, Goldie Sayers, who urged her team to treat Zurich as if it was their last event. This resonated with Porter, who responded: “I think sometimes we can forget how blessed we really are and take it for granted.”
There are a couple of things you might not know about her: Dr Porter is a qualified pharmacist, which she plans will be the basis of her career post-track. She has a long jump PB of 6.48m, a distance that would have been good enough for ninth place in the recent World Indoors. She said: “It is my second favourite event and if I did not do hurdles I would definitely do long jump. But at this stage of my career with where I am and with what I want to achieve, I don’t think it would be the wisest thing to get away from concentrating on the hurdles.”
I couldn’t let her get away without asking her about the quote attributed to her, that if her sister, Cindy, beat her, she would retire. Cindy Ofili, 21, is the UK under-23 record-holder with her 12.60 from last year. She replied: “The infamous quote that I now regret saying! Yes, I did say it, but I hope it won’t come true any time soon.”
Porter has started 2016 with a medal and with her championship pedigree, skill and commitment, it would surprise no one to see her on the podium in Rio.