THE ONLY SURPRISE about the rise of Salwa Eid Naser to the top of the women’s 400 was its suddenness. Most observers of the swiftly rising 21-year-old Bahraini had reckoned that it was only a matter of time before she hit the top, but few expected her to beat Rio champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo at the World Championships in Doha. None, not even Naser herself—who came in with a PR of 49.08—expected her to do so in 48.14, the fastest time recorded in the event for 34 years, and almost a second faster than her previous personal best.
“To cross the line and see that I’m world champion in that amazing time, I couldn’t believe it,” she said after taking the race right out to her favored rival, demonstrating a wonderfully smooth and relaxed form down the backstretch, engineering a clear lead around the top bend and holding her advantage all the way to the finish. Miller-Uibo took more than half a second off her PR as she clocked 48.37 before sitting in a daze trying to work out how it was that she had not earned a second global gold. (Continued below)
Naser already had a world silver from London 2 years ago, where Miller-Uibo, who was attempting a 200/400 double, had faltered and stumbled to 4th while in sight of victory. Since then, however, the Bahamian has been virtually unbeatable at either distance, although she was concentrating all her redoubtable energies on the single lap at the WC.
The final promised to be as compelling as their previous contest at last year’s Monaco Diamond League meeting, where Naser ran a PR 49.08 in chasing the Rio champion home in 48.97. The Bahraini phenomenon has not lost since—and it is hard now to see when and where she will next experience defeat in the 400, where she is now ensconced as No. 3 on the all-time list.
Born Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu in Anambra State, Nigeria, to a Nigerian mother, Naser began running at school at the age of 11 and became schools champion in Port Harcourt aged 13. A year later she transferred allegiance to Bahrain, converting to Islam and changing her name. Initially coached by Nigerian expat John George Obeya, she soon began working with former Bulgarian standout Yanko Bratanov, the ’76 European Indoor 400 champ. Since then she has made inexorable progress.
After taking silver in the ’14 Youth Olympic Games Naser won ’15 World Youth (U18) gold while wearing a hijab. She made the semis in Rio, PRing at 50.88, a mark she chopped a full second off in ’17. In ’18 she had another big PR, 49.08.
Earlier this season in Doha she had the ideal introduction to these Championships as she competed at the Asian Championships that served as a test event—and won 4 golds in 4 days—200, 400, 4×4 and mixed 4×4—as well as a bronze in the 4×1. She returned to Doha as the Diamond League 400 champion, having won DL victories in Shanghai, Rome, Rabat and Lausanne before capturing the final in Zürich.
An arresting sight, with her wide-ranging tattoos and facial piercings, Naser has become noticeably more relaxed and bright in press conferences on the circuit. But she was almost lost for words when asked to account for her feelings during the monumental WC race: “I wasn’t really feeling anything. I didn’t really know how fast I was going, but crossing the line I saw that I ran a very fast time. I was so excited, I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t really looking if someone was beside me. I was just going and pushing so hard to finish, it was on replay that I saw she was behind me. It was amazing because I used to chase her, now I was being chased.”
Asked if we were now in a new era in 1-lap running, and whether it would take times under 48.5 to win future world titles, she responded, “Every year someone pops up so it is possible; we are gonna need faster times than this! My coach always said, ‘You are gonna run really fast,’ and I used to laugh. To be frank, I never expected that fast time. I was training hard but he was keep talking to me, he never let me down. I didn’t think I would run that fast, but I thank God he never gave up on me and supporting me.”
On the difficulties she faced this season and how she managed to get back on top, she said, “I was dealing with a lot of things. I missed two Diamond League races and coming back here and winning and running this fast time means a lot. I never doubted for myself. When we were doing our planning in the beginning of the season I said my coach was crazy because at the Asian Games… it was too much. I also ran the mixed relay here, so he was preparing me for this day and also since I knew this track I had a lot of confidence and didn’t have doubts because I was here before.”
“Running with these amazing ladies, I don’t think I would have done it alone. Especially against Shaunae Miller-Uibo, I always run for the best because she is a really strong athlete. I think they really pushed me to get this time.” She named multiple OG/WC champion Allyson Felix as her role model, explaining,
“I see similarities. I was really looking up to her and I still look up to her, she’s an amazing athlete. Having given birth she came back doing what she has to do best.
“Back in Bahrain kids will look up to me.” ◻︎