As a first-year class one athlete in 2007, Jamaica's Nickel Ashmeade played second fiddle to other schoolboy sprinters in his class and below. He was beaten by teammate Yohan Blake at the all-island high school athletic championships (Champs), by Calabar High's Ramone McKenzie at the Carifta Games and by Herbert Morrison's Dexter Lee at the World Youth Championships.
Right after Champs 2007, Nickel's coach Danny Hawthrone, a senior lecturer at G.C. Foster College, told
to "grab him now because he'll be the one to watch next year." Then, as if the St. Jago High School senior was tired of being upstaged, Ashmeade stepped up his game and ran out from backstage, into the spotlight and into the hearts and minds of track fans. And so enquiring minds want to know what Hawthorne saw in his young charge that made him so confident in his prediction.
"He was always in the shadows of Yohan. I changed the program a little, which changed his attitude toward training and pulled him out," Hawthorne said, noting that Ashmeade's improvement could be attributed to his new focus on the training program, which had him working harder at the beginning of the year.
Well over a year ago, too, Ashmeade himself said he was working on changing his come-from-behind habit, even though it was hard for him to get a good start and continue that momentum.
Champs 2008 was in March as usual, and Nickel Ashmeade stepped onto the track this time with passion in his eyes and a brand new mind-set that initially played out in the Class One Boys 100m final. He ran past the 2007 Carifta and World Junior relay gold medalist Winston Barnes first, then went by Lee, the 2007 World Youth 100m gold medalist who had beaten him before, to take silver in 10.34 secs. behind the reigning schoolboy sprinter Yohan Blake.
But it was the 200m final that provided plenty excitement. While TV viewers and spectators in the stadium awaited a clash between Blake and McKenzie, Ashmeade had other ideas in mind.
Coming off the bend behind the two, Ashmeade entered the home straight with obvious determination in his every stride, and motored down Blake just as McKenzie had surged into the lead. With Blake out of the way, Ashmeade went after McKenzie as if with a vengeance and caught and nipped him on the line in one of the most dramatic dips of all time in a race of its kind at Champs. He clocked 21.04 secs. to snatch victory.
His goal is to be a chef or business administrator
and he wants track to help him get that career.
Subsequently, at the 2008 Carifta Games in St. Kitts & Nevis, Ashmeade showed that his runs at Champs were no fluke. He took the 200m final in a stunning 20.16 secs. And although the wind behind the field was a powerful 5.2 meters per second, well beyond the legal limit of 2.0 meters per second, his nearest rival, McKenzie, was a distant 20.33 secs.
Ashmeade has been a key member of the medal-winning sprint, mile and medley relay teams for both St. Jago and Jamaica at Carifta, Penn Relays, 2007 World Youth (medley bronze) and 2008 World Junior Championships. He was a member of his school's record-breaking 4x100m team that ran 39.78 secs. at Champs last year.
Fans who saw Ashmeade run at the 2008 Penn Relays will remember him as the anchor who after getting the baton with a big lead, caused the crowd to go from hot to cold in seconds, from shouting and screaming in a frenzy to murmurs of worry, when his rivals caught up with him on the backstretch. But he was only playing cat-and-mouse with the other runners; before long, he took off at the start of the second 200m mark and showed his half-lap speed and strength as he led the field home. This sent the nervous crowd back into stomping and screaming with excitement.
Having won bronze (20.76 secs.) at the 2007 World Youth Track & Field Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Ashmeade headed to the World Junior Championships July 2008 in Bydgoszcz, Poland, with winning on his mind. He went into the finals as the second fastest qualifier (20.83) from the semi-final which he won, but lost by a whisker of .01 second in a nail-biting finish to Frenchman Christophe Lamaitre. Ashmeade was timed at 20.84 secs.
The 2009 season hasn't been so smooth for the determined and focused star from Spanish Town, Jamaica's old capital. He broke his arm at his school's sports day in February and subsequently missed Carifta Trials that same month. However, in late March he competed with a bandaged right arm and was second in the Class One 100m and third in the 200m. And things only got better for him for the St. Jago track team captain. He was later drafted for Carifta, and with arm still bandaged, competed and took the Under-20 boys 200m in a wind-aided 20.56 secs., again beating McKenzie. He also ran the ran the back stretch of the winning Under 20 4x100m and anchored the 4x400m to silver. At Penns this year, he bounced back from a baton mishap in the 4x100m heats to anchor St. Jago High School to victory in the boys 4×400m. He repeated the performance at the Reebok Grand Prix in New York late May.
There have been fan speculations about where he goes from here. One common view is that he is strong and should focus on the 400m. "Really?" he asked. "It's too early to tell though. Right now I run the 100m and 400m for fun but I take the 200m seriously."
Some Big Achievements
World Youth 2007 = 100m silver; 200m bronze; medley relay silver
World Junior 2008 = 200m silver; 4x100m silver.
Champs 2008 = 4x400m open gold; 100m silver, 200m gold
Carifta 2008 = Under 20 4x400m gold; 200m gold; 4x100m gold
Penn Relays 2008 & 2009 = 4x400m gold
Reebok Grand Prix 2009 = 4x400 gold
Before going to St. Jago, Ashmeade competed at Central Champs for Ocho Rios High School where he ran a 100m personal best of 11:00 secs. He transferred to St. Jago before Champs 2005 but had to bypass competing that year, due to eligibility requirements. In 2006, his first year in Class 2, Ashmeade ran 11.05 secs. in the 100m final for last place and 22.44 secs. in the 200m for sixth place. But with Donald Quarrie as his motivator in his head, the teenager who hails from St. Ann on Jamaica's north coast, would only improve with time, focus and the right attitude as he kept his eye on the prize.
Another big driving force for Ashmeade is his career goal. "I want to be a professional chef or a business administrator," he said; and he wants track to help him get that career. "My mother and father can't afford the money, so I'd like to get a scholarship to help me."
Well, having passed English Language, Biology, Social Studies, Principle of Business, Food & Nutrition, and Home Management in CXC (Caribbean Examinations Council) and pursuing three subjects in CAPE (Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination), Ashmeade seems well in line for the career he desires.
But whether he goes abroad to school or remain in Jamaica is up to Coach Hawthorne. "My parents are very proud of me and support me 100%. So whatever decision I make with my coach, they are behind me." One thing is sure though: if he goes abroad he'd never jump ship to run for another country.
The only son for his parents and the third of four siblings, Nickel would like to coach his 'baby' sister, Vanessa, whom he says has talent and who at four years old was showing signs of becoming a runner.
The rising star, who likes to sing gospel, play football and cricket, and read the Bible and other Christian literature, has realized that he could not face all challenges without the help of Christ. A Christian (Church of God) since July 24, 2004, Ashmeade says he has remained faithful to God "because without God you are nothing." "He has kept me thus far and I have to give Him thanks."
As an athlete in the prime of his youth, Nickel Ashmeade still manages to squeeze in some activities that his peers do. But how does he handle the status as a successful athlete when many of his kind literally relish the rush by girls? "If it comes along, I just go with the flow at times, but you have to know your [moral] limits," he says. And if limits come down to rejecting advances, which could make him look soft, Nikel says: "I suppose you have to know how to check your roll and stand up for yourself."