EUGENE, Ore. – Although she is among the best in the world in the 400-meter hurdles and has an excellent chance of making the U.S. Olympic team for Rio de Janeiro this summer, Shamier Little did not harbor five-ring dreams while growing up in Chicago.
“No, it wasn’t something I paid attention to,’’ the Texas A&M junior said. “I was focused on my little AAU meets. The Olympics was never a dream of mind when I was little.’’
Little is no longer little. She’s 21, with a growing list of accomplishments on her resume that include a
2015 World Championships silver medal and the second-fastest time run that year, a 2014 World Junior gold medal and two NCAA championships.
It will be a pretty significant upset if Little does not make it three straight NCAA titles next month at Hayward Field, where the bespectacled hurdler has had some of her greatest moments in winning the World Juniors and consecutive NCAA events. However, she’ll have to be aware of Arizona’s Nnenya Hailey, who has run 54.98 seconds to Little’s 55.14 this season.
Despite her run of success at Hayward Field, Little hates to travel. She’ll suck it up, though, with another NCAA championship and a berth on the U.S. Olympic team at stake over the next couple of months.
“I’m getting used to it,’’ she said of the travel from College Station to Eugene for the competition to be held June 8-11. “It’s going to be part of my career for the next few years. I like the facility itself.’’
She’ll like it even more come July if she makes the Olympic team. The U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field will be held July 1-10 at Hayward Field.
“I’m very excited,’’ Little said. “It’s something I think about every day, but it can lead to super-high expectations and a lot of stress. That would be the biggest accomplishment yet and all the hard work would pay off.
“I’m thinking of how many more races I have until the Trials. That moment can make or break me.’’
Little’s events coach at Texas A&M, Vince Anderson, said, “Yes. Yes, of course,’’ when asked if he expects his pupil to make the Olympic team but quickly added, “That’s a tall order for any person in any event. I don’t care who you are. Making the U.S. Olympic team is the hardest team in the world to make. You have to do it on that day. There can be no injuries or pitfalls. It’s a delicate balance.’’
Fans at Hayward Field love to celebrate excellence and have had several occasions to cheer Little as she made victorious tours over the one-lap barriers the last two years. She ran her personal best in TrackTown USA a year ago in winning the NCAA title in 53.74 seconds. For you stat nerds, that makes her the 39th fastest competitor ever with the 57th fastest time.
Depending how her season unfolds, Little might have a chance to take aim at the collegiate record of 53.21 set by Stanford’s Kori Carter in 2013. Out there on the horizon are the American record of 52.47 by Lashinda Demus in 2011 and the world record of 52.34 by Russia’s Yuliya Pechenkina in 2003.
If the season progresses as expected, Anderson said Little should be ready to run 53.50, a time exceeded by only nine other American women. A personal best of 23.17 in the 200m this spring augurs well for Little in the long hurdles, Anderson said.
“She’s ahead of where she was last year,’’ the coach said. “She’s poised to do something good if she remains on the same trajectory. The thing about Shamier is she’s an extraordinary athlete. I’m really not sure what her limits are.’’
Little’s trajectory has been in ascent ever since she enrolled at Texas A&M. If she finishes off her junior season with another NCAA title and goes on to make the Olympic team, there’s really no reason for her to return to school. A pro contract will surely beckon for Little after the NCAA meet.
“I don’t know,’’ Little said, vaguely, when asked about turning pro. “It’s something I have to take day by day and discuss with my family and coaches.’’
Little became a 400m hurdler through a process of elimination and combination when she failed to make the U.S. team for the World Youth Games in the 100m hurdles while in high school in Chicago.
“It was my junior year in high school when I gave it a try after I didn’t make the World Youth team,’’ she said. “I tried the 400 hurdles. It was the fact it was a combination of the hurdles and the 400, so I didn’t have to make too much of a sacrifice to run.’’
After her silver medal at the World Championships in Beijing last year, Little was ranked No. 2 in the world by Track & Field News magazine. At 5-foot-9, she’s as tall as or taller than the other nine women in the 400m hurdles rankings for 2015. That should equate to an easier time stepping over the ten 30-inch barriers around the track.
Not for nothing has the 400m hurdles been called the toughest event in track and field for the speed, stamina, strength and technique necessary to do it well.
“It’s very demanding,’’ Little said.
In working with Little the past three seasons, Anderson has concluded, “We’re still trying to determine what her upper reaches are, and she hasn’t gotten there yet. She’s an extraordinary 400 hurdles athlete. She’s always had amazing instincts for the event.’’
Likewise, Anderson appreciates Little’s intelligence and “quirky, irreverent sense of humor,’’ saying, “The thing that surprised me is the more I work with her, and the deeper you peel, the smarter she becomes. I haven’t found her limits yet. She’s really plugged in socially. She’s not an insulated, narrow-minded college student. She’s very, very funny. Very intelligent. Very strong-willed.
“It’s a perfect personality for a world-class athlete.’’
One who has grown up right in front of all those knowledgeable fans at Hayward Field.
For Little, the best is surely still to come.