400M Hurdles Women – Jamaica’s Secret Weapon by Bernie Panton Jamaica’s reputation as a track powerhouse was established by our quarter-milers at the first two post-war Olympic campaigns in 1948
and 1952. It was later reinforced by Bertland Cameron’s 400m triumph at the first World Athletics Championships in 1983.
Since then, our performers over the shorter sprints (100/ 200) have risen to the very top of Jamaica’s sporting achievements. Dennis Johnson’s pre-independence prize of three 100y world record plaques
appears to have inspired future generations of outstanding sprinters. Few would argue with the assertion that Jamaica became the top sprinting nation over the 100/200 during the first two decades of the
However, our hurdlers, particularly in the women’s 400m, have forced us to pay close attention to their performances over the last quarter century. During this period, our women 400M hurdlers snatched
three Olympic medals and seven at the world championships, including three glittering golds. Jamaica also had ten women appearing in Track & Field News’ (TFN’s) annual top ten rankings for the event, with three being elevated to the treasured number one
position on seven occasions– (three times by Hemmings, and twice each for Melaine Walker and Kaliese Spencer.)
We would be stretching our imaginations if we suggested that interest in the 400m hurdles could be traced to the second CAC Games of 1938 when Arthur Wint won a bronze medal in the event.
It is more likely that the early success of Sandra Farmer-Patrick and Deon Hemmings inspired others to attempt this most demanding of track disciplines. Farmer-Patrick led the way in the event rankings
with 4th in 1987. She decided, thereafter, to compete for the United States and continued to have moderate success in her hurdling career.
Pride of place must go to Deon Hemmings, therefore, as she had an unmatched run of ten consecutive placements (from 1993 to 2002) in the top ten rankings, including three at number one. She will forever
be remembered as the first Jamaican woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Her winning time of 52.82s at the Centennial Games of 1996 in Atlanta was also an Olympic record.
The Hemmings-McCatty cupboard is adorned with five Olympic and World Champs individual medals (half of the Jamaican treasure chest from the 400H) and four additional medals from her exploits in the 4×400 relay for Jamaica.
Keen observers of our 400m hurdling would have noticed that our women prefer to hunt in pairs. Deon was accompanied into the annual top ten rankings by Debbie-Ann Parris on eight of her ten incursions.
Debbie-Ann had a stellar junior career and continued to star in regional competitions at the senior level. She won her World Champs gold medal as a member of the victorious 4X400 relay team in Edmonton 2001.
There was a five year hiatus after the last top ten rankings for Hemmings and Parris in 2002. Our enthusiasts anxiously awaited the arrival of the next set of hurdling twins. They arrived in 2007 with top ten placements for Melaine Walker and Nickeisha Wilson that started a twelve year run of placements (2007 to 2019) for our 400m hurdlers.
Melaine rivals Deon as our top hurdling performer, winning back to back titles in the Olympic Games of 2008 and the 2009 World Champs. Her time of 52.64s in Beijing was a few ticks away from the world record and is still the Olympic record.
Spencer, with 7 ranking spots, has the third highest number (after Hemmings and Parris); while Walker is tied with Genieve Russell with 5 top ten entries each. By way of comparison, some similarities emerge between the performances of our sprint and 400m hurdlers over roughly the same time period. (Michelle Freeman first entered the rankings in 1992, and ended her career with seven top ten entries.)
Each has the same number of entrants (10) in the annual top ten rankings but the sprint hurdlers earned only one number one – Brigitte Foster-Hylton, compared to seven by three performers in the 400m hurdlers. The latter group also had two Olympic champions and a world champion; whereas the sprinters had two world champions – Foster-Hylton and Daniele Williams, the national record holder.
Further, total medals won number 10 in the 400m and 8 in the 100m (3 each for Foster-Hylton and Ennis-London). However, the future looks bright for both branches. Janeek Brown and Britany Anderson, the national junior record holder, lead the way for the young sprint hurdlers. Shiann Salmon, Russell and Rushell Clayton will continue to spearhead the efforts at 400m.
If we evaluate these two groups of athletes on the basis of their respective contributions to Jamaica’s reputation as an athletic power, the edge would have to be handed to our one lap crusaders, given their number of placements at the very top of the annual rankings and the record runs by Hemmings and Walker at the Olympic Games and World Championships.
Hurdling is clearly the second most successful discipline for Jamaican athletes. Among the hurdlers, it is the 400m women who shine the brightest. Almost unnoticed, they are indeed Jamaica’s secret weapon.