Bucket List Spectating — Jamaica Champs

A 9.85 sprinter last year, Kishane Thompson (362) dashed to =9 all-time with his 9.77 final. Oblique Seville (408) was next at 9.82. (McNAMEE SPORTS MEDIA)

I’VE BEEN TO too many U.S. Olympic Trials to count without fingers. When the opportunity arose to cover the Jamaican Trials, maybe that’s why I quickly signed on. Having interviewed more than a few Jamaican athletes over the years, I thought I had a good handle on how big track & field is on the island. In truth, I had no idea.

First clue came at Customs, where I was confused by the signage and ended up in the wrong place. The agent asked me to step forward, and then pointed out that I had taken cuts ahead of a few hundred others. As I stammered an apology and offered to go to the back of the correct line, she demanded to know why I was in Jamaica. I told her I was writing about the track meet. That changed everything.

“Who do you like in the women’s 100?” she asked. “Shelly-Ann,” I answered immediately. I’ve always been a big SAFP fan.

Wrong answer, turns out. She glowered at me, and then indicated she was of the Shericka Jackson camp. But she gave me a respectful nod, stamped my passport, and told me to get out of there.

Riding to the hotel, the driver started talking track. He said, “The Trials will be good, everyone will be watching, but it’s nothing like Champs.” It was a refrain that I was to hear throughout the weekend. “Champs” refers to the Jamaican school championships, held annually in late March or early April. More than 2000 athletes ages 10–19 do battle in Kingston’s National Stadium. It is no exaggeration to say it is the furnace that forges the athletes who will contend for spots on the Jamaican Olympic team.

On my free day before the meet started, I did 10 hours of searching in the nearby Blue Mountains for the endemic birds of the island. My guide, one of the island’s foremost birders, started talking track, and not just casually. He knew the names, the PRs, the medals going back 50 years. He was equally schooled in the U.S. sprint scene, for what true fan doesn’t keep an eye on the opposition? When I expressed surprise that a birding guide would know so much about the sport, he said, “You’ve never met a Jamaican bird guide before.”

At the end of the day, a last piece of advice from him: “The meet you really need to see is Champs. That’s the big one.”

Day 1: 100 Heats Bedlam & Stadium Stew

Jamaica’s National Stadium is not Hayward Field, but it is a powerful experience to walk into it for the first time, past the beautifully-done statues of Olympic greats and into the arena that has seen everything from Filbert Bayi’s mile World Record to some of Usain Bolt’s fastest sprints (9.76, 19.56). Aged a bit since U.S. Olympic legend Jesse Owens broke ground on the project in ’62, the largely concrete structure features an updated Regupol track, within the confines of a now-unused velodrome. Surrounding it completely is seating for 28,000 fans. For the Trials, only homestretch seating would be needed.

The pace of the action was different than a U.S. Trials. Lots of time scheduled between races meant more time for fans to catch up with friends, more time to concentrate on field events, more time to grab food without missing anything. And the stewed chicken for $5 and change is indisputably the best stadium meal I’ve had in a lifetime of working in stadiums. Note also that the national beer, Red Stripe, is one of many drinks sold by vendors moving through the stands, along with the cashew and snack sales.

The action starts with Ackelia Smith of Texas winning the long jump with her only fair jump of the day, 21-5¼ (6.53). As with all the U.S.-based collegians, she competes in her school’s jersey.

The powerful Jamaican women’s 400H crew shows that the final will be hot. Rushell Clayton wins the first heat in 54.54, Janieve Russell the second in 54.00 and Andrenette Knight the third in 54.09.

Sean Bailey, 5th in Budapest, leads the men’s 400 heats at 44.95, but the bigger story is Antonio Watson, the current world champion, limping off the track 170m into his heat. For weeks now there has been talk of his being injured.

Just four competitors in the women’s high jump, and the surprise is the appearance of U.S. champion Charity Hufnagel of Kentucky, competing as a guest in the hope of nailing the Olympic standard. Both she and Texas A&M’s Lamara Distin battle through 6-2¼ (1.89), but neither can nail the next bar. Distin gets the win, Hufnagel goes home disappointed.

