Grenadan prodigy Kirani James won his home nation its first Olympic gold medal at London 2012 – signaling his arrival on the world stage as an athletics superstar.
The young sprint sensation, aged just 20, became the first non-American athlete to run the 400m in less than 44secs, with a national record time of 43.94s, after qualifying for the final in a season’s best of 44.59s.
Finishing yards ahead of second-placed Santos Luguelin after a bullet-like final 100m, it was a breakthrough moment for the runner, described by coach Harvey Glance as “a freak of nature.”
That night James said his home country, which has a population of 110,000, would be ‘one huge street party, everyone getting merry and having a good time.’
Such was the scale of his achievement that he was accorded a huge welcome reception when he returned home to Grenada. Thousands lined the streets a commemorative stamp was crafted in his honor, and a new stadium named for him.
James was brought up in the small fishing town of Gouyve on the Caribbean island, and as a youngster came to the attention of sports coaches in the US with a string of victories at the World Youth Championships.
In 2007 he won a silver medal at the 2008 World Junior Championships with a time of 45.70secs, his personal best and the fastest time ever run by a 15-year-old. In October he took gold at the Commonwealth Youth Games with a competition record of 46.66secs.
James became the first youth athlete to complete a 200m and 400 metres double gold at the following year’s World Youth Championships.
With no less than 10 American colleges battling to sign the promising youngster on a scholarship, he opted for Alabama State – and in his first ever appearance on an indoor track he ran 45.79secs in the 400 meters, placing first and breaking the college’s10-year-old record of 46.46secs.
Turing pro in 2011, James made an immediate impact, and became the youngest 400m champion at the age of 18 at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea – his gold another first for Grenada.
James moved up to third on the all-time indoor lists in February 2011, recording 44.80secs to win at the SEC Indoor Championships. This left only Michael Johnson and Kerron Clement as the faster athletes indoors.
After his stunning success in London, world 400m record holder Johnson tipped James to smash his 43.18secs best, a record that has stood since 1999 – but only if he could overcome flaws in his technique.
That milestone may not be his for the taking just yet, but the signs are that Kirani James will one day soon make his mark in the event, just as Johnson did.