Athletics: America's new sprint queen is just like Jones - only faster

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Kelli White has no fears about filling the shoes of Marion Jones. It is hardly surprising. The woman who succeeded the pregnant Jones as 100m and 200m champion at the US Championships in Palo Alto, California, last weekend - clocking faster winning times than Jones did on the same Cobb track last year - almost lost her left eye in a vicious knife attack nine years ago.

White, who runs the 200m for the United States in the Norwich Union International in Glasgow this afternoon, still bears the scars from the unprovoked assault she suffered at a train station near her Union City home near San Francisco in May 1994. Her female assailant, who was unknown to her and never caught, slashed her face from her forehead above her left eyebrow, across her nose, down to an inch below her left eye. The cut required more than 300 stitches to close.

"The doctor stopped counting at 300," White recalled. "I didn't even know I was cut until about 10 seconds after I got up. It wasn't until I put my hand to my forehead that I realised something had happened. It was a bad experience but it made me grow up. I thought it would bother me for the rest of my life but it doesn't bother me any more. I don't even see the scar when I look in the mirror."

White's resilience was evident when she returned to track competition just two weeks after the attack. Within a year she was the US junior 200m champion. It took her until 2001 to make her mark as a senior at international level, winning the 200m bronze medal behind Jones and the Bahamian Debbie Ferguson at the World Championships in Edmonton, where she also ran the lead-off leg for the victorious US 4 x 100m relay team anchored by Jones. Now, though, at the age of 26, she is emerging in Jones' pregnant pause as the new queen of sprinting.

Last weekend White won the 100m in 10.93sec and the 200m in 22.21sec; Jones won last year in 11.01sec and 22.35sec. Asked what it was like to follow in Jones' footsteps, she shrugged: "I don't really have an opinion about that. I just see all the runners as the same."

White's 100m time was the fastest in the world this year. It was no fluke either. She had already run 10.96 in Eugene and a marginally wind-assisted (2.3mps) 10.79sec in Carson City. And, despite a draining six-race schedule last weekend and a midweek trans-Atlantic flight, she opened on the European circuit with a 10.97 clocking in Oslo on Friday night, losing to Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas by 0.01sec. As no lesser a sprint authority than Maurice Greene observed: "She's the real deal."

A squat 5ft 4in figure with power-packed thighs of speed-skater dimension, White was certainly dealt real sprint genes. Her father, Willie White, was a 10.3sec 100m runner in the late 1950s; her mother, Debbie Byfield, ran in the Olympic 4 x 400m relay for Jamaica in the 1972 Olympics. Her natural talent is being maximised under the direction of the same man who has made Dwain Chambers the joint-fastest European sprinter of all-time.

Like the young British speed merchant - who runs in the 100m in Glasgow today - White is coached in San Francisco by Remi Korchemny, a Ukrainian sprint guru who helped to guide Valery Borzov to the Olympic 100m and 200m double in Munich in 1972, inspiring the New York Times headline: "The Fastest Human is a Commie."

Having helped White to a US Championship sprint double, Korchemny was a proud man last weekend. "When your student can get an A, it means you're a good teacher," he said. "Kelli was ready." Korchemny has got his female protégé ready for the summer track season after a long fight back to fitness (White tore the planta fascia in her right foot last July) and the bitter blow of losing a place on the US team for the world indoor championships in Birmingham to the 17-year-old high school sensation Allyson Felix (who finished third in the 200m final last weekend.)

White has also overcome the setback of having been caught in the draconian drug-testing net in France. The French athletics federation banned her from competing within their borders for six months after she tested positive for triamcinolone acetonide at the Stade de France last July - even though the steroid is used for an asthma inhaler and does not feature on the banned list of the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Still, White is clear to race on French soil again from 1 July and she will return to the Stade de France in August, looking to win the 100m and 200m double at the World Championships. It is a feat that Marion Jones, for all her high-speed accomplishments, has never managed to achieve.