The heats of the women’s 100 are eye-opening. Not just in that Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce displayed ample fitness in leading with a 10.98 to Shericka Jackson’s 10.99 in the previous heat, but what it revealed about the Jamaican fans.

While there seemed to be engagement — appreciative clapping, discussion — of all the events, the appearance of national heroes on the track flipped the switch on crowd energy. Horns started blaring, voices shouting, hands clapping and feet stomping. All the announcer had to say was “And in lane 3…” and all bedlam broke loose in tribute to their heroes. I have never experienced noise that deafening at a track meet.

The men’s 100 heats cap the night. Oblique Seville, who had beaten Noah Lyles with a 9.82 on this track four weeks earlier, wins the first in 9.98. Kishane Thompson, a large, powerful sprinter who ran 9.85 last year in Xiamen in an injury-troubled season, blazes a 9.82 in heat 2 while clearly shutting down at the end.

On the way back to my hotel, my driver asks me what struck me the most. I said, “The noise! My head is still ringing.”

“That was nothing,” he chuckles. “It’s way louder at Champs, when all the seats are full.”

Day 2: 100m Horses Gallop, 400H Fireworks

With temperatures in the high 80s (31C) Lushane Wilson takes the men’s high jump at 7-4½ (2.24) as Arkansas’s NCAA champion Romaine Beckford suffers his first loss of the year with a tie for 3rd.

The final for the women’s 400H shows that 2-time world bronze winner Clayton is indeed a podium threat in Paris. Racing a top-notch field, she comes off the final turn with a huge lead and maintains form down the stretch to win in 52.51, missing by less than a 10th Melaine Walker’s 52.42 NR. Behind her come Russell (53.33), Shiann Salmon (53.71) and Knight (54.37).

The men’s race brings forth a name unfamiliar to U.S. fans. Malik James-King came into the season with a best of 49.51. Here he blistered a 47.42 with a fluid, energetic style that seemed to say he can go faster with someone to chase. Cue some wow factor! He won handily over Budapest 4th-placer Roshawn Clarke (48.04) and Jaheel Hyde (48.35).

In the women’s 100, Fraser-Pryce wins the first semi in 10.91 (1.5) over Oregon alum Kemba Nelson (11.04). The surprise comes in the second, where 20-year-old Tia Clayton burns a 10.86 PR with a 1.0 wind to edge the 10.87 of Jackson.

In the men’s semis, Kishane Thompson loses none of his speed, hitting 9.84 in 0.6 wind. Seville follows in the next race with a 9.83 (0.4).

In the men’s 400 finals, Deandre Watkin triumphs in a stretch battle with Sean Bailey, 44.48–44.65.

The noise erupts again for the 100 finals. Jackson battles Clayton all the way to the finish, and gets the win in 10.84 to Clayton’s 10.90, with a slight 0.3 headwind.

In 3rd at 10.94, ageless — err, 37-year-old —Fraser-Pryce earns Olympic selection 16 years after her race to her first of two Games 100 golds at Beijing ’08 and 2 up the road from her ’22 Worlds victory.

“It’s never over until it’s over,” declared Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, now qualified for her fifth Olympics. (McNAMEE SPORTS MEDIA)

Afterward, Jackson gives the closest thing to a victory lap I will see, jogging back down the homestretch to give thanks. Since the far stands are empty save for a few athletes and coaches, a lap wouldn’t make much sense. Meanwhile the crowd roars loudest for SAFP.

While Jackson jogs, the TV cameras interview the queen first. She tells reporters, “I’m just praying that I stay healthy and continue to work, because it’s never over until it’s over.”

Says Jackson, “I am feeling good, because I just wanted to qualify and I did so, I am OK.”

The men’s final couldn’t be more impressive. Both Thompson in lane 6 and Seville in 5 get out fast. They battle mid-race, then Thompson starts watching Seville and even eases up a bit. At the line, he amazingly hits a world-leading 9.77 with Seville at 9.82. Ackeem Blake finishes 3rd in 9.92.

Thompson says his performance, the fastest in the world for the last two seasons, wasn’t an all-out effort: “My coach instructed me to just run the first 60, nothing more. After that I should just shut it down. If I came in 2nd or 3rd, I make the team. The goal wasn’t to do anything, just to run a 70 or 60 and see where I am at.”

