Exclusive! Elaine Thompson-Herah: "Disappointment makes you better and stronger"

After a long battle with injury, the double Olympic champion is hopeful of getting back in shape for the Tokyo Olympics where she is targeting three gold medals.
By Evelyn Watta

Elaine Thompson-Herah went into the 2019 World Athletics Championships as one of the women to beat in the sprints.

After her astonishing treble at Rio 2016 that included the sprints double and a silver in the 4 x100m relays, the Jamaican was keen to win her first individual world title in Doha.

She, however, opted to pull out of the Championships due to a nagging achilles injury that has bothered her since 2018. This was just after a fourth-place finish in the 100m final.

The double world medallist recently returned to track posting 10.73 seconds (3.0m/s) in July and followed it up with a 10.88 seconds dash in Kingston on 8 August, the second-fastest of 2020 so far.

In an exclusive interview with the Olympic Channel from Kingston, the first Jamaican woman to win both sprints at the same Olympics, opened up on dealing with disappointments over the last three years, and on her struggle to get back into shape as she hopes to lower her PB to 10.5 seconds.

“Disappointment makes you better and stronger. I have learnt how to use the disappointment to motivate me, keep working hard and getting better.”

The 28-year-old also spoke of how much she admires her teammate Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and feels great to be listed amongst Jamaican greats like the eight-time Olympic champion Usain Bolt.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

'Be prepared for anything'

Olympic Channel [OC]: What has this difficult period of the Covid-19 pandemic taught you as an athlete?

Elaine Thompson-Herah [ETH]: It has taught me a lot. We have to be prepared for anything because nobody expected this to happen this year. I mean, we were training and preparing our mind for the Olympics this year and it hasn't happened. So whatever goals that we had set, we had to push them back because you must set your goals no matter what. We still have to keep training because we have to keep fit.

As athletes, you lose your fitness in one or two days, so you have to keep fit, no matter what. Even if it's staying inside doing some abs, some crunches, you have to stay fit. As athletes, we put ourselves on a big platform to make our brand international.

OC: How easy was it to plan your season and keep racing this year?

ETH: We still must move on. We can’t just sit down waiting for corona to go away. So with all these officials and these people that are organising the races and putting us on the Diamond League, they have to do that because some of us are under contracts. Most of us have a certain number of races to run for the season and the year.

But some athletes don’t have a contract. So, they are the ones I sympathise with because they have no contract, no allowances, no money, no nothing. For us who have contracts, we have to take some risks and run some races because we have a life to maintain until we retire.

Elaine Thompson of Jamaica during the 100m final at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.

Turning Doha disappointments into power

OC: It’s good to see you back on track after withdrawing from Doha with injury. And you are already posting some fast times despite the late start to the season. You opened your season with a 10.73 seconds in Kingston in July and followed it up with a 10.88 and 22.19 in the 200m in August. How did it feel to be back racing competitively?

ETH: I was pretty impressed by my performance and I was super excited to be back, even though we didn't have a big crowd cheering us on when you are in that lactic mode. I produced a pretty good time in windy conditions. I must keep on putting in the work and getting the races because everybody knows that as an athlete you have to keep racing. And when you race you get faster; you get better and you can correct things along the line. I felt great regardless of all what’s happening at this time, but I have to use this year to help me to go forward for next year. And the main key is to stay focused healthy and just stick to my plans.

OC: Were you ready to get back on track this year and defend your Olympic titles if the Games went ahead as scheduled in July?

ETH: I was disappointed with Tokyo postponement because Olympics comes every four years, and we're in this four-year barrier. I am a double Olympic champion. I wanted to go back and retain the titles. I was disappointed when I heard the news, but happy at the same time because our health is most important.

I also started to train late, and I think that I probably I may have had to rush to get in shape to go to the Olympics. So it gives me more time to heal and prepare better for next year even. There's going to be five years in between the Games. Does it matter? We get more time.

Anybody that may have injuries, or pain or going through a struggle, they have this year to put everything together for the upcoming season next year.

This season helps us to work on things, work on our weak areas, set our goals. Even though, they are set, we can set more goals and keep working on them, reset and continue to work hard.

OC: How keen are you to put behind the disappointment at the 2019 World Championships in Doha?

ETH: Disappointments do come, but I have to continue to work hard because no athlete goes into a championship to lose. I didn't go to a championship to lose. It was beyond my control. Because sometimes when you have pain you don’t want to share it on social media and share it with everybody. When you have pain, you think you can still do your best. I always tell myself that even if I am having pain, I am going to give my 100%, Even if it's not going to be 100%, I know I am going to do my best.

Every athlete has their obstacles that they are facing.

I've been facing lots of obstacles for the past three years and it's been a battle between myself and injury.

But the key, I have to stay strong because sometimes maybe it's a bit distressing to be a top athlete facing all these obstacles, you can't produce the times that you normally produce and you may not be able to get a medal at a championship and someday you may sit and wonder, 'why me? or why this is happening?' I can't do anything about what’s happened in the past. I have to continue working hard and move on, because I am a top athlete and I just have to work my way back onto to the top. And I know one day this achilles pain, and all goes away.

