Jehue Gordon: Balancing the books and professional athletics
With a focus of promoting Caribbean athletics globally, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) is continuing with its ‘Day in the Life’ Series, featuring some of the best athletes in the region. In Trinidad, Guardian Sports Editor Sheldon Longley who is with the IAAF team, caught up with sensational World Champion Jehue Gordon. Here is his story:
At 22, there is little doubt that Trinidadian Jehue Gordon still has a long career ahead of him in track and field. Yet, the youngster has already accomplished so much.
He is an Olympic finalist, and has won world titles on the junior and senior levels, the latter coming just last year in Moscow, Russia. These days, Gordon is trying to maintain a level of consistency in the long hurdles, his specialty event ever since his junior days at the Belmont Boys Secondary School in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.
He finished fourth at the Berlin World Championships as a 17-year-old in a national record time of 48.26 seconds, missing a medal by three one hundredths of a second and beating his idol Dominican Felix Sanchez in the process. That was really his coming out party right there, a year after the Beijing Olympics, and a year in which he won double gold at CARIFTA in the short and long hurdles. The following year, Gordon duplicated that feat at CARIFTA, in record times, and carted off the Austin Sealy Award for the meet’s best athlete.
Gordon has steadily been on the rise ever since, finishing sixth at the 2012 London Olympics and winning the world title last year, but he has yet to rise to prominence in 2014, a non-world championships or Olympics year. His season’s best is a modest 49.32 seconds, significantly off the 47.69 national record he ran in Moscow. Gordon remains unfazed though, as he continues to balance the books and professional athletics. The full-time student at the University of West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus in Trinidad, knows his best work off the track comes during the summer months when he is out of school, and he is looking for resurgence during the 20th Commonwealth Games which will be held from July 23 to August 3, in Glasgow, Scotland.
“I’m in a unique position where I was the first in the Caribbean to pursue my degree full-time as a professional athlete. It’s extremely difficult,” said Gordon. “Having to come home late at night after practice and being tired and having to get up for class first thing in the morning is really taxing. I find myself not getting enough rest. My friends help me out a lot by taking notes in class, and we study in groups, and that helps a lot. I know it will be rewarding in the end. I don’t believe in limiting my intellectual capacity, so I will continue to push myself on and off the track.”
It is that same mindset which is exhibited in an unbelievable work ethic by Gordon. Growing up in the suburban area of Maraval, he said that he doesn’t try to do anything outside of his normal environment, and stays focussed on his long-term goals. He said that growing up in hilly Maraval might have aided in his early development, but added that it could have a down side as well.
“Some of the muscles that you wouldn’t use running on a flat surface could be developed from running on a hill, but at the same time, it could also be a setback in terms of doing those things earlier, and not being properly treated when something happens. It’s a two-way street. It could have a down and up side,” said Gordon.
On the track, Gordon said that he would eventually like to be an Olympic Champion in his specialty, the 400 meters (m) hurdles, and off the track, he’s looking to pursue a masters degree in Sports Management, all while training and studying at home in Trinidad. In addition to running 47.69 seconds in the long hurdles, he has personal best times of 13.81 seconds in the short hurdles, and 46.43 seconds in the flat 400m.
“On campus, I tend to be more grounded,” said Gordon. “It helps me to be Jehue Gordon and not someone else, just be a normal student. With training, a lot of people think that there is not enough infrastructure, not enough facilities here at home but that’s not the main problem. Around Carnival time, they close off the stadium to us, and that is one of the biggest challenges. I actually hate Carnival season because it takes away so much time from being able to put in some solid hurdling work when it should be a time to be technical. It’s difficult, and at home you constantly need that support, but once you’re focussed I believe that you can achieve great things.”
Home in Trinidad, Gordon still has all of the amenities at his disposal just like he probably would have in a professional camp overseas. After daily workout sessions at the Hasely Crawford National Stadium, he frequents the Memphis Pioneers Gym and Fitness Centre, winds down with massages from his massage therapist, and also has access to a chiropractor, a nutritionist and a psychologist.
He stays on campus at UWI St. Augustine, but also takes pleasure in dropping by his mother’s home in Maraval to enjoy some home-cooking.
“I have a real intimate relationship with my mom. She’s my backbone,” said Gordon. “My mom connects with me spiritually overseas. When I’m getting ready to compete, the small, little things could make an impact at the end of the day, and she is always there for guidance. She told me to push my head at the world championships. I did that, and as you know I won by the slimmest of margins. Home is where it’s at though. Whenever I’m home, I have to get some buss up shot (curry goat or duck roti) and some dumplings. Home is where the heart is.”
Be that as it may, Gordon said that when he’s home in Maraval, his neighbors don’t get to see him much because he’s always on the move whether he be at training, at school, or just out running errands.
“Things are much more structured as an athlete. There is less time to play and to actually be at home, so people don’t really see me that often,” he said.
At the Moscow World Championships last year, Gordon won in a national record world-leading time of 47.69 seconds, just one hundredth of a second ahead of second place finisher American Champion Michael Tinsley. He finished the year ranked as the number one long hurdler in the world. Gordon said that his life has changed quite a bit since winning that world title.