Day 3: A Catchy Elevator Pitch

A quieter day at the track looms. In the hotel elevator, a Jamaican woman explains the development mechanism that keeps churning out new sprint talent on the island: “It’s like we eat fruit and spit out the seeds. And always they grow into another amazing fruit.”

Ackelia Smith takes the round 1 lead in the triple jump with her 47-4½ (14.44), then Shanieka Ricketts pounds out three better, topped by a 47-7 (14.50).

Danniel Thomas-Dodd seals her Olympic spot in the shot with a 63-4¾ (19.32).

Shericka Jackson leads the women’s 200 heats in 22.67 while Fraser-Pryce and Clayton both scratch.

Carey McLeod wins the men’s long jump with his round 3 leap of 27-6 (8.38). He passes his remaining jumps. Arkansas Razorback-turned-pro Wayne Pinnock gets his best with his first-round 27-1¾ (8.27). The controversy comes on the final jump for Shown-D Thompson. In 4th at 26-6 ¼ (8.08), he, for a time at least, jumps onto the Paris team with a final effort of 27-2¾ (8.30). That knocks ’19 world champ Tajay Gayle and his 26-10 (8.18) off the team. Yet the pesky red flag says otherwise. Thompson protests, is put into the results with that mark, but later it was ruled a foul.

The discus is another strong event for the Jamaican men. Travis Smikle leads from the start, but when Arkansas’s Roje Stona gets close with his fifth-round 214-2 (65.29), Smikle improves to 220-1 (67.08), quite a solid mark for an enclosed stadium. Oklahoma’s Ralford Mullings gets 3rd with his 213-0 (64.92) over Fedrik Dacres (211-5/64.46).

Ackera Nugent, the ’23 NCAA champion for Arkansas, serves up a fast hurdle run in the heats at 12.46 ahead of world champion Danielle Williams’ 12.57. In the men’s race, all the likelies get through, led by Orlando Bennett at 13.28.

The last big races of the evening are the women’s 400 heats. Razorback Nickisha Pryce lords over the process, running 49.63 unpressed.

On a side note, it seems virtually everyone at the stadium is aware of the U.S. Trials going on simultaneously. Whenever there’s an important development in Eugene, a buzz passes through the stands. One such is “Sha’Carri didn’t make the 200 team.”

Day 4: Saharan Sunrise & Shericka Locks Down Double

Saharan dust, blown over on the Trade Winds, adds a reddish tint to the Kingston sky at times, though one man grimly notes to me that oncoming Hurricane Beryl will likely “clean that up” in a few days. It later brushed the island Wednesday as a category 3 storm.

Still, the track meet needs to be finished before everyone heads home to secure their houses from the winds.

The women’s 400 final sees Nickisha Pryce easily handle veteran Stacey Ann Williams, 50.01–50.56.

Then comes the 100H final, which is frankly astonishing. Ackera Nugent dominates, clocking a 12.28 with an 0.5 wind at her back. It is a world leader for all of 168 minutes, until Masai Russell runs her Eugene race. Danielle Williams is 2nd in 12.53 and Janeek Brown gets 3rd at 12.61.

The men’s hurdles final is tight. Tokyo champ Hansle Parchment fights to a clear lead at hurdle 10. Then he turns his head and watches to his right for the rest of the race, so he has a good view of both Rasheed Broadbell and Orlando Bennett passing him. They both clock 13.18, Broadbell ahead by 0.004. Parchment gets the last spot at 13.19. Tyler Mason and Omar McLeod cross next, both at 13.22.

McLeod, past Olympic and world gold medalist, admits, “I fell out of love with hurdles because I’ve won everything in hurdles at a young age, and it was very hard to find motivation.” Now he is eyeing a move to the 100 at age 30.

In the 200 final, Budapest ’23 gold medalist Jackson has to fight hard to find the front, finally managing a 22.29 ahead of Lanae-Tava Thomas (22.34) and UTEP’s Niesha Burgher (22.39).

In the men’s final, Bryan Levell hits 19.97 with a 1.3 wind, a solid time on this track. Andrew Hudson (20.02) and Javari Thomas (20.32) are next.

