martes, 10 de julio de 2012

Nellum, Lalova, a Long Journey to the Olympics

Bryshon Nellum, back in his high school days in Long Beach Poly
        He had been one of the most sport-talented high schoolers of his generation, achieving uncountable victories for his team Long Beach Poly. Yet unfortunately, after leaving a restaurant, he was shot by gangsters from a car, in a sad Halloween evening of 2009. Seriously wounded in both legs, doctors argued he would never be able to recover his past fitness. However, with patience and hard work, and especially because of the support of his mother and close friends, he slowly learned to walk again, then to run, then returned to the track to face the best quarter milers of the country. No one had bet a dollar for him, yet the 24th June 2012, the day the national championships were held in Oregon, he ran with unusual determination, getting to finish the race in the top-3, thus achieving his Olympic dream… No, this is not the account of an action movie but the true amazing story of Bryshon Nellum, still on the making.

             Nellum was born the 1st May 1989 in Los Angeles. In his teen days in Long Beach Polytechnic High School he practised both athletics and football. He was an excellent dive receiver but eventually focused in his track vocation. Nellum became the first Californian athlete in achieving the 200m-400m double two years in a row (2006 and 2007) at the State Championships. In the latter season, he also led his team to two relay victories. No athlete had accomplished 4 gold medals in that contest in 91 years. (1) With impressive times for an 18-year-old of 20.43 at the 200m and 45.38 at the 400m, Bryshon was deservedly named 2007 Gatorade National Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year. The Long Beach Poly High quarter miler also shone internationally, capturing bronze in 2005 at the World Youth Champs in Marrakech, a noteworthy collective gold as a member of the US 4x400 relay in Beijing one year later in junior category, and finally the Pan American U-19 400m individual title in his stellar season of 2007.
            Bryshon Nellum was expected to battle for a spot in the Olympic team for Beijing but fate decided otherwise. Early in the season he had to redshirt his high school senior campaign due to injury; then came that moment in which Bryshon feared for his life, after exiting a party. (2) The Long Beach athlete was never involved in a gang and still today does not understand why he was attacked. Looking to the eyes of his aggressors during the trial, Nellum said to try to find an answer. Anyway, that incident put in jeopardy his whole track and field career, though Bryshon Nellum firstly could only think in being able of getting up from his hospital bed without help: “I was like a baby. I had to learn how to crawl before I learned how to walk before I learned how to run. I had a lot of rough times. It was hard coming back. I just kept my faith in God and took things day by day. I stayed consistent and I stayed dedicated.” (3)  Perseverance and the company of mates and mother kept him going through those moments of pain and anguish. (4) Determined to run again, Nellum spent about five hours a day in the weight room, at track practice and in multiple physical therapy sessions. In his return to running activity he even sometimes had to practise on one leg. Enrolled by South California University he reappeared in 2010 but even then he was slowed by three operations in order to remove bullet fragments.  

Bryshon Nellum makes the USA Olympic team after finishing third in the 400m final at the trials held in Eugene, OR
Photo: Paul Buck/EPA

