Boldon impressed by "Special Crop" of World Junior sprinters

Zarnel Hughes winning Jamaican High School Championships

EUGENE, Ore. – Twenty-two years ago, when a wide-eyed Ato Boldon settled into his airplane seat, headed for the 1992 IAAF World Junior Championships in Seoul, South Korea, he had no idea what the future had in store for him.

“I didn’t even know what it was I had qualified for,” he said.

After all, just five weeks earlier, the 18-year-old Boldon had represented his native Trinidad & Tobago at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where he failed to get out of the quarterfinal heats in the 100m and 200m.

Upon his subsequent return to the junior circuit – athletes age 19 and under – he was not at all certain that he was about to embark on a highly successful track and field career.

“Here I was, the only athlete from my country (going to World Juniors),” he said. “For me, on the plane to the meet, I was not convinced that this is what I was going to do.”

One week later, all that changed.

While competing in the same venue which played host to the 1988 Summer Olympics, Boldon won titles in the 100m and 200m to become the first double sprint champion in IAAF World Junior Championships history.

On the flight back home, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

Ato Boldon wins 200 meters at 1997 IAAF World Championships

Ato Boldon, of Trinidad & Tobago, raises his arms in triumph after winning the gold medal in the 200 meters at the 1997 IAAF World Championships in Athens, Greece (Photo by sporting-heroes.net)

“For me, the World Juniors solidified and reinforced my belief that this is what I was supposed to be doing,” Boldon said. “As a double world champion for my age group, it told me that if I didn’t have bad injuries, or rested on my laurels, I could be the best in the world as a senior athlete as well.”

Those dreams would come to pass for Boldon.

As a senior at UCLA, he set the NCAA Championship meet record of 9.92 seconds in winning the 100 meters in the final race of his collegiate career at Hayward Field in 1996. That mark stood for 15 years before Florida State’s Ngoni Makusha clocked 9.89 at the 2011 NCAA meet in Des Moines, Iowa.

By the end of Boldon’s illustrious career, which was cut short due to injuries suffered in a car crash in 2002, he had collected four individual Olympic medals in the 100m and 200m, and four IAAF World Championship medals, including a gold medal in the 200m in 1997.

Today, the 40-year-old Boldon works for NBC Sports as one of the top track and field analysts in the world. He was at Hayward Field last week to cover the Pepsi dual meet between Oregon and Arizona for the Pac-12 Network.

With the IAAF World Junior Championships coming to Hayward Field, July 22-27, the first time ever on U.S. soil, I asked Boldon to explain the significance of the meet.

“The World Juniors provide track and field fans a chance to look into the future and see who the next stars are that are coming to the sport,” he said. “Athletes like Kirani James and Usain Bolt did very well at the World Juniors, and you could tell they would be future Olympic champions.”

This year, Boldon is dialed in on what could be the next generation of global sprint stars.

In the past year, the World Junior 100m record of 10.01 seconds has been tied on two occasions by Japan’s Yoshihide Kiryu (April, 2013) and most recently, Baylor freshman Trayvon Bromell, who ran that time at the Texas Relays on March 29.

In addition, Zharnel Hughes, from the tiny Caribbean island of Anguilla, shattered Yohan Blake’s school record of 10.21 with a winning time of 10.12 in the 100m at the Jamaican High School Championships on March 28. He was followed closely by Jamaica’s Jevaughn Minzie at 10.16.

Bromell, Hughes, Minzie and Kiryu are all 18 years old and thus eligible for the IAAF World Junior Championships to be held in TrackTown USA this summer.

Time and experience have taught Boldon to be wary of young sprint prodigies.

However, given how early in the season those marks were posted, and how little wind was behind those efforts (+1.5 for Bromell; +1.3 for Hughes and Minzie), he believes this could be a “special crop” of young sprinters.

“I’m from the Caribbean,” Boldon said. “There are thousands of kids who were supposed to be the next Usain Bolt, but it never materialized … I’m allowing myself to hope and wish that this crop of special kids is actually going to buck the trend and realize their potential.

“To run 10.01 at 18 years old, that’s impressive. That’s not hyping up somebody who doesn’t have credentials. To me, when you look beneath the surface, and see the details; how early in the season and how little wind, those are really, really impressive times.”

Will we see a sub-10-second 100m at this year’s IAAF World Junior Championships at Hayward Field?

Only time will tell.

Overall, the meet is expected to attract 1,600 athletes under the age of 20 from 180 countries, and when they converge on TrackTown USA this summer, they would be wise to heed Boldon’s advice.

“Have fun,” he said. “Learn as much as you can about your fellow athletes, because you will be friends for a long time. Understand that if it goes well, and you’re good at a young age, that’s fine. But if it goes poorly, you still have time to figure it out, and that doesn’t preclude you from becoming a champion later on.”