JUNE 21, 2016
A tenth of a second isn’t enough time to blink your eyelids. It is the amount of time separating a clearly defined movement from the sort of optical illusion that creates the appearance of an action blurred into infinity, like if you twirl a stone tied to a rope around your head. At a tenth of a second, you can still track the stone’s individual movement as it spins. Speed up the spinning to less than a tenth of a second per rotation and the stone becomes a seamless loop of pure motion. A tenth of a second is where the sprinter lives. It separates world-record holders from mere champions.
A tenth of a second is all Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce thinks about. Called “Pocket Rocket” in her native Jamaica for her diminutive size — she stands 5 feet 1 inch, tiny compared to her commonly lanky competition — she is the current World Champion in the women’s 100-meter sprint. But it isn’t pure speed that makes her push herself harder; it’s time. And to alter time, you need to refine technique.
“If you look at the majority of the female athletes who are competing, we all have speed,” Fraser-Pryce, 29, explains. “When four or five or six or eight of us are in a race closely together, it will come down to who will break in terms of technique.” By paying attention to the minute movements of her body coming off the blocks, such as the placement of her head at the start of the first phase of the sprint (the drive phase), she begins to shave one tenth of a second from her time. In Beijing, in 2008, Fraser-Pryce sprinted 100 meters in 10.78 seconds. At 21 years old, she became the fastest woman in the world, and the first Jamaican woman in history to win gold in that event. Just a year prior, no one would’ve expected it.
Fraser-Pryce was born on December 27, 1986, to a single mother in Waterhouse, a rough-around-the-edges district of Kingston, Jamaica, known for its football club and for producing more reggae legends than perhaps any other part of the city. The only daughter in a tight-knit family of four, Fraser-Pryce grew up under the watchful eye of her young mother, Maxine. Because of rowdy men and gang trouble, Maxine would make Fraser-Pryce come straight home after school, and if anyone hollered at her along the way, Maxine would reprimand them. But Maxine’s positive influence wasn’t limited to daily discipline; as a young woman, Fraser-Pryce’s mother also ran, until becoming pregnant with her eldest son, Omar. And Fraser-Pryce credits her mother as being the biggest reason why she runs.
Under the strict care of her coach, Stephen Francis, Fraser-Pryce has honed her technique to become a gold medalist many times over (she is also the first woman in history to win three 100-meter World Championships). “It wasn’t natural for me to run the way I run. I learned my techniques,” she explains. Fraser-Pryce recalls that, when she started competing, she “was almost running on [her] face.” Francis had to intervene. “My coach had to get me to get my knees up. I remember one evening I was at training and I wasn’t getting the technique properly,” she continues. “He sent me on the straight to do 100 high knees. I spent the whole time doing the high knees until I got it right.”
In 2008, having sharpened her start, her first stride, the placement of her arms, all the phases of the sprint, Fraser-Pryce beat the odds to surpass the existing Jamaican favorite in the 100-meter national trials. Following her gold in Beijing, Fraser-Pryce went on to place first at the 2009 IAAF World Championships. She took gold again in the 100 meters in London 2012, and then there are those additional World Championships in 2013 and 2015. A triumph this summer would make her the first athlete to ever win back to back-to-back-to-back in the 100 meters.
Despite her incredible achievements, Fraser-Pryce has yet to run the 100 meters in less than a 10.7. The 10.6 — a bar surpassed only once in the female history of the race — eludes her. “But I know it’s there,” she says. “And each year I get into this shape where I feel like I’m going to destroy things. I’m waiting and waiting. It’s almost as if I’m knocking at the door. I definitely believe that 2016, God willing, will be the year for that, because I’m
The personal milestones concern her most; her gaze remains inward. In 2008, she didn’t realize she was the first Jamaican woman to win gold at the 100 meters because she hasn’t paid much attention to the history of track and field. She is focused entirely on her body and its performance. Sprinting, as Frazer-Pryce articulates, is a kind of unbelievable attention to minutiae, the stuff the rest of us don’t pay attention to — it’s about tenths of a second as a way of life. “My focus is just very different,” she admits. “You feel all of your phases. Because of how the body is, you can feel it, like a sixth sense. So I focus on nailing each phase properly, and if I’m able to nail each phase properly, then I know that’s history.”
When she’s made history in the past, her joy is unmistakable. Her almost clinical approach to training and her thoughts on technique fail to prepare you for the sight of Fraser-Pryce falling to the ground after a win, collapsing like her small frame isn’t enough to support the energy of her smile. A post-race interview from the 100 meters at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin showed Fraser-Pryce practically yipping with happiness as she tried in vain to describe with words her emotions upon winning. It was an infectious display of taking satisfaction in a sport that is poised to galvanize global fans this summer, especially in a country that has claimed gold in both the men’s and women’s 100 meters in the past two games and once again endeavors to dominate the event’s medal stand.