Nevertheless, as Bryshon Nellum says, what does not kill you makes you stronger. This 2012 the USC sprinter seemed to be at last free of any health issue and as a result he improved in April his long standing PB, running the lap distance in a world-class 45.18 in Walnut. After triumphing at the Pacific-12 and nearly matching his recent PB (45.20), Nellum was expected to deliver valuable points for the Trojans at the NCAA but he failed to make the final in a contest with the deepest field in many years. However, Bryshon anchored South California to second place in the 4x400m relay, after an epic battle against the individual champion Tony McQuay of Florida. This race meant a huge boost of confidence for Nellum as also was the feat of progressing through heats and semi-finals at the national championships, side by side with Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt. (3)
The USA national trials were some kind of redemption for Merritt, after his 21-month doping ban, and a confirmation of the great talent of Tony McQuay, who finished runner-up in a new personal best. On the other hand, it meant a new disappointment for former number one in the event, Jeremy Wariner, who seems to be near the end of his athletic career. Unlike Wariner, the championships signalled an optimistic come back to the spotlight for Tyson Gay, after years of struggling with injuries. (5) Yet even the brilliant return of the Osaka triple gold medallist can be overshadowed if we think about all that Bryshon Nellum had to overcome in his long journey to London Olympic Games. Josh Mance, who precisely finished 4th at the trials just eight hundredths of a second after the excellent 44.80 of Nellum, knew well all that his mate in USC had been through: “Of everybody at the Olympic Trials, he has the best story, the most inspirational. He should be the headliner of this whole meet. No track athlete gets shot with a shotgun and has three bullets go through both legs and is still out there running 44.8s. He is a blessing.” (3) Amazingly, Bryshon Nellum was not the only man who made the US team for London after experiencing the bitter experience of being shot. George Kitchens was the revelation of the long jump event, improving all the way to 8.21 to book his ticket. A long time ago, when he was 12 he received a bullet in his chest and was left for dead, along with her sister and friend Lyndon Fubler. (6) While Kitchens and his friend recovered, her sister was paralysed. Without a doubt she will be a source of motivation in the performance of her Olympian brother in London.    


Ivet Lalova had never been shot for members of a gang but her extraordinary return to top form, after six long years of struggling and seven operations on her right leg, can be related to the inspirational cases of Bryshon Nellum and George Kitchens. Lalova, born the 18th May 1984 in Sofia, was predestined to become the new Bulgarian sprinter prodigy, following the illustrious tradition of Ivanka Valkova, Lilyana Panayotova, Sofka Popova, Nadezhda Georgieva, Aneliya Nuneva and Petya Pendareva. The young sprinter, whose parents Miroslav Lalov and Liliya Petrunova had been both renowned athletes inside the country, was soon put under the guidance of Konstantin Milanov, a long jumper back in the 60s. Milanov, who would remain by her side for 15 years, coached wisely Ivet Lalova, steadily developing her into one of the best sprinters in the world.  Ivet became national champion for the first time in 2000, yet she finished just out of the medals at the 200m event the following season in Debrecen at the World Youth Championships and did not make the final at the 2002 World Juniors in Kingston. However she brilliantly accomplished a double sprint victory in Tampere the next season, on occasion of the European Junior Championships. It was followed up for a sensational first senior campaign in the 2004 Olympic year.
Lalova showed her great potential in the winter, recording 22.87s in a sport hall, but missed the World Championships, due to a freaky accident, when she broke her left foot big toe, after kicking a chest in her bedroom. Reappeared in late May, she set a new PB in the 200m (22.58) but her progression was far more remarkable at the 100m event. She launched her summer campaign with already a personal record of 11.14. Then lowered her PB to 11.12 and 11.06, before running the distance in a groundbreaking 10.77!! the 19th June in Plovdiv, giving maximum points to Bulgaria at the First Division European Cup. Incidentally she left 0.40s behind Kim Gevaert, the woman who went on to conquer five single European titles in successive years. “Everything was perfect then,” confirmed Lalova. “The track was very fast, the wind was not so strong, and surprisingly even for me I got an excellent start. I was sure that I can run under eleven seconds, but to run so fast! It will take me time to realise what I have done.” (7) 

Ivet Lalova competing at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games

