When Nia Ali lowered into the blocks in Sopot, she was already nine inches (about 23cm) behind her fellow competitors. But don't worry, what at first sounds like either a fatal miscalculation or a bizarre self-imposed handicap, turns out to be very much part of the plan...
“I started about nine inches behind the line" confirms Ali, speaking to SPIKES in the wake of her victory in Sopot. “If I hadn’t started that far back, I would have crashed into the first hurdle. It is not so unusual for a hurdler to do that. Joanna Hayes [2004 Olympic 100m hurdles champion] used to sometimes move her start back a few inches or so. It is only a small difference.”
The technical adjustment was made to accommodate Ali's newly increased speed and her decision to revert to an eight-stride approach to the first hurdle (having briefly experimented with seven strides). It paid off, and Ali stormed to victory against a talented field which included Australia's Olympic champion and pre-race favourite Sally Pearson.
Ali (2nd from left) explodes out of her distinctly placed starting blocks during the Sopot 2014 heats
Ali's athletic ability was apparent from a young age. As a child in Philadelphia almost two decades earlier, a six-year-old Ali defeated a boy two years her senior in a sprint. In high school, she excelled at both softball and basketball as well as athletics. Upon graduating, she headed off to the University of Tennessee.
After transferring to the University of Southern California, Ali found success as a multi-eventer, finishing fourth in the heptathlon at the 2009 NCAA Championships, with a score of 5824 points.
Her prospects looked bright until a tragedy rocked Ali's life to the core. Her father was killed in a murder-suicide in her home city of Philadelphia.
Recounting the harrowing period as "very tough" she took a year away from the sport to grieve, and reassess her goals. With the unstinting support of her family, friends and teammates, she decided to return to the track.
"They made me want to compete again" explains Ali of the support she received. "Competing gave me both an escape and a purpose. I gained strength from that and felt like it was a turning point in my career. I also figured out where I stood in relation to everyone else and thought my best shot at this point was to attack the hurdles, and maybe revisit the multis at a later point."
She returned with renewed purpose. In her first full season back in the sport Ali lowered her PB to 12.73 and blitzed to the 2011 NCAA and World University Games titles.
“I had never previously made world youth or junior teams, so it [winning the World University title] gave me confidence, and also a feeling that I belonged in that company.”
Ali turned pro in 2012, ahead of the London Olympics. Disappointment followed as Ali finished last in the final of the trials.
“The Olympic Trials was a tough one because... It wasn’t strictly based on fitness, it was a lack of discipline,” she says. “I got carried away and crashed hurdle eight really bad. I felt like I had a shot of making the Olympic team, and lost focus.”
Following the Olympics she switched coaches, moving from Darrell Smith to Ryan Wilson, a 13.02 110m hurdler and still a competitive athlete. Wilson's commitments as an athlete made for an unusual set up, and even he expressed doubts as to whether the coach-athlete relationship would work.
"Ryan told me this could go really well or really badly, as he'd never coached before."
The pair got off to a good start. In the first year, Ali lowered her PB to 12.48 and qualified for the Moscow 2013 World Championships.
An injury disrupted her preparations and, despite high expectations, Ali was eliminated in the semi finals. It was a frustrating experience but Ali was hugely improved by Wilson's coaching. On the Moscow track, Wilson himself clinched silver in the men's 110m hurdles.
“I was tuned into a slightly different programme,” she explains of Wilson’s coaching regime. “He got me more mentally prepared and stronger in the weights room. He creates things, he has contraptions,” she says, laughing at some of the quirkier pieces of equipment he implements in training.
“He doesn’t have one specific programme for each athlete, and if I’m not getting something, he might relate it back to high jump or basketball. He’s not afraid to do his research and that’s something else that marks him out as a very strong coach.”
That brings us round to the current indoor season. After running a 60mH PB 7.80 to win the US title, she arrived in Sopot brimming with confidence.
In the final, Ali held her nerve and powered from behind to equal her PB and win world indoor gold. You can watch the race, above.
"I was confident that I'd be prepared to win" she says. "I knew Sally was running well, and you have to be on your A-game to beat her. I had to think about, not the winning, but just executing my start."
Already a world champion, her next step is world domination.
“I would like to become one of the household names in the 100m hurdles." she says, confidently. "I want to be able to compete with ladies like Dawn Harper. The 2014 Continental Cup [in Marrakech in September] is, of course, an aim. But I’ve never scored in a Diamond League, so a top three finish would be awesome."
With athletes like Pearson and world champion Brianna Rolins on the scene (the fifth and third fastest sprint hurdlers ever, respectively), stiff competition comes as standard. Yet Ali's victory in Sopot proves that there's a clutch of top hurdlers capable of shining on their day.
“What I love about the sprint hurdles is: not one specific person dominates,” she says. “Outdoors or indoors, it can be Jane Doe that comes out and wins. We just have no idea.”