“Now, a lot of people tend to recognize me, and they want to take pictures, get autographs, or simply just give advice. Also, people expect a lot more from Jehue Gordon as opposed to before. I never really thought about the gold medal, but I’m grateful that I have it. I really thought that I had a chance in 2012 at the Olympics but it came a year later.”
Gordon finished sixth at the London Olympics in 48.86 seconds, a year when he had a season’s best of 47.96 seconds and was expecting to do big things. He said that he was devastated, and contemplated quitting the sport.
“I studied the medal and it ran away from me. In Moscow, I just stuck to myself and didn’t put any pressure on myself. The attention was on Michael Tinsley. Really, I just wanted to have fun, and go out there and execute my race,” said Gordon.
Prior to the final, Gordon said that a couple of his friends actually dreamt that he had won the world title. He brought those dreams to reality.
“I wasn’t sure what to do after winning. Deon Lendore, my teammate, said that you have to do the archer style (bow and arrow) but at that moment nothing came in my head. After four years of hard work, I finally did it. It was a jaw-dropping moment for me.”
Gordon said that his coach Dr. Ian Hypolite is like a father figure to him, always there for guidance and advice on every topic. Another person he looks up to in Trinidad is Edwin Skinner, an Olympian and a founding father of the Memphis Pioneers Track Club for which Gordon is a member of.
“Dr. Hypolite is well versed in everything. I look up to him because he has done so much for himself, for his country, and for his family. He is like a second dad to me, and Mr. Skinner is like a living legend. He started Memphis Pioneers, and has done so much for track and field here in Trinidad.”
This season, Gordon has struggled a bit, unlike last year when he started off strong and eventually galloped to the world championships title. He actually started his season last year at the Chris Brown Bahamas Invitational (CBBI) here in The Bahamas, winning that title in 49.50 seconds. He dropped that time significantly during the season, eventually posting a world-leading 47.69 in Moscow. This season, he is yet to break the 49-second barrier, and if it stands, it will be the first such season since 2008.
“I have a really good relationship with Chris Brown. He is someone I look up to. He is a veteran, an example to the region and to the wider world. I couldn’t pass that up last year because I always wanted to go to The Bahamas,” said Gordon. “With this season, I know my season builds and progresses after school is out. Training has been going good, and once my mind is at ease, things would definitely fall into place. I just want to show everyone that it can be done from at home. I want to pave the way for the younger athletes. Most of the successful athletes train overseas but I have been training here as a professional athlete for the last four years. Now, I’m one of the most senior athletes in the club (Memphis Pioneers), and I feel that it is up to me to pass on the knowledge to the other athletes.”
This year, Gordon has had a basically subdued season due to his full-time commitments in the classroom. He finished second at the Jamaican Invitational to two-time World and Olympic Champion Felix Sanchez in 49.32 seconds. Sanchez ran 49.21 seconds. Gordon also ran in Shanghai and New York, posting times of 49.56 and 49.81 seconds respectively. He finished sixth and seventh in those events. Just last Saturday at the NGC/Sagicor Open Championships at the national stadium in Trinidad, he was beaten by a compatriot in the men’s 400m hurdles for the first time in six years. He posted a time of 49.69 seconds to finish second behind Emmanuel Mayers who posted a personal best time of 49.57 seconds.
“School is always a limiting factor for me. Next year I will be out but it will be interesting to see how different it will be to cope with a lot of the pressures of the different situations,” said Gordon. “I’m looking to be more consistent on the Diamond League circuit, and perform as I expect to all of the time. I want to be an overall Diamond League winner. Also, I want to win an Olympic medal. It’s not going to come easy but that is what I’m aiming for, and also to be world champion again.
“I think what we need to do as a country is benchmark Trinidad to the European circuit and try to improve the way that we conduct our sporting activities – utilize our resources efficiently. The whole structure needs to change in terms of treating the athletes more respectable, providing enough resources so that the athletes will be able to train more efficiently, and making sure that coaches are properly compensated or updated in terms of the programs that are going on around the world. The technology might be outdated.”
With his 47.69 clocking, young Gordon is the 22nd fastest of all-time in the 400m hurdles, about a second off the world record of 46.78 seconds which was set by American Kevin Young 22 years ago. Young is the only man ever, to run under 47 seconds in the event.
“That world record time is ridiculously fast,” said Gordon. “I’ll just be happy if I can be consistent and run fast when I need to run fast. I’m certainly putting no pressure on myself for that. Right now, I’m just focussed on showing gradual improvement and being there to mentor the young athletes.”
When he’s not competing or in the classroom, Gordon said that he just stays to himself most of the time, but does maintain contact with some of his competitors, particularly Jamaican Leford Green, and they often discuss training regimens while catching up on old times. He’s a football fan as well, giving allegiance to the Chelsea Football Club in the English Premier League. When asked why Chelsea, Gordon simply replied, he used to like a girl named Chelsea, and followed the club ever since.
That’s just the casual approach that makes him who he is – fierce on the track, but quite humble off of it.
After reaching the mountain top in Moscow last year, it will be interesting to see what he does for an encore in Beijing next year, and at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.