With her explosive performance, Lalova all together smashed the 10.85 Aneliya Nuneva’s national record which dated back from 1988, set the best mark in the world in six years, and most important of all she climbed all the way to the number 6th spot in the all-time lists (currently 10th), tied with Russian Irina Privalova. With the latter athlete she still shares the distinction of fastest white woman ever over the distance. Besides, Lalova’s 10.77 stands as the best mark ever for a 20-year-old, just comparable to the 10.88 World junior record of Marlies Goehr, back in 1977. The record also sparked some controversy: the reaction time was officially 0.117s but some outsiders argued it should have actually been a false start. Nevertheless with her solid performance at the Olympic Games two months later, Lalova proved her world-class mark was no fluke.
In her first major championship, the young Bulgarian standout said to come just to learn, without big ambitions. However she was unanimously favoured for a medal and her 4th place at the 100m final and her 5th at the 200m, although excellent, had to be bittersweet probably for the new sprinting sensation. With Kelli White, Torri Edwards and local girl Ekatheríni Thanou all involved in doping related issues, Marion Jones also out unable to recover her past form, Christine Arron coming to the Games with 31 years, Zhanna Block with 32, Gail Devers with 37 and Marlene Ottey with 44!!, the female sprints were up for a new order. (8) Out of the eight 100m eventual finalists in Athens, only Bahamian Debbie Ferguson had been in a major final. Yuliya Nestsiarenka, snatching more than half a second from her previous year’s PB was the shocking winner, though she remained consistent under 11sec in each one of her four races. After her, surprising the same, crossed the line 21 year-old Lauryn Williams, the NCAA champion, and 22-year-old Veronica Campbell. The Jamaican, a collegian in the USA too, scored a massive 22.05 PB to also clinch gold at the 200m, an event in which she had been unbeaten for four years, although her international experience was rather limited outside of Champs, Carifta and JUCO. A 19-year-old Allyson Felix was a well deserved silver medallist, in a new world junior record. Among such astounding newcomers, Ivet Lalova passed her first serious test with excellent grades. Only middle-distance legend Nikolina Shtereva in Montreal 1976 had achieved before for Bulgaria to qualify for the Olympic final in two different events. (9) Outside of her track prowess, Lalova’s remarkable beauty and belly button tattoo stood out as well, when she was chosen for “Miss Glamour” on the Olympic Games through Internet inquiries published in the German magazine “Stern.” (9)
Yuliya Nestsiarenka was unable to keep her momentum in the subsequent years yet we all know about the long impressive careers of Lauryn Williams, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Allyson Felix. Ivet Lalova also showed her determination to compete with the best in early 2005. First she triumphed at the 200m at the European indoors in Madrid, the last time this distance was staged at the contest. Then she won the Golden Spike in Prague in 11.03, ahead of one of the most promising runners of the moment, Sherone Simpson, whom she had beaten at the Olympic Games as well. Lalova had the talent to face those scintillating North American and Jamaican stars and we could have seen her snatching pieces of glory from them all over a decade. Nonetheless tragedy cut short soon every expectation. The 14th June at the Athens Grand Prix she collided while warming up with another runner with the fatal result she broke her femur. Ivet was operated with success the next morning by Doctor Pantellis Nikolau. A 38cm surgical nail was affixed in her damaged leg, where it would be kept for the next three years. Otherwise, Lalova always declined to take any legal action for the responsibility of the accident against neither the other runner nor the organisation, a decision which would earn her a fair play prize awarded by the IOC. Doctors said Lalova would never be able to practise sport elite anymore. However she refused to give up her athletic dream and started to prepare her come back as soon as she left hospital. 

Ivet celebrates after her victory at the 100m distance at the 2012 European Championships in Helsinki
Photo: Ian Walton/ Getty Images Europe

