Sam Effah, right, gained confidence when he raced the world's fastest man, Jamaica's Usain Bolt, in the 200-metre heats in Berlin last summer at the world championships and briefly found himself in front. Effah finished 1/10th of a second behind Bolt and learned "Nobody's unbeatable."
Delhi up next in local sprinter's meteoric rise to join world's elite
By George Johnson,
September 26, 2010
Sam Effah only took up sprinting in 2006. A week ago, his 10.06 run was the fastest 100M by a Canadian in seven years.
The setting itself could scarcely have been more intimidating: The 90,000 seat Olympiastadion in Berlin, site of the 1936 Olympic Games. Historic, hallowed sporting ground.
The place where U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens spectacularly exposed the crude Nazi myth of Aryan racial superiority in front of fuhrer Adolf Hitler by winning four gold medals, has been renovated to suit modern tastes while still conveying the might and architectural muscle of the Third Reich (during reconstruction work eight years ago an unexploded Second World War bomb was discovered buried beneath a section of seating and detonated outside the stadium by police).
If those distant echoes of touchstone glories weren't enough to leave a 21-year-old gaping at the start line, knees jellied -- in total seizure -- a couple of lanes away, not only the fastest man in the world but the fastest man in the history of the world was limbering up.
"To be lined up against Usain Bolt in the 200 heats at the World Championships last year,'' says University of Calgary track star Sam Effah, "taught me never to put somebody up on a pedestal. We're all running the same race.
"He's human, too.
"Out on the track, I can't deny it, I had doubt. I mean, he'd just broken the world record the day before. So I did my best to keep focused on my race; on what I had to do. It did get to me a bit, but I was able to slightly pass him in the first 60 metres.
"In terms of form, everybody's different. Bolt's almost a foot taller than me, so his mechanics are different. I just focus on myself. I'm unique in the way I run. I don't stride as big as Usain Bolt. I don't have as fast a turnover. But I know I have a strong start.
"I have to look to myself. Every sprinter's unique.''
Bolt won that heat in 20.70 -- and would go on to break his own 200-metre world record in 19.19 in the final. But Effah placed third in 20.80 and advanced to the quarter-finals.
"He didn't blow me off the track. That experience taught me that nothing's impossible. Nobody's unbeatable.
"It filled me with confidence.''
He's used that quiet confidence well.
A week ago at the Under-23 North America-Central America-Caribbean (NACAC) meet in Miramar, Fla., the Calgary-born sprinter lopped an astounding 16/100ths of a second off his best time, clocked a month ago at Edmonton, winning in 10.06. That made him only the fifth Canadian -- joining Harry Jerome, Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin and Nick Macrozonaris -- to crack 10.1.
And it was the fastest Canuck time since Macrozonaris's 10.03 in Mexico seven years ago.
So right now might be the only time in his life when those advising Sam Effah are asking him to slow down.
Take a breath. Not get ahead of himself.
"No wind. Ideal temperature. Hard surface. The right field. A good lane to push himself, with fast people on either side. A great start. I don't really believe Sam had off-the-chart expectations for a race against guys ranked eighth and ninth in the world, so he went in relaxed,'' says Canadian team head coach Alex Gardiner.
"Conditions were ideal that day. The perfect storm of sprinting.''
Mind boggling actually, for an individual who's only been involved in competitive track for four years and showed scant interest in sprinting before that.
"I knew I was fast,'' he says, "but I never thought I could be this fast.''
Most of Sam Effah's running came executing post patterns with his football pals at Sir Winston Churchill High School.
"It's been pretty amazing,'' admits his U of C coach Brenda Van Tighem. "If I stop to think about it too much, it gets a little, well, overwhelming. When he ran the NACAC final in Florida, it was a beautiful night. Very still. Like the whole world stopped. A perfect setting.
"He had a Jamaican on one side, an American on the other and he won. A great time, an ideal day.
"Everything just . . . came together.''
The problem plagued Commonwealth Games, Oct. 3 to 14 in Delhi, India, presents the first chance to build on the 10.06.
"People,'' says Van Tighem, "are always skeptical: 'Oh, he won't repeat it.' But he won nationals, finished third over in Zurich. He's there. Nike noticed. So he's got a sponsorship now. The belief is growing. No, Bolt won't be in India. The Americans won't be there.
"But Commonwealth countries are sprinting countries.''
Gardiner would like to see Effah consistently under 10.15 or 10.10 for the next season, leading into the World Track and Field Championships in Korea, calling that kind of consistency a "significant step.'' Ahead in the distance, of course, lies London and the 2012 Olympic Summer Games.
Effah's national 4x100 relay coach, Glenroy Gilbert, is also preaching a measure of calm.
"A 10.06 is world class. But Sam understands as well as anyone that you're only as fast as your last run. He's really brought down his time; I think he was running 10.30s last season. But in six years, remember, I saw Donovan develop into a world champion and an Olympic gold medallist in the 100.
Now that is fast-tracking. "Sam and Brenda are doing it the right way. He's a great kid. Very genuine.
"Like I said, 10.06 is a great time. But he's got it in him to be faster.''
Effah is far from the prototype sprinter.
"Slightly bowed legs. Not long and lean like a lot of the top guys,'' says Gardiner. "But he seems to be able to step over his knee and accelerate very well. He's extremely competitive and very powerful.
"What you don't want to do now is start tinkering with things, changing mechanics because they're 'supposed' to be done this way or that way. Sam's got to run like Sam.''
He's got to act like Sam, too. Very un-sprinter-like, in a wonderfully old-fashioned way.
No peacock preening. No shameless self-promotion. No signature pose -- no variation on the 'To Di World' stance that Bolt has copyrighted.
For that emotional balance, he credits his parents, Francis, a retired mechanic for Calgary Transit, and Hanna, a nursing-home caregiver, who immigrated to Calgary from Ghana.
"They kept me humble. Still do. Doesn't matter who I'm running against, what their names are, what they've done or where I finish, I come home and I'm still their son. Same guy. No big deal. Seeing athletes treat other athletes who maybe aren't of their calibre, treat them badly . . . it's never been my style. With that kind of attitude comes rivalry, anger and jealousy. I just try and stay out of all that.
"I can't say I imagined this would happen so quick. So I just look at it as a blessing. Just take it in. It's not easy, but it's how I keep myself grounded.''
A self-deprecating shrug.
"Besides, when it comes down to it, it's just running in a straight line.''
Oh, if it were only that simple. Then again, it's seemed that way since Effah entered his first high school meet, provincials, and won.
And what about his next stop in Delhi.
"Everything's looking good. I just need to run four good rounds there. I ran four at the Universiade last year and I handled it OK. This is a more competitive event than that, though.
"I have to save energy every round and it's not something I'm used to. As long as I have enough gas for the final, it'll be good, but it's all about how you maintain.''
Sam Effah is just getting out of the blocks on his sprinting career.
"I know there's more in the tank,'' he promises. "I hope to run for a long, long time. The Commonwealth Games. World Championships. London. Beyond that.
"Running's fun for me.
"I plan on running until my legs stop moving.''