Asafa Powell contemplates defying Father Time
When Asafa Powell retired from top-flight athletics last November on turning 40, seemingly gone was the dream of going where no man had gone before — not even the showstopping Usain Bolt, his illustrious fellow Jamaican.
Spanish Town’s finest son had become tired of the gruelling training schedule which had punished his body over a largely successful 20-year career that has brought a host of trinkets, including Olympic gold and two world titles in the 4x100 metres relay.
He and his wife, Alyshia, have embarked on a successful business partnership in growing The Powells YouTube vlog, but there remains a significant itch to scratch — getting to a century of sub-10sec 100 metres races!
Stuck on 97 since September 1, 2016 — a 9.94sec in a Diamond League final at the Zürich Weltklasse meet in Switzerland was his last — Powell, who is on island to run in the relay at the USATF Bermuda Grand Prix today, expresses a new-found motivation to do the unthinkable.
For context, Kim Collins, of St Kitts & Nevis, is the only 40-year-old ever to run sub-10 when he achieved the feat with 9.93 in Germany in May 2016 — and he did so only once before retiring at the end of the 2018 season.
“I’ve been back and forth thinking about if I should come back because I honestly miss the sport; I miss competing,” Powell told The Royal Gazette in an exclusive interview hours after arriving on the late flight from Miami.
“What I don't miss is training, but I’ve been doing a lot of training and I am still deciding if I want to touch back the track. I’m very motivated to come back, but it’s just really finding that energy that I need.
“I’m at 97 sub-10s. My main goal that I’ve always wanted to accomplish was to get 100 sub-10s. So to get back in the sport, that would be the focus — not to come and do anything special, like winning an Olympics or anything like that ... just to get some sub-10s.”
Clearly, Bermuda in May is not the occasion for such lofty goals, so Powell’s motivation for being here is part-athlete, part-ambassador while getting through the relay at 2.45pm with his body intact.
“It is really just to let my presence be felt,” the two-times former world record-holder said. “Just to come here and let the Bermudian crowd see me and get to experience what it’s like to see athletes like us on the track. All these years, we’ve been competing around the world, but we have never been to Bermuda. To come here for the first time is really exciting and I want to show Bermuda what athletes of my calibre do on the track, what we look like.”
He looks back with a great deal pride on his start in the sport and how he came to be the godfather of Jamaican sprinting during a glorious period that peaked with the emergence of a lanky 200 metres specialist from Trelawny, in Jamaica’s northwest.
“When I started running for Jamaica, it was just me, myself and I pretty much,” he said. “There wasn't anybody else in my first few years. I broke the world record [9.77 in Athens on June 14, 2005] and I was the No 1 sprinter in the world. A few years after, Usain came along and then he broke the world record.
“To be in that era of sprinting — remember you also had Michael Frater and Nesta Carter — just to be a part of that Jamaica dynasty was a big, big accomplishment for me. To really look back at my career, I’m very, very happy with my career. I have no regrets. There might be occasions where I should have won maybe some gold medals at Olympics or World Championships, but at the same time I still accomplished a lot; I’ve done a lot. My name will be in a lot of people’s mouths for the rest of their lives, the rest of my life at least."
While there are justifiable claims against Powell that he lacked the stomach for the fight at championship level when the likes of Bolt and American Tyson Gay came to the fore, no one can deny that he was terribly unlucky with injury.
Dogged by knee, hamstring, groin and ankle concerns from 2007 onward, Powell has reason to feel hard done by — on and off the track.
“Yes, I’ve been very, very unlucky with injuries,” he said. “I could have easily played the blame game whenever I don’t do well. I could complain about injuries and stuff like that, but once I get out there on the track, I’m out there trying to compete. Definitely, I’ve been dealing with injuries all my career — honestly, if it wasn’t for injuries, then definitely I would’ve been a lot more accomplished when it comes to Olympics and World Championships.”
Still, worse was to come, though, in July 2013 when his world was ripped apart by a positive test that had him labelled as a drugs cheat — albeit temporarily.
He and fellow Jamaican Sherone Simpson were found to have the banned stimulant oxilofrine in their systems, with Powell immediately withdrawing from the World Championships to begin the process of clearing his name.
