With the NCAAs taking place in Eugene this week, we speak to one of the most successful collegiate sprinters ever: Kimberlyn Duncan. Now a pro, she's ready to take on the world’s elite.
Her agent Paul Doyle describes her as “the woman who could be at the top of the sprinting world for the next decade”. Given the 22-year-old’s already outstanding record, it is clear to see why Doyle – not a man naturally prone to hyperbole – is so excited.
A winner of seven NCAA titles, her collegiate record was near flawless. Duncan won unprecedented back-to-back 200m titles indoor and out in 2012 and 2013, and three straight outdoor 200m crowns from 2011-13.
In 2012 she showed flashes of her ability to live with the finest sprinters, only missing out on the US Olympic 200m team by 0.12 to Sanya Richards-Ross.
It was her accomplishments last year at the US champs, where Duncan first earned global recognition. In Des Moines, the tall, linear 200m specialist blitzed to victory – beating Olympic 200m champion Allyson Felix in the process – in a wind-aided time of 21.80.
“This was the moment it suddenly dawned on me that I’m actually able to compete with the very best athletes,” she says. “That was really important for me.”
Head to head: Duncan edges Felix in the 2013 US 200m final.
Born and raised in the small Texan city of Katy just outside of Houston, Duncan first discovered a flair for sprinting by running time trials as a fourth-grader at YMCA. Encouraged to compete more seriously, at middle school she took the plunge and competed at her first meet. She was ill prepared for her initial track challenge.
“I went along with my mom and dad, but we didn’t know much about spikes or nutrition,” she says. “I ran in a pair of tennis shoes and wore a plain white t-shirt and pink shorts.”
Duncan cannot recall where she finished, but can remember not eating all day until stopping by and grabbing a Burger King after the meeting.
Since that day more than a decade ago, the tennis shoes have been replaced by spikes, and Subway sandwiches have replaced the burgers.
An elite high school performer, she was wisely recruited by LSU (Louisiana State University) and under the highly regarded coaching of Dennis Shaver (who guided Richard Thompson to Olympic 100m silver in 2008 and Lolo Jones to two world indoor 60m hurdles titles) developed into a collegiate phenom.
Proving her points: Duncan won seven NCAA titles for LSU.
Now she is embarking on her first full season as a professional, chiefly focusing on the half-lap event.
“I’m slowly picking up the 100m [she does boast an impressive PB of 10.96], I just find the 100m much more technical than the 200m,” says Duncan trains with Thompson and Norway’s European 100m bronze medallist Jaysuma Ndure.
“I find it takes time for me to pick up speed and I’m at my best over the last 80m of the 200m. It is an event that comes much easier to me, and it is the one I love because I don’t have to think too much about it.”
In her first race as a pro, she secured the shock US title success in that eye-popping time of 21.80 (although it was wind-aided, it is worth noting only 13 women in history have ever recorded a legal time quicker).
When she stood on that start line, did Duncan believe victory was possible?
“I don’t know whether I went into that race believing I could win, but I went into it believing I could make the team for Moscow,” she says. “Then I crossed the line and I’m like ‘Wow!’ I looked at the time and I’m in shock. I didn’t know whether to cry, scream or jump up and down.”
Disappointment was to follow at the Moscow 2013 World Championships, where she was eliminated in the semi-finals. But it's worth noting that it was Duncan’s first ever trip overseas, so she had to cope with the peculiar vagaries of jet-lag for the first time, while coming off the back of a huge 57-race season.
Duncan in Moscow, overseas for the first time.
“It was very disappointing, but competing at NCAA’s and nationals was nothing like the World Championships,” she says.
“It was on a whole other level and I had a lot of new things to figure out like going to different airports, coping with different languages and even making sure I knew what time the buses were leaving. I’d never had to do anything on military time before.”
As a fully-fledged pro and on a lighter racing schedule, the challenge in 2014 is to produce the same level of performance. During the winter months, Shaver put the Texan on a heavier weights programme in an effort to withstand the forces being put through her body for 22 seconds of sprinting.
The early signs this season have proved encouraging. She anchored the US 4x200m team to victory at the World Relays, and finished in third place finish at the Shanghai Diamond League. At the time of writing her season's best of 22.53 ranks Duncan joint eight in the world this year, alongside world champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
“The biggest goal is to run faster times competing in fewer races, and I also want my times be within the [world’s] top ten by the end of the year.”