Zharnel Hughes’ nine-year odyssey from teen prodigy to world’s fastest man
This season, Zharnel Hughes went from a track and field what-if story, of potential not yet realized, to the world’s fastest man entering the world championships.
Hughes woke up in New York City on June 24 having not run a personal-best time in the 100m in five years, and not done so in the 200m in eight years.
Over the next 30 days, Hughes broke British records in the 100m and 200m that were nearly 30 years old. He said he correctly predicted his times before the races and will show you the journal entries to prove it. He also won his first national title in the 100m under a picturesque downpour that reinforced that this summer is something out of a script.
He goes into worlds in Budapest, which start Saturday, ranked No. 1 in the 100m (9.83 seconds) and No. 4 in the 200m (19.73).
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Hughes is 28 years old and has never won an individual Olympic or world medal. Few would have predicted that sentence nine years ago.
Hughes ran the then-fastest 100m in Jamaican high school championships history while part of the same track club as Usain Bolt. He also drew early comparisons to Bolt for his height — 6 feet, 3 inches, as a teen.
He debuted at the world championships just after turning 20 in 2015, and finished fifth in the 200m. He hasn’t bettered that result individually at an Olympics or worlds since (he does have relay medals), in part due to injuries, plus a false start in the biggest race of his career, the Tokyo Olympic 100m final.
“I’m pretty sure a lot of people counted me out,” Hughes said in June, noting a down season in 2022 and “a nightmare” in 2021. “Those things made me dug deep, pull myself out of the dark space.”
Hughes was born in Anguilla, a Caribbean island that’s 16 miles long and three miles wide. There were no conventional tracks. He sprinted on grass fields and raced on the beach against his dad, whose side of the family had a running background.
His earliest highlights came around age 10. Hughes put his bare feet on a track for the first time in St. Martin, an island across the Anguilla Channel. In what he called his first real meet, he said he won seven medals (still running barefoot).
“It felt different,” than the grass and sand, Hughes said on the My Sporting Mind podcast. “It was bouncy. There wasn’t any ditches. I didn’t have any shin splints.”
By age 16, Hughes was so promising that he received a scholarship to move 900 miles west to train in Jamaica. At 18, he broke the Jamaican high school 100m record held by Yohan Blake, the joint-second-fastest man in history.
In 2015, he raced Bolt for the first time in New York City and nearly ran him down, finishing three hundredths behind. Hughes’ mom, who is Jamaican, kept a large portrait at her home in Anguilla of the two men dipping at the line.
Hughes reportedly considered representing Jamaica internationally — since Anguilla doesn’t have a recognized National Olympic Committee — but ultimately chose Great Britain. Anguilla is a British territory.
But Hughes’ bid for the 2016 Olympics essentially ended with his first 200m race that year. He fell at the finish line, bruising his right knee and face. In his next race the following week, he felt “excruciating” pain behind the knee and later learned he tore 75 percent of his PCL ligament.
He still ran the British trials, placing fourth in the 200m, and the European Championships, finishing seventh in his heat a month before the Rio Olympics. That was his last race of the year.
“It felt as if someone had ripped my heart out,” he said in a retrospective for World Athletics in 2018. “Looking back, I was young, naïve and desperately wanted to go to the Olympic Games, but I should have shown more patience.”
Still dealing with knee pain in 2017, he was eliminated in the 200m semifinals at a home world championships in London.
In January 2018, Hughes said he was putting on shoes outside the track when a man pointed a gun in his face and asked for Hughes’ phone, according to the Jamaica Gleaner. Hughes ran off and heard gunshots. The robber exchanged fire with somebody else, Hughes’ manager Norman Peart said then, according to the BBC.
Hughes tweeted later that evening that he was OK. Peart, Hughes’ agent for the last six years, confirmed that this week and added that, to his knowledge, nobody else was hurt, either.
“That gunshot situation has helped me to become a much stronger, mentally, athlete,” Hughes, who raced later that week, said later in 2018. “I told myself, as long as I can get over that situation, I can get over anything else that’s coming along ahead of me in the season. That’s in the past now.”
At the following world championships in 2019, Hughes lost his form out of the blocks in the 100m final and placed sixth.
In 2021, he false started out of the 100m final in his Olympic debut, citing a calf cramp rather than nerves. Had he been in the race, he would have needed to lower his personal best from 2018 to make the podium.
He took a misstep in his drive phase of the 2022 World 100m semifinals and could not recover to advance.
Hughes then scaled back his usual postseason vacation and focused on preparing for 2023 with Glen Mills, the 74-year-old who coached Bolt to all of his gold medals and world records.
“I definitely think he sees little traits of Usain within me,” Hughes said in 2021, noting their similar heights, stride lengths and relatively slow starts.
Peart said he told Hughes before this season that it was his year to make a podium.
“I’ve been telling him, ‘Hey, you’re pretty much on the fringe every time,’” Peart said. “‘You need a medal around your neck.’”
Peart was still surprised to see Hughes lower his long-standing personal bests before the world championships.
First, he clocked 9.83 seconds in the 100m in New York City on June 24, which held up as the world’s fastest this year going into the opening rounds of worlds on Saturday.
In the 200m, he brought his personal best of 20.02 from 2015 down to 19.73 on July 23 (he ran 19.77 two weeks earlier, but that was with too much tailwind for record purposes).
Hughes benefited from running in between the world’s two fastest men this year (two-time world champion Noah Lyles and 20-year-old Letsile Tebogo of Botswana).
Now, Hughes, the one-time teen prodigy with a pilot’s license, can become the oldest man to win a first individual global flat sprint title since 1992, according to Bill Mallon of Olympedia.org.
“He has always had it in him,” Peart said. “He just needed to be able to get it together.”