Jamaica's next sprint superstar?

Posted: April 26, 2009

The spirited Friday morning talk in the color-splashed Jamaican sector of Franklin Field's north grandstands had been all about whether Olympic hero Usain Bolt would be in Philadelphia this weekend.

Then suddenly, as a heat of the Penn Relays' boys' small-school 4x100 drew near, the conversation stopped. The men and women in green-and-gold T-shirts, jackets and hats rose in unison, as if they'd just heard the first notes of their island nation's anthem.

"Where is Nickel?" whispered a man whose prodigious dreadlocks were piled beneath a knit cap.

Nickel Ashmeade, the lanky, euphoniously named runner, wearing Jamaica's ubiquitous green and gold, would be on the second leg in a heat St. Jago's should have dominated.

Many on the tiny, track-obsessed Caribbean island that has supplanted the U.S. as the world's sprint king believe Ashmeade is the heir to Bolt, who succeeded Asafa Powell, who followed other Jamaican greats such as Donald Quarrie and Herb McKenley.

"Maybe there will never be another Usain," said Donald Bailey, who lives in St. Catherine's, just a sprint away from St. Jago's. "But this boy [Ashmeade] is coming on very strong. Now that he has dedicated himself to running, you can see that look of greatness in him."

In 2007, Ashmeade and St. Jago's won this event in a meet-record 39.96 seconds, the first sub-40 400 in the Relays' scholastic history. Since then he has earned a fistful of medals at two world youth championships and a growing reputation as Jamaica's next great sprinter.

His late-blooming success has led some to call him another Powell, whose 100-meter world record was shattered by Bolt in Beijing but whose high school career was less than sensational.

But it's Ashmeade's effortless, straight-up style, the passion aglow in his dark eyes, and his reputation for being a fitful trainer that have brought the comparisons to Bolt, who lit up the 2008 Olympics with three astounding gold-medal runs.

"People would tell me I wasn't as focused as I should be, but I couldn't see it," Ashmeade would say later Friday. "Now I realize the hard work it takes."

As the Penn Relays starter instructed first-leg runners to come set, Ashmeade shook his body and turned back toward the teammate who would hand him the baton, Andre Walsh.

Now 19, Ashmeade had finished second by eyelashes in the 200 meters at the last two youth world championships. At the 2008 CARFITA (Caribbean Free Trade Association) Games, he blew away a stacked junior 200 field in 20.16.

"As a senior, he should be a real factor [internationally]," said St. Jago's coach, Danny Hawthorne. "He has all the potential in the world."

Ashmeade grabbed the baton from Walsh, glided around the turn, and zoomed in on St. Jago's third-leg sprinter, Clayon Bailey.

But Bailey stepped on a track divider during the exchange. Their timing thrown off, the baton tumbled to the track.

Ashmeade's hands went to his head. He walked in tiny circles of disbelief. Finally, he wandered into the infield, heading instinctively, unconsciously toward the finish line.

The Jamaicans in the crowd gasped before shouting their disbelief. St. Jago's disqualification would ultimately keep the Jamaicans from sweeping the eight spots in the division's 4x100 final – as it was, they got seven.

Once the disappointment subsided, the jokes began.

"Nickel is supposed to be the next Usain Bolt, not the next Tyson Gay," joked Donald Bailey, referring to the American star's dropped baton in Beijing.

"Well, I suppose we'll have to wait to London [site of the 2012 Olympics] to see how his story turns out."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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