Barely out of the junior ranks, Daryll Neita is already building an impressive sprints CV, writes Stuart Weir
No British woman has ever reached the 100m final in the IAAF World Championships. So when Daryll Neita ran 11.16 to finish fourth in her semi-final in London in August, it represented the best performance ever by a GB athlete.
The 21-year-old first came to public attention when she finished second in the UK Championships and Olympic Trials in 2016. She recalls: “I would say I was a bit of an underdog going into the trials. No one expected me to come out where I did.
“But I decided a week before, ‘actually I do want to win this.’ So I went into it thinking, ‘there is no reason why I can’t do well at the trials.’
“I went into it feeling confident and actually wanting to win it.”
She ran a PB of 11.23 to clinch second place. She added: “I shocked a lot of people because people did not know my capability and especially running under pressure. And I proved to myself that I could do it.”
Neita started running at a very young age and was spotted in a primary school sports day in year 6. Her mum tells a story of how she was running in a park with her cousins. The cousins were a lot older than her but Neita ran away from them.
Her mum then made a life-changing decision, taking her to the local athletics club but they said she was too young. She joined after primary school and has been running ever since.
The 2015 season was her breakthrough year. She was selected for the European Junior Championships and despite running with a hamstring injury, finished fourth in the 100m in 11.69 seconds.
She then ran in the Anniversary Games in London and was selected for the 4x100m squad for the IAAF World Championships in Beijing. Although she did not run in Beijing, she looks back on it as “a positive year that put me into the senior scene” and she adds: “Beijing was a great experience and I think that prepared me for Rio because I understood what athletics was about and what a championship was like.”
Her reward for finishing second in the trials was selection for the European Championships in Amsterdam and the Olympics. At the Europeans it was decided that she would just run the relay and not the individual 100m.
“Beijing was a great experience and I think that prepared me for Rio because I understood what athletics was about and what a championship was like”
She said of her experience in Amsterdam: “It was great competition and we came out with a medal as well. It was great momentum going into the Anniversary Games and gave us a lot of excitement. At the Anniversary Games we ran a national record and going into Rio we were excited feeling that we could definitely come out with an Olympic medal.”
In the heat in Rio she missed the semi-final by three hundredths of a second. I have a vivid memory of that race as I bumped into her in the stadium and we walked together to the exit. She was so down on herself but one year later she reflects: “I was absolutely gutted because I had wished all my life to be in that position and it had come crumbling down in an awful fashion. I wasn’t happy with how I had performed or with how I handled the whole situation.”
When I pointed out that she was only three hundredths of a second from making the semi-final, she dismissed my comment, saying: “I know but I ran tragically badly.”
She feared she had blown her chance completely. “I thought I wasn’t going to be picked for the relay and my whole Rio experience was over,” she said. “When I was picked for the relay, it was like ‘thank God they have given me another chance’. And then to come out with a medal. In the space of three days, my whole life changed. I had never been so down and I have never been so happy – so it worked out well in the end.”
She said of the Olympic relay in which GB took the bronze behind USA and Jamaica: “It was amazing. We won our heat and we were thinking ‘we won that by quite a bit. In the final we can really go for it’. That gave us all the confidence we needed.
“We were thinking that all we needed to do was go out and do the same again or even improve. We really came together as a team. Everyone was supporting each other and there was great energy. Getting on the podium, the celebrations afterwards was all a dream and the best thing ever.”
Neita confirmed her place in London 2017 with second place in the trials behind Asha Philip, running 11.25 into a 1.3m/sec headwind.
She also set two PBs this season – 11.20 for 100m at the England Under-23 Championships at Bedford and then 11.14 (again into a wind, this time 0.4m/sec) in the Müller Anniversary Games.
She went into London 2017 with confidence. “Rio showed me that I could definitely make the semi-final and who knows what could happen then,” she explains. “So I went into London this year way more confident, wanting to win, no matter who’s next to me in the race.”
That confidence showed when she won her London 2017 heat in 11.15, her second fastest time ever. She said: “It was absolutely amazing, winning in front of a home crowd – it was just the heat, I know there is more to come. A lot of anxiety has gone now.”
“I went into London this year way more confident, wanting to win, no matter who’s next to me in the race”
She would have needed to have run a PB to reach the final, which she missed by nine hundredths of a second. But having run 11.15 and 11.16 against a PB of 11.14, she let no one down. She said of the semi-final where she finished behind Marie-Josée Ta Lou, Dafne Schippers and Kelly-Ann Baptiste but beat two Jamaicans and an American: “It was a pretty tough field and I actually feel like I did do decently well. I am known for having a poor start and I think it was really good. I’m someone who doesn’t put limits on myself massively and I’m always aiming for the best, I’m always aiming for the highest.”
Then she anchored the 4x100m team to a silver medal and, for a moment, it looked as if she was catching world champion Tori Bowie. She remembers: “Dina passed to me in a really great position and I was like ‘I’m going to run for my life here,’ and that’s what I did and I crossed the line and we got silver. I knew she was going to go off really hard and I tried my best to stick with her but then she found another five gears.”
Running in the London Stadium was a special experience. She points out: “The stadium is 20 minutes from my house and I drive past it each day on my way to training. Every day I was thinking, ‘I need to be there on that podium’ and getting silver with the girls makes that dream come true.”
In 2012 she ran in a schools’ championship which was held as a test event in the Olympic Stadium. She won the gold medal. She recalls thinking: “I am running on this track before Usain Bolt – and then he can go and do what he needs to do on it.”
She was in the stadium watching the great man win the London Olympic 100m title. Now, five years later, she was back running in the same stadium in the same World Championships as Bolt and the experience did not disappoint. “When your name is announced, the stadium just roars, the loudest cheer ever. You get chills and feel the vibrations.”
Speaking after the relay, Neita mentioned getting a buzz from seeing Bolt and Farah warm-up as she prepared for the relay, adding: “I’m very happy to be part of the generation which gets to say goodbye to Bolt while competing there as well.”
She won Olympic, world and European medals all before her 21st birthday, so I suspect there is a lot more to come from this young British sprinter.