Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Smiling Fraser just loves to make Jamaica happy

Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica en route to winning her first World Championship 100m title  (Getty Images)

Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica en route to winning her first World Championship 100m title (Getty Images)

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    • Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica crosses the line to celebrates winning the women's 100m gold medal at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics
    • Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica competes in the women's 100m semi-final at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics

    Berlin, Germany - It took Shelly-Ann Fraser just 10.73 seconds to add the World 100m title to her Olympic crown in Berlin last night at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics.

    Some two hours later she was still bouncing through the mixed zone speaking to every journalist who cared to push a microphone in front of her excited eyes and glinting grin – laughing, hopping, twirling, clapping and damn near dancing like the barefooted Caribbean schoolgirl from Waterhouse, St Andrew, she once was.

    It was there, some 50km north of the Jamaican capital, Kingston – where the future world-beating sprinter was born – that the 10-year-old Fraser won her first medals running for kicks at the George Headley Primary School games. Remembered by her classmates as jovial and fun to be around, she is still what you might call “happy go-lucky”.

    Lucky? Hardly.

    As the third fastest woman of all time and the only woman who can claim to hold both global sprint titles at the same time, the tiny Jamaican who shocked the world with her victory in Beijing last year is clearly not relying on luck. Try having sprinting in her blood, one of the world’s best coaches, and “a lot of hard work” for a better explanation.

    Her winning time here was the second fastest ever recorded at a World Championships - 0.03 behind Marion Jones’ mark ten years ago – and owed much to one of the most sensational starts ever seen in a major final.

    Although, with 0.146, Fraser had only the fourth fastest reaction time, the speed of her short, powerful legs over the first three strides of a final packed with women who’d all broken 11 seconds, took her a metre and a half clear of the field before a tenth of the race was run.

    “I think … umm,” she pauses, trying to explain her bullet from the blocks performance. “I guess I must have good listening. I shut everything else out and just focus on the gun.”

    From then on her rivals were all playing catch-up and although teammate Kerron Stewart came mighty close at the line, it was the Olympic champion who was again sinking to her knees in disbelief before grinning at everyone and anyone like a kid at their own birthday party.

    “Olympic and World champion – can you believe it? Me?” she says, still jiggling up and down like a jitter-bug as straining hacks tried to keep their dictaphones within earshot.

    “I knew the field was competitive so I had to get a good start,” she adds, trying for the umpteenth time since she’d crossed the line to explain what she couldn’t yet comprehend herself. “Because of what happened in Beijing I knew they’d be coming for me. But I think I got a good start and executed the race well, and so I’m happy with that.”

    Happy doesn’t come close. This 22-year-old can smile for Jamaica, and she talks almost as fast as she runs.

    “No, I didn’t consider myself the favourite,” she says as another question fires in from the left. “That’s something I never do. The board is blank at the start. Everybody else wants it too. And in the final it’s up to me to deliver and I think that every time I come up to the starting blocks I keep thinking to myself I deserve to be here, I’m as good as everybody else, I’ve worked really hard. And I love my coach because he’ll be like, ‘What is wrong with your head?’ when I’m being annoying, so he gets my mind focused and ready, and …” for a moment she runs out of steam … “and oh, my Lord what can I say, I’m just so happy.”

    Well she might be, for Fraser has triumphed after what she calls “a rough year” that included a scary-sounding Appendix operation in April, which kept her out of training for nearly four weeks, and a hamstring injury that she once thought might scupper her summer programme.

    “I just tried to stay focused because I knew I could come back,” she says. “I thought once a champion, always a champion.”

    Then, having come through all that, and qualified for Berlin, just when she was focused only on final preparations for her assault on the world title, Fraser found out she may be dropped from the team along with her MVP track club training partners for not attending a final camp (before the thoughtful intervention of IAAF President Lamine Diack, of course).

    Yet, despite all the media hou-ha about the tension between MVP and the Jamaican federation, Fraser insists she never let the notion of missing Berlin enter her head.

    “That’s one thing I didn’t think about,” she says. “That was up to our managers and everybody else, that was their thing to deal with. But I stand by my coach 100 per cent because he’s the reason I’m here running fast.”

    In fact, she says coach Steven Francis is the most important person in her life. Except, that is, for her mother, Maxine Simpson, a former sprinter and long jumper who not only passed on some super-fast genes but guided her daughter through an upbringing that was far from wealthy and mined with the random hazards of a crime-ridden inner city.

    “My mother is probably one of the biggest reasons why I’m running. Because she used to run and she stopped because she got pregnant with my big brother,” she says, referring to 25-year-old Omar (she also has a 21-year-old brother, Andrew).

    “My mother encourages me a lot and I really love her because when nobody else was there, she always made sure to provide for us. I ran at primary champs barefooted, and I really put in a lot of hard work to get to where I am now.”

    Where she is now is on top of the world with all the responsibilities that brings. She’s an icon of Jamaica now, after all, a role that, despite her youth, she is fully conscious of and happy to accept.

    “In the past, people have done so much for Jamaica. Many came before us and set the trend. But we are here now,” she says, referring to herself, Stewart, and Veronica Campbell-Brown, the defending 100m titleholder and double Olympic 200m champion who was sixth in the 100m, not to mention Asafa Powell, a training partner, and that other speedy 22-year-old who goes by the name of Bolt.

    “We are young and we have so much fire burning in us for our country,” she adds. “People hear about Jamaica and they hear about crime and corruption and all that, and we want to create a better image. Track and field is the way we are doing it.

    “We love track, and love making Jamaica happy.”

    Asked whether Bolt’s stunning win was a particular inspiration for her yesterday, Fraser answers by reference to a text message she sent a friend as soon as he’d crossed the line. “This boy is not human at all,” it said.

    “But then I thought, ‘OK, that was Usain, tomorrow is my time.’”

    So it proved.

    And at that, Fraser bounces off to the next set of questions – the World and Olympic 100m champion; definitely human; delightfully, joyfully human.

    Matthew Brown for the IAAF