Disappointment makes you better and stronger because I know what I'm facing is this one lingering injury. The main thing is putting in the work and you will get the result that you want one day.

I have learnt how to use the disappointment to motivate me, keep working hard and getting better.

Eyes on three gold medals in Tokyo

OC: What are your plans for 2021, the Olympic year?

ETH: My next year I have to work on my weak areas and hopefully there will be an Olympics and it doesn't have to be pushed or postponed. I have to get myself back in top form and it's not hard to set your goals, the hard part is to get back. I want to go and to retain my titles.

My dream is to get there and recapture my titles and probably get three gold medals.

So I have to keep pressing and pressing, keep working hard until I achieve my goals.

But it takes on lots and lots of hard work. I'm working hard to dip below 10.7 seconds because I am 10.7 PB if I get 10.6, 10.5... but I have to keep working each season to see if I can get close to that.

I am working on both my 100m times and 200m. I just need to take each season a step at a time.

OC: How is it racing during the era of some of the greatest runners in Jamaica? Do you sometimes feel like you are living in the shadow of the great Usain Bolt or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce?

ETH: When I was growing up, I didn't think I would come this far because I normally look up to them and I want to be like them. I had this passion since I was small to be an athlete. When I got to the MVP [Track and Field Club in Kingston], I saw so many stars there. They were already running Diamond League, going into Championships, and I always wanted to be like them. So I aimed to work hard and be like them. Pretty much they inspired me to get better. I don't think I was in their shadow. I was just so excited to be one of them, very excited.

I don't see it myself to be a rival to Shelly-Ann or any other athlete, because I looked up to them when I was growing up and just seeing myself to be in that category, honestly, every day I sit down and I say, ‘I didn't see myself here. How did I choose this life?’ This life just came. I didn't choose it.

But it feels great to be in that category, Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, myself and others to be amongst these top Jamaican athletes, it feels great.

OC: The women’s sprinting is changing and we are now seeing athletes from countries not usually considered sprinting powerhouses in the finals. In the 100m and 200m in Doha we had finalists from the Gambia, Switzerland, and Great Britain. Is Jamaica and USA’s dominance threatened?

ETH: Honestly, I feel great to see other countries coming on the sprinting map to represent themselves and their country, because sometimes it's always the rivalry between the Americans and Jamaicans. Now, we have Great Britain, we have Ivory Coast, Kenya.

You have all these countries coming together, lining up together, racing, putting themselves and their countries out there. As an athlete, I think that is exciting and great to see them coming in and to deliver and do and perform well.

Dina Asher-Smith of Great Britain, silver, and Marie-Josée Ta Lou of the Ivory Coast, bronze, celebrate after the 100 Metres final during day three of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.

'My journey hasn't fully started yet'

OC: How is your new life as Mrs Herah? [Elaine Thompson married Deron Herah, a former athlete and coach on 2 November 2019]

ETH: [Laughs] It has helped me to improve a lot because I have more responsibilities now, I'm a wife, not a girlfriend, so I have to play my active role as a wife. My husband motivates me because he is someone I can sit and talk with. And that is important. You have to communicate [in marriage]. I know I can count on him and say anything to him, how I feel or my days going and stuff like that. He enjoys cooking, so does most of the cooking, but I cook sometimes.

OC: Elaine you do like to dress up and I must say you have a great sense of style and fashion. Where does this come from?

ETH: Oh yes, I do love fashion. I like the dressing up part and the design. I like to be fancy.

I wish I could do more. But because of my work, I don't have much time to go out and put the fashion out there. But one day when I get the time, the chance I will put more fashion out there. My workload is so hectic now, when I come home I just want to eat then sleep.

OC: And how do you decide on which colour to wear on your hair?

ETH: I think it depends on your mood and I think is the one mood and vibe you are in. I am still working on what I will do for Tokyo.

OC: Spiritual wellness is an important part of your life. Most of your social media posts are always full of motivational messages and quotes.

ETH: They do mean a lot to me because a lot of persons look at my page. Because we are role models, celebrities. So I think it's good to inspire others because I looked up to so many other people growing up.

My role is to inspire the younger ones because they turn to us for motivation and stuff like that. Sometimes I may put up something, and some person needed that for that day.

Most of the times when I post motivational quotes, somebody DMs and say, ‘Thank you. I needed that'. They probably were in a bad state or weren't in a good mood, but just with a message we get to share different energy.

I like to bring good energy to people. Nothing negative, just positive.

I just want to continue to have my starting journey to be as good as the ending journey. And I think my journey hasn’t fully started as yet. But looking back, I think I've achieved some of my goals and I'm still working to achieve more. That I can set probably a history or a mark for the younger ones to come up and say, ‘Ok, I want to be like her, she was a role model, she was a legend.’