British Broadcasting Corporation – Held up at gunpoint, disqualified from a major title and now the fastest man in the world this year. It’s been quite a 2018 for British sprinter Zharnel Hughes.
And the 22-year-old intends to create more headlines, telling BBC Sport the dramas have spurred him on to success.
Here he talks about switching allegiance to Great Britain, going straight to training after the gun drama, recovering from his Commonwealth Games disqualification and the quest to get even quicker.
‘I can go even faster’
Hughes ran 9.91 seconds – the fastest 100m time in the world this year – as he went under 10 seconds for the first time on Saturday in Jamaica.
He recovered from a slow start to overtake 2011 world champion Yohan Blake on the way to victory.
“I can definitely go much faster. I could have gone faster in that race because the starting blocks slipped when I pushed out and I had to play catch up,” he said.
“I got down to my knees afterwards because I had worked so hard for it. My mum, brother and coach were inside the stadium. I had achieved a goal set out for the season.”
The new personal best put him second on the British all-time list alongside James Dasaolu and behind 1992 Olympic champion Linford Christie (9.87).
“I definitely see myself going below 9.80. I’ve been running super quick times in training. I’ve run 9.79 before,” he said.
“As of this year, I’ve decided to make a change to focus more on the 100m, rather than 200m.
“I had hamstring injuries and tore my ligament at the back of my right knee. I’m much stronger and able to hold my position better in my races.”
Disqualification ‘made me more determined’
Hughes thought he had won 200m Commonwealth gold for England on the Gold Coast in Australia in April and had even begun a lap of honour before being disqualified.
He stumbled in the closing stages and his left arm made contact in the next lane with Trinidad & Tobago’s Jereem Richards, who was awarded victory.
“It was heartbreaking, especially having celebrated and then to hear I had been disqualified for impeding an athlete, which wasn’t intentional,” he said.
“I lost my balance and my arm came up. At the end of the day, the rules are the rules and I had to move on from there.”
Hughes bounced back as part of the winning 4x100m relay team the following day.
“It has definitely made me more determined to succeed. When I got back to Jamaica, I said to my coach ‘I don’t want a situation like that to ever occur again’.
“I will definitely put in the work to make sure I am away from the rest of the field.”
‘I was held at gunpoint, but went straight to training’
Hughes escaped unhurt after having a gun pointed in his face in an attempted armed robbery which led to shots being fired in January.
The incident happened in a car park near Kingston, Jamaica, where he trains with a local club.
There was a brief exchange of gunfire between a man who demanded the athlete’s phone and a licensed firearms holder who was at the venue, but there were no injuries.
“On the day I was held at gunpoint, I still trained. I sat in my car, gave my statement to the police officers, and went to the track and ran super fast,” he said.
“For me I’ve had two bad seasons. In 2016 I missed out on the Olympics and in 2017 the World Championships did not go according to plan. Going into this season I was determined that nothing was going to stop me, regardless.
“Even though I was held at gunpoint, I still had to train – at the end of the week I had to open my season.
“I decided to push it aside for a bit and focus on my training. Once I got through that and got home, I started to feel scared, but I used the adrenaline throughout the week, executed a great race and ran a really good time.
“From thereon I’ve told myself that if I can get over a gunpoint situation, I can get over anything. That has been the drive for the season.”
Running for Great Britain
Hughes was born on the British overseas territory of Anguilla, but has held a British passport since birth and was declared eligible for Team GB in 2015.
He mainly trains in Jamaica but comes to Britain for the summer and at Christmas.
“Anguilla is a British territory which doesn’t have an Olympic committee. It was always a dream for me to run for Great Britain in the Olympics,” he said.
“When I joined I knew there would be some [negative] comments, but it really didn’t hamper my decision on making the switch.
“I remember at the London Anniversary Games when they announced my name in the stadium, it literally erupted. It was so surreal, and a feeling I will never forget.
“Since then, I’ve been getting more fans and support. I’ve had some British youngsters asking me for tips to run faster on social media and saying how much of an inspiration I am.
“To hear such things means a lot to me and I try to reach out as much as possible to give words of encouragement.”
Hughes was fifth behind gold medallist Usain Bolt in the 200m at the World Championships in 2015, having only just been beaten by the world’s fastest man at a Diamond League meeting in New York.
“He was like ‘Zharnel, you almost beat me, man’. He was asking me how I came up on him so easily. I was surprised to see I got so close to him,” recalled Hughes.
The pair still bump into each other, with the retired eight-time Olympic champion Bolt offering support and advice.
“If he sees me at the track, he’ll come over and say: ‘Hey Zharnel, you OK? I hear you’re doing well in training. Just stay focused and stay humble,'” he said.
Bolt’s world 100m record of 9.58 seconds has stood for nearly nine years, but Hughes can foresee a time when it is bettered.
“I can’t say how long it will take for Usain’s record to be broken. In years to come that record will go. Let’s see by 2020 and 2024 what can happen by then,” he said.
Could Hughes beat it one day? He laughs and replies: “I don’t want to jinx myself. We shall see.”
By Frank Keogh, BBC Sport
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