The meet closes with a special addition. The Jamaican men, much to the dismay of their fans, had failed to qualify for the Olympic 4×4. This would be their last chance. It was set up as an international race thanks to a token team from St. Vincent. Aiming for a 2:59.12, the Jamaica Green team fell short with a 2:59.87.

And so wraps up a dizzying — and loud — four nights in National Stadium. The Jamaican Trials experience came across differently than anything in Lane County, Oregon. For one thing, the hotels didn’t raise their prices. However, I keep getting reminded this wasn’t the most important meet on the island. Before I board my outbound plane, I visit the lounge. The greeter, once she finds out my assignment, asks me, “You’re coming back for Champs, aren’t you? That’s the one you need to see.”


100(0.9): 1. Kishane Thompson 9.77 PR (WL) (=9, x W);

2. Oblique Seville 9.82 =PR; 3. Ackeem Blake 9.92; 4. Bryan Levell 10.04; 5. Jelani Walker 10.04; 6. Jehlani Gordon 10.07.

200(1.3): 1. Levell 19.97 PR; 2. Andrew Hudson 20.02; 3. Javari Thomas 20.32 PR.

400: 1. Deandre Watkin 44.48 PR; 2. Sean Bailey 44.65; 3. JeVaughn Powell 44.79.

800: 1. Tarees Rhoden 1:45.94; 2. Navasky Anderson 1:47.01.

110H(0.4): 1. Rasheed Broadbell 13.18; 2. Orlando Bennett 13.18 =PR; 3. Hansle Parchment 13.19; 4. Tyler Mason 13.22; 4. Omar McLeod 13.22.

400H: 1. Malik James-King 47.42 PR; 2. Roshawn Clarke 48.04; 3. Jaheel Hyde 48.35; 4. Assinie Wilson 48.36 PR.

4 x 400: 1. Jamaica Green 2:59.87; 2. Jamaica Gold 3:02.73.

HJ: 1. Lushane Wilson 7-4½ (2.25); 2. Christoffe Bryan 7-4½ =PR.

LJ: 1. Carey McLeod 27-6 (8.38) PR; 2. Shown-D Thompson 27-2¾ (8.30) PR; 3. Wayne Pinnock 27-1¾ (8.27); 4. Tajay Gayle 26-10 (8.18).

TJ: 1. Jordan Scott 55-4¼ (16.87).

SP: 1. Rajindra Campbell 65-7¾ (20.01).

DT: 1. Traves Smikle 220-1 (67.08); 2. Roje Stona 214-2 (65.29); 3. Ralford Mullings 213-0 (64.92); 4. Fedrick Dacres 211-6 (64.46).

Women’s Events

100(-0.3): 1. Shericka Jackson 10.84; 2. Tia Clayton 10.90; 3. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce 10.94; 4. Shashalee Forbes 11.04; 5. Kemba Nelson 11.14.

200(1.6): 1. Jackson 22.29; 2. Lanae-Tava Thomas 22.34 PR; 3. Niesha Burgher 22.39 PR; 4. Dejanea Oakley 22.66.

400: 1. Nickisha Pryce 50.01; 2. Stacey-Ann Williams 50.56; 3. Junelle Bromfield 51.24; 4. Stephenie Ann McPherson 51.28.

800: 1. Natoya Goule-Toppin 1:59.06; 2. Kelly-Ann Beckford 2:01.01.

1500: 1. Aisha Praught Leer 4:25.63.

100H(0.5): 1. Ackera Nugent 12.28 NR (=9, x W);

2. Danielle Williams 12.53; 3. Janeek Brown 12.61; 4. Megan Tapper 12.69.

400H: 1. Rushell Clayton 52.51 PR (8, x W);

2. Janieve Russell 53.33; 3. Shiann Salmon 53.71 PR; 4. Andrenette Knight 54.37; 5. Ronda Whyte 55.67.

HJ: 1. Lamara Distin 6-2¼ (1.89); 2. Charity Hufnagel (US) 6-2¼.

TJ: 1. Shanieka Ricketts 47-7 (14.50); 2. Ackelia Smith 47-4½ (14.44); 3. Imani Oliver (US) 44-11 (13.69).

SP: 1. Danniel Thomas-Dodd 63-4¾ (19.32).

DT: 1. Shadae Lawrence 200-6 (61.11).