Almost two years afterwards, Lalova made a successful return to competition in Beograd, winning in style with 11.26, in an outing where the likes of Miki Barber and Chandra Sturrup had been entered. This race meant a lot for the moral of the athlete but this one was still far from full recovery. Up to six more times her leg would need surgery again. Lalova qualified for Osaka Worlds and Beijing Olympics but not at her best she did not make the final in any of those championships. Then in 2009 and 2010 she could not run faster during the season than 11.48 and 11.43 respectively. The dream seemed over.   
Notwithstanding, even if many believed she was on the verge of retirement, Ivet Lalova never thought about quitting and kept struggling every day instead to put an end to her tough years. In that crucial moment the athlete took a transcendental decision: she moved to Italy, along with boyfriend Simone Collio, to join reputed coach Roberto Bonomi. For the first time in many years, Ivet was not troubled for injuries in the 2011 campaign and the wise guidance of Bonomi made the rest. After an encouraging beginning with a victory at the Club Championships in Izmir in 11.08, Lalova won without opposition at the Bislett Games in Oslo with a slightly windy 11.01. It was the first Diamond League victory for a Bulgarian athlete and a clear symptom that the fastest white woman in history was back to her very best, a feeling she confirmed breaking for the second time in her career the 11sec barrier (10.96), at the Balkan Championships held in Sliven. Interestingly, during those 6 years Lalova was struggling to regain her past form, only one European athlete, Christine Arron, in her swan song year of 2005, had got to run a 100m race under 11 seconds. With the best hopes, Lalova went to the World Championships where she reached the 100m final, ending up 7th; then narrowly failed her target at the 200m, after having clocked 22.62 at the heats.
In the new year of 2012 Ivet Lalova keeps the same optimistic mood. Her first major victory, which she achieved at the recent European Championships in Helsinki, where she beat the foremost specialists in the continent Olesya Povh, Verena Sailer and Ezinne Okparaebo, can be read as a stunning triumph over adversity. Lalova stated the lowest moment of her career was when she had to watch the World Championships in Helsinki from her hospital bed. (10) Seven years afterwards she made at last the trip to Finland to proclaim she is in her best shape ever and ready for London Olympic Games.    

martes, 14 de febrero de 2012

One Thousand Reasons to Love Shelly-Ann Fraser

Shelly-Ann Fraser gets excited, surrounded by the students from Stella Maris Preparatory School
Photo: Ian Allen
              Shelly-Ann Fraser made history when she became the first Jamaican woman who won the 100m event at the Olympic Games, in 2008 in Beijing. Besides she led a highly successful and totally unprecedented sweep of the medals for her country in that race, along with mates Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart. On the following year, in spite of having her preparation hiccupped by an appendectomy, Shelly went on to add the world crown to the Olympic one, in Berlin, in a time of 10.73, thus breaking Merlene Ottey national record in the process and placing herself third in the all-time lists. Only Gail Devers from the USA had achieved that double before. She also performed a stunning backstretch leg in Jamaica's victory at the 4x100m relay at that same championships.  A series of minor injuries and the arrival of the irresistible Carmelita Jeter, author of an extraordinary 10.64 at the end of the 2009 season, relegated Fraser to the fourth position in Daegu World Championship, just outside of the medals. Anyway the Jamaican sprinter is up for a fresh new star in 2012, hoping to defend her Olympic title.  Out of the track, she has further targets, related with her endeavours in order to help improve the social conditions of  children and women of her community.

                Shelly-Ann is not just any Olympic champion. Her lovable personality and how she got to overcome her difficult upbringings in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Jamaica to obtain international recognition in sport are a unique inspiration for her countrymen. Yet much of the merit of Shelly’s success belongs to her mother. In Waterhouse, where criminal gangs and drugs roam free and murders are committed every week, Maxine was just another member of a large family of brothers and sisters who got pregnant being a teen and soon became a single mother of three. However, Maxine did not want the same unlucky doom for their children. The family grew up in a one-room tenement with a single bed to be shared for all four members, but the mother worked hard as a street vendor to assure her dear ones could have access to a good education in schools as George Headley and Wolmer’s Trust and thus eventually break the circle of misery. (1) Acknowledging the danger, Maxine prevented Shelly and her siblings from hanging on the street. "When you look at the situation that you are in, you work hard at what you want. The crime was a disadvantage and you had to be very careful of who you talk with, because not everybody is who you think they are,” was quoted the future Olympic champion. (2) Maxine was a former runner and her daughter had inherited the genes. She would often be seen running barefoot tirelessly, determined to find through her athletic skills her dream, a way out of poverty. Now Shelly is a world famous sprinter and her triumph is a source of pride for her whole community. After returning from her gold medal in Beijing, the runner was in shock of seeing her image immortalised in a mural by local painting artists: “The only time they draw your face in a wall where I live is when you are dead.” (3)

