The Jamaican sprinting star on defying expectations, proving a point and continuing to enjoy her career
“I write my own story,” says Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. And what a story it has been so far. Two Olympic and nine world championships gold medals have provided the headlines but they only tell part of this sprinting superstar’s tale.
The 34-year-old insists there are still a few chapters to be written, too, with training at her home in Kingston, Jamaica, geared towards tackling the 100m/200m double in Tokyo this year.
If Fraser-Pryce had listened to the received ‘wisdom’ when she took a break from the sport in 2017 to have her son, Zyon, it’s very likely she wouldn’t have stood on a start line again. Trying to begin a comeback, aged 32, would not end well, she was told.
The 2008 and 2012 100m Olympic champion thought differently and, instead, proved an emphatic point by winning the 100m world title in Doha. For Fraser-Pryce, that golden moment at the Khalifa Stadium felt like it was about more than simply winning a race.
“It definitely meant a lot because, as women, there are so many things that we have to deal with and so many curve balls that people throw at us,” she says. “They talk about you having a baby and coming back to competition as if it’s impossible. It may not have happened often but it shouldn’t stop an athlete from continuing their career.
“To be able to come back from that, and being 32 at the time, is another story when people automatically think that when you touch 30 it’s time to sit down when, truth be told, you are a lot more experienced and a lot of people actually perform better in their thirties.”
“They talk about you having a baby and coming back to competition as if it’s impossible. It may not have happened often but it shouldn’t stop an athlete from continuing their career.”
She adds: “It’s more than just coming back from having a baby but also understanding, as a woman, how important it is to have representation and to have women represent us at every different level and every stage in life – and still be able to succeed at the highest point to give women more hope.
“Everything has to be defined for women, whereas for men it’s almost as if they don’t age or their career is for a lifetime until they decide when [to stop], but for us others want to decide when we should exit.
“For me it’s just good to still be part of the conversation and to inspire other athletes coming in.”
Growing up in Waterhouse, a poor area of Kingston, Fraser-Pryce was seemingly destined to be nothing more than, as she herself puts it, “a statistic”.
She defied that notion by eventually going to one of the best high schools in the country, as well being the first person in her immediate family to complete a college degree.
It seems hard to imagine now, given her legendary status, but there was also a time when she wasn’t wanted by her country.
Back in 2008, at the Jamaican championships, Fraser-Pryce sprang a surprise by coming second in the 100m. That booked her a ticket to the Beijing Olympics but many wanted the reigning 200m Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown, who had finished fourth in the race and out of the qualifying positions, to be selected instead of the then inexperienced and largely untested 22-year-old.
She defied that by becoming the first Jamaican woman to win 100m Olympic gold, a title she would retain four years later in London.
Then there was the toe injury which hampered her attempt to make it a hat-trick in Rio (she still won the bronze medal) before that break in 2017 to become a mother.
“I’ve had many situations or circumstances where people question your ability or your existence or what you’re supposed to do,” she says.
“These are the moments where I seem to excel, when everything is stacked against me. At the end of the day I write my own story.
“Things have not always been smooth but I’m very optimistic. I tend to internalise my journey and everything that has happened and I always try to look at the positives, to see how a situation can help me rise. You never know what you are capable of unless you are pushed.”
“I always try to look at the positives, to see how a situation can help me rise. You never know what you are capable of unless you are pushed.”
During the pandemic, Fraser-Pryce found herself occupying a number of roles as she and Zyon spent more time at home than usual.
“I have had a training partner, I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been playing WWE – you name it, I’ve been doing it to keep him entertained,” she laughs.
The family time has been cherished, however, as is the chance to enjoy every moment that remains in her sporting career. Motherhood has brought with it a sense of perspective.
“Before, I was always tense in the sense that I always thought everything started and ended with a medal and I never really enjoyed the process very much,” she admits.
“I didn’t get to enjoy my victories as much. It was ‘okay, I won, I need to start focusing on next year’ instead of enjoying the moment and soaking it in.
“In the end it worked but I still never made enough memories off the track. I think what changed was the break that I had when I had my son. It was just a new outlook, a new perspective and I saw that I could enjoy the moment and still be a champion.
“It’s about balance. You need to refresh and you need to enjoy the fruits of your labour because it is a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of commitment, a lot of 400s that I didn’t want to do!”
That work continues, but not with any preconceived expectations lurking in the background.
“I don’t try to set limits and I know what I’m capable of,” says Fraser-Pryce. “I’m definitely an athlete that listens to my body. I pay attention to what’s going on, how I feel and how my training is going. Maybe that’s one of my secrets is that I really take care of my body. I take care of the tool that gets the job done.”
Fraser-Pryce has been doing that job at the top level for quite some time now. Is there any secret to her longevity? Any skills or habits which have served her particularly well?
“It’s about owning the gift, owning the skill that you’ve got and giving yourself the best chance to showcase that gift,” she says. “I also think that being grounded and having the right people in your corner. Having humility and gratitude, never taking anything for granted and understanding that I should be grateful for every moment I have because it could have been different.
“Never stepping on anyone to get to the next level, appreciating every single person I come in contact with on this journey and knowing that where I am they could have been and where they are I could have been.”
» The full version of this interview appears in the March issue of AW magazine, which is available to buy here