‘My dad burnt my training gear’ – Tobi Amusan on road to 100m hurdles world record
Tobi Amusan has become a world record holder and a world champion in the 100m hurdles, but she still remembers her father burning her running gear.
A fourth-placed finisher at both the 2019 World Athletics Championships and the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Nigerian’s persistence has finally seen her engrave her name into the track and field record books.
The 25-year-old ran a time of 12.12 seconds – shaving almost a tenth of a second off the previous world record – in the semi-finals of the World Championships in Oregon before going on to win gold in the final.
However, it always seemed as if the odds were stacked against her running career from the beginning.
“My parents are both teachers, they are strict disciplinarians,” Amusan told BBC Sport Africa.
“When you grow up in such a family, they feel you should focus on school. And being a female, they think you are going to go astray, lose focus and all of that.
“But because my mum saw what I didn’t see [in] myself, she felt she could give me a chance. And she kept telling me not to disappoint her.
“My mum would tell my dad I was going to church while I sneaked to practice or tell him I was going to a school debate while I went to an out-of-state competition. That’s where it all started.
“My dad got really mad one time when he found out [I was running]. He burnt all my training gear and told my mum that’s the last time he wanted to see me in a stadium.”
Fast forward several years, and tears of joy flowed freely as Amusan stood on the top step of the podium at Hayward Field on a historic day for Nigeria, which saw the country’s national anthem played at the World Athletics Championships for the first time ever.
“It has not sunk in yet, maybe the magnitude of what just happened it will hit me later,” she said.
“I go out there and put 100% in every championship and it’s just never enough. Every time it’s a fourth-place finish.
“Then this time my 100% is not only a gold medal but a world record. Trusting myself just made everything easier. I’m thankful to the man above for keeping me healthy. When God says it’s your time, it’s your time.”
A champion hurdler via football and relay running
Her father may have doubted her, but Amusan has always had plenty of belief in her own ability.
Back in November 2016 she tweeted: “Unknown now but soon I will be unforgettable, I will persist until I succeed.” That message has remained pinned to the top of her social media profile and provides a summary of her rise to glory in Eugene.
Yet her journey into athletics started as somewhat of an accident at Our Lady of Apostles Secondary School in Ogun state, Nigeria.
“I used to be on the soccer team, but I would be all over the place on the pitch,” Amusan said.
“My coach suggested I go try out on the track team and I became the fastest girl on the team, and that’s how I got on the school relay team.”
She went on to make the national squad for the 2013 Africa Youth Games in Nigeria, but she missed out on a place on the relay team and went on to win a bronze in the long jump instead.
Competing over hurdles was another unexpected switch in Amusan’s journey to stardom, and is where she would truly break through on the senior stage.
“The officials were always picking who they wanted in the relay team. Sometimes they would say I didn’t have the experience so they would pick whoever was their favourite,” she explained.
“It was a lot of pressure on a young athlete. I considered quitting. I really wanted to travel with the senior national team and some coaches told me to try the hurdles.”
A move to the USA and fourth-placed finishes
She had to overcome doubts from officials in Nigerian athletics before picking up her first senior hurdles title at the African Games in Congo-Brazzaville in 2015.
“The typical Nigerian approach is to make you feel like you cannot make it,” she said.
“I wasn’t expected to medal at those Games. There were so many voices saying I couldn’t but I used that to show that I could – and that title changed my life.
“That’s how I got a scholarships to the United States. I can say that’s really when my athletics career began. I never dreamt of going to the United States. I just wanted to run fast and be one of the Nigerian greats.”
Since moving to attend the University of Texas, El Paso, Amusan has not looked back.
She won gold in the 100m hurdles at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, and later the same year took her first African Championships title on home soil in Asaba.
Yet at major global events, she would agonisingly miss out on medals – finishing fourth at the World Championships in Doha three years ago and then again in Tokyo last year.
“2019 was tough because I remember running the fastest time in the qualification rounds, around the same time in the semi-finals and the same time in the final,” she said.
“I ran so fast but wasn’t fast enough to get a medal. I was broken, I was devastated. That was one of the most horrible experiences.
“I moved on, and then came the Tokyo Olympics. Things just crumbled a month before when I strained my hamstring at practice.”
She has constant support from her mother, but her father has remained unfazed by her exploits.
“Honesty, he still doesn’t support me doing track,” she said.
“He just feels like there’s more to life than running around. Every time I call him when I’m at a competition he just says ‘Okay, do your best, God will help you’ and that’s it.”
The newly-minted world champion and record holder – who also picked up a cheque for $100,000 for her blistering showing in Oregon – will now defend her Commonwealth gold in Birmingham.
Given Amusan’s starting success, her father will surely embrace her achievements soon.