                    Besides her sportive achievements, Shelly-Ann Fraser is the only person in her family who has undertaken tertiary education. Currently, she is in her last academic year in order to obtain a degree in Child Care and Development at Kingston’s University of Technology. Keeping in mind her experience as a poor girl growing up in the inner-city, she expects to make a contribution in the task of improving social and mental conditions for future Waterhouse’s children. Talking about her plans she intends to set up a foundation to aid under-privileged kids; to build a community centre in Waterhouse; to get Jamaicans to toss away guns and ensure the island becomes a woman's as well as a man's world; to become a child psychologist to help develop more people in the world with better values and better morals. (1) In her crusade she will have the convincing argument of her own living example which proves you can make it if you have the right motivation even in the hardest environment; you can become something good even coming from the ghetto. Nevertheless, before graduating, her success in sport has allowed her to start already with her altruistic endeavours. Since 2010 Shelly-Ann is the first UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Jamaica and also Grace Food’s official Ambassador for Peace. (4) In a visit to her former school Wolmer’s, whom she gave a donation in return for the excellent education she received in, she left in awe the audience of young students with her eloquent speech:  "The next Olympic champion or the next Prime Minister could be any one of you sitting right here. Believe in yourself. Never give up on your dreams and goals." (5) Shelly also would like to contribute to the liberation of Jamaican women. In spite of her outstanding victory and clean sweep of the medals at the 100m in Beijing by three girls of the country, all this was completely overshadowed by Usain Bolt and his world records. All the journalists’ questions when arriving to the press conference in Jamaica were asked to him. Fraser or Campbell-Brown are still far behind in popularity and media attention in comparison with Bolt and Asafa Powell but the student in child development expect one day “this man’s world” is going to change. 
              And if Shelly can not change the world with her words she will do with her smile and altogether adorable personality. The 100m Olympic champion can be easily named the most lovable person of the whole athletic field. Much of it comes from her upbringing in Waterhouse which is also the legendary reggae music cradle by excellence, along with the neighbouring Trenchtown. The likes of King Tubby, U Roy and Black Uhuru all come from this place and it would not be strange, Shelly, who states if she had not been a runner would have enjoyed being a dancer or a singer, could claim the spot of the sadly gone Sandra "Puma" Jones. Her former  schoolmates remember her as jovial and funny and she has not changed much. The Waterhouse sprinter owns an irresistible children smile and an overwhelming spontaneity and bubbly ways, which combined with her shyness makes worth coming to an athletic meeting, only to watch Shelly’s lively celebrations (6) bouncing overjoyed or screaming full of happiness on the ground -If you still do not know the girl please watch the video above. And if she is lovely to be seen in her winning days, when she loses she still keeps her smile and also her humbleness and sportsmanship. Yet despite of her demeanour, her cute looks and her braces, she has always considered herself a tomboy. In her childhood she was always playing her brothers’ games and her favourite toy was a tiny soldier. Furthermore there are less encouraging memories involving a couple of lizards, a syringe and some blood. (3) Shelly has always had more male friends than female, as track club mate Asafa Powell. However now she is happily married with long time boyfriend, not related to sports, Jason Pryce. Lucky guy!

Shelly-Ann Fraser celebrates her Olympic victory at Beijing Olympic Games
Photo: Stu Foster/ Getty Images
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is delightfully human and she still was as her positive drug test from oxycodone was revealed. Her management is really to blame on that affair: was it really necessary to make the athlete take that toothache painkiller for running that Diamond League meeting at any price? It really hurt the reputation of this person, the last one you can think of as taking illicit shortcuts to success, once you know her long time hard work and sacrifices to overcome poverty and become a professional athlete; and besides acknowledging the importance of her public image, because of her involvement with children and UNICEF. Anyway, Shelly did not try to hide from anybody. Instead, she decided to face that affair with journalists with sincerity, answering outright any of their questions. It is plain many enjoy this sort of sensationalistic news and quite a lot are convinced Jamaican overwhelming dominance of sprint events around the world is due to the extra help of steroids. It is true there have been some cases of doping offences from athletes of the country but it does not explain the sensational Jamaican success.