Nevertheless, the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission later handed out retroactive, 18-month suspensions, but the sprinters won their appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport and then were awarded an out-of-court settlement against distributor Dynamic Life Nutrition when it was learnt the oxilofrine was added to a supplement without notification by the manufacturer.
“It was life-changing experience for me because all my career, I was one of those athletes who was very tough on people who got tested positive in sport,” Powell said. “And then when it happened to me, I was lost for words. I was, like, my entire life just went away and came back. And then I started to realise that athletes, some athletes, are really doing stuff not knowing that there’s something illegal in whatever vitamins they’re taking, whatever food they’re eating. This sport is very unforgiving — you might eat something and then you get tested and there's something that you’re not supposed to have in your system in the food.
“So there’s a lot that goes on in the sport that we don’t know about and it’s such a risky sport and the athletes just have to be very careful with whatever they do. It was a very tough time in my career, in my life, and it’s something that I wouldn’t wish on anybody at all. It’s something that has scarred me; even if people forget, or whatever, I still remember it and I just wouldn’t want it to happen to anybody. It changed my entire life, my career, everything.”
With Bolt retiring after the 2016 Rio Olympics on the back of a third successive 100-200 gold-medal double, Jamaica’s dominance on the men’s scene began to wane. But their women stepped in to fill some considerably big shoes and sustain the Caribbean island’s reputation as a sprinting mecca.
Powell’s view is that Jamaican women have always brought it; it was just that they had been overshadowed during the era of Bolt.
“Now that the big four guys have retired or stopped running — Usain, Michael Frater, Nesta Carter, myself and Yohan [Blake] is not doing as well as before — the women are shining a lot more. And women’s sprinting is actually getting better, I think, these last few years. You have Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson, Shericka Jackson, and so many more coming out of the works. I think the women are going to be dominating for the next ten, 15 years.
“The guys, I think you have to give them a few more years to really come back on top because the big athletes retired so suddenly that men’s sprinting took a dive. It’s coming back sooner rather than later.”
Central to that revival will be the nurturing of talent from the world-famous annual ISSA Boys and Girls Championships — better known as “Champs” — which has been a production line for countless regional and world champions out of the Land of Wood and Water.
“We have a real good system in Jamaica when it comes to the high school, the junior athletes, and we see so many of them rising up from Champs, ” Powell said. “They will then move on to Carifta because for me Carifta, Champs and all these games for the junior athletes are like a mini-Olympic Games. That’s the type of performances that you’ll get at these competitions from these athletes. The future is very bright for Jamaica and for the Caribbean in general.”
Young Bermudians have had a front-row seat to the dominance of Jamaica at under-20 and under-17 level for several years. But Powell cautions against expecting too much too soon from the raft of youngsters pushing through the ranks.
“I just have to watch and see after Champs,” he said. “The athletes run very well at Champs, but I think they need maybe a year or two to see who is going to rise up because they could do well in Champs and then they disappear. So I don’t want to say who could be the next me or Usain until maybe another year or two when I see that they actually move on to the senior level and are doing well.”
Powell accepts that all talk on men’s athletics in Jamaica will inevitably revolve around the legacy of Bolt. But rather than bear animosity, he’s good with that and in fact is happy to stand in line in the cheering section.
“Usain was like a shining light for track and field,” Powell said. “He was what track and field needed. We needed rivalry like what we had, needed athletes like us in the sport. Honestly, when Usain came around it really proved that us humans can accomplish so much.
“He came in the sport, he opened the door for a lot of athletes. We all did. Usain definitely did a lot for the sport and a lot of athletes now they're trying to emulate him, trying to copy what he did so they could get on the same path. But he is one of a kind and we’re just happy that he came in the sport and brought a lot more attention.”
Bolt’s lone visit to Bermuda came at the Carifta Games in 2004 when he was all arms and legs — his career barely started. However, a hint as to his greatness to come was seen when he broke the under-20 200 metres world record with a scintillating 19.93.
At the sunset of his journey in top-level athletics, Powell has quite a different victory lap in mind as he graces Flora Duffy Stadium for the first time.
“I want to be there for the people. Bring your flags, especially the Jamaican flags, and stick around for a picture or two. I want to see flags everywhere.”
And he did.
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