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Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson Arrives Early

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Some months ago, I sensed Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson would have made her mark soon as a senior athlete on the rise. I had been following her performance, particularly since she was a Vere Technical High School star, when she could run a wicked backstretch in the 4x100m relay at the Jamaica high school championships (Champs). Etched in my mind, too, is her ferocious closing speed on anchor at the 2012 Gibson Relays in Kingston. She collected the baton in fifth place, and with some 90 meters to work her magic, chased down and overhauled the Flying Angels of Canada, who were 10 meters ahead.

Individually, the 200m was Jackson’s forte; she possessed the power and speed just right for it. She took multiple titles in that event, ranging from Champs to the Carifta Games, where she clocked a personal best 22.84secs for the silver medal in 2013. It was the second-fastest time by a Jamaican junior athlete. Prior to that, she was the bronze medal winner at the 2011 World Youth Games.

As if not talented enough, the then teenager was equally impressive in the quarter mile, whether individually or as anchor on the 4x400m, even though her dislike for the distance is no secret. In 2013, she ran a personal best of 51.60 to close out her high school career, noting that she just wanted to make her father proud.

At the time, I though her alma mater had her in too many events at Champs, which many other schools do with their best athletes in an effort to gain valuable championship points. After high school, she chose to stay in Jamaica and train at the MVP. I thought her choice could not have been better because her new coach Stephen Francis has a knack of transforming his obscure charges into world-class athletes. Even then, I did not come to any conclusion about when she would break out.

So later when I got word second that Francis would run her in the 400m for the 2015 season as part of the preparation process for the 200m as well as the 100m in 2016, I was thrilled at the prospect of having a sprint double understudy for Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. The truth is I did not see Elaine Thompson coming around the bend in the 200m.

I watched Jackson in the 4×4 at the World Relays in the Bahamas and thought she ran the first part of that race as if she were still running against schoolgirls at Champs. Yet I believed with more time she would get things right. My assumption was not far off. I learned later that at the 2015 Jamaica National Trials in Kingston Coach Francis noted that if she went out faster, she would be hard to beat, simply because none of her rivals could match her 400m strength and 200m speed. Then Jackson gave a glimpse of where she was going, when she stormed to second place in the 400m final at Trials with 50.34secs.

Managing her rounds

Significantly, on her way to clocking that time, she lowered her personal best in each of her two qualifying rounds: 51.01, and 50.65.

As the World Championships in Beijing approached, I got the uncanny feeling that Jackson would do something special at the Games. And she did. After managing her qualifying races well as she did in Kingston, the 21-yr-old University of Technology (UTech) student clocked 49.99secs in the 400m final for bronze behind USA’s decorated World and Olympic star Allyson Felix and Bahamas’s rising star Shaunae Miller. She later widened Jamaica’s lead on their way to gold in the 4×4 against a powerful US squad.

As if I were listening to a Global Positioning System (GPS) in my head, I could hear the announcement clearly: Shericka Jackson has arrived.

But with performances like those on the world stage, how can she be switched to the shorter sprint double? Well Stephen Francis is Stephen Francis, a coach extraordinaire, and his record of accomplishments shows that his insight and decision should be trusted – whatever he decides.

This is what he said about Jackson in a Track Alerts video clip after her bronze medal feat:

“Right now she’s injury-prone. Like most of the athletes who just enter the [MVP] program, they tend to break down for at least the first three years. The emphasis is to try to keep her away from most of the explosive stuff, especially in training, to make sure she can compete. Last year she had problems that hampered her progress. This year was much better; there was a lot less stoppages in practice, so she performed a lot better.

Looking ahead

“Next year, if she can do the same thing she will also improve again. We have to be patient, for usually after three years in the program, athletes finally strengthen up and become flexible enough. I am sure that after the Olympics she will be able to turn her attention to the 200m if she believes it is not too hot for her to get in.

Francis wanted Jackson to run the 400m because she ran it in high school and he clearly saw her potential, even though she was not fond of the event. He tells us more: “I believe first of all that she is not a 100m-type sprinter, and running the 400m will help her in the 200m when we decide that she’ll run it. What got everyone’s attention, though, was his bold statement about how fast he thinks she can go: “I believe she can run 47 in a couple of years.”
The foregoing is a stunning vote of confidence from Francis when one considers that the decades-old world record is 47.60secs, set by former East German Marita Koch Meier in 1985, in Canberra, Australia. Only Koch and Jarmila Kratochvílová (47.99 in 1983) of former Czechoslovakia have broken the 48-second barrier.

So far, Francis has hardly been off target about his athletes’ performances.

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