               If you look for the secret of the formula, first you must think athletics is the national sport in the island, at the same level as soccer is in Brazil. The United States as a larger country count with as many or even more youngsters talented for sports which require speed and strength, but many take instead football, baseball or basketball. In Jamaica every one of the hopeful teens choose track and field sprints, in the same way Kenyans and Ethiopians embrace distance running. (7) There is a very long established athletic tradition in Jamaica, which most clear manifestation is “The Champs.”   This inter-secondary school competition has been held for over a century with immense success. Boys and girls in the country clash under a crowd of 30.000 spectators and thus get used to competition and pressure since they are very young. Just remember Jamaican high school squads as Vere Tech, Wolmer's, Kingston College, Munro College and Edwin Allen got the better of US teams in most of the sprint races at last Penn Relays. Besides a well structured and intense youth (and senior) calendar, Jamaica has currently two of the best sprint coaches in the world: Stephen Francis and Glenn Mills, which head MVP Track Club and Racers Track Club respectively. Most of the current national stars are training in one of the two foremost teams. Up to 10 years ago, Jamaican hopefuls used to join US Colleges to develop their athletic career but lately teens opt instead to stay in Jamaica, where they can get as good world-class coaching as in any other country in the world. Finally, the government is increasingly investing in sport, there are outstanding role models for youngsters and hard work and commitment of the athletes are a big reason for success too.                 

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is also the product of this encouraging atmosphere for running in the island of Jamaica. She competed as a young teen several times at the Champs, representing Wolmer’s high school. However as was also the case of Veronica Campbell and many others, she suffered shocking defeats until eventually she got to win the 100m title in 2004, aged 17. The following year she struck the bronze medal at another teen contest with outstanding reputation and tradition, the Carifta Games, which are held at Caribbean level. Throughout those battles she learned how to deal with the pressure of a large crowd and as consequence increased her confidence. As a senior athlete, Shelly-Ann joined MVP track club. Under Stephen Francis, who she believes her most important influence in life besides of her mother, and working together with the likes of Asafa Powell, Michael Frater, Nesta Carter, Brigitte Foster-Hylton, Melaine Walker or Shericka Williams, the young athlete made the way to the elite. In 2007, Shelly improved her PB to 11.31 for 5th place at the national championships and for the first time was named for the senior Jamaican team to compete at the World Championships in Osaka. As a member of the 4x100m relay in the semi final she was awarded with the silver medal the squad eventually won. Then in 2008 came her sensational breakthrough, when she finished second after Kerron Stewart at the national trials in 10.85, leaving out of the Olympics in the 100m event the then reigning world champion Veronica Campbell-Brown. In spite of many voices claiming the 21-year-old athlete had to be left in Jamaica to favour the more experienced Campbell, eventually Shelly-Ann Fraser made the trip to Beijing and the rest is history. At the Olympics the world witnessed for the first time Shelly’s trademark: her meteoric outburst. The ultimate “rocket-pocket” after three powerful strides always gets at least one metre clear of every one of her rivals. Yet her problem is sometimes to maintain this gap until the end. Shelly worked especially on her endurance last year, emphasising 400m repeats in training, and seemed to be in the right way when she won the 200m at the Jamaican Invitational in a slightly windy 22.10, beating handily Veronica Campbell. Nevertheless, some injuries did not allow her to keep her progression further during the season. Maybe this Olympic year she can be back to where she used to be. Shelly-Ann Fraser is only training seriously since 2006 and many of her senior seasons have been slowed by injuries or illness. The Waterhouse lad has still many things to say at major global competitions on the track.

Shelly-Ann Fraser in Daegu with her relay 4x100m teammates Kerron Stewart, Sherone Simpson and Veronica Campbell
Photo: Andy Lyons/ Getty Images Asia Pac