Zharnel Hughes remembers the sacrifices and the pain. He was hunched over after another gruelling repetition on a Kingston track under the blazing sun when the legendary Usain Bolt cried out, urging the teenager to get back to work.
Now, many years later, the Great Britain star, a bronze medalist in the 100m at last year’s Budapest World Championships, appreciates his journey.
The agony of leaving his mother and three brothers behind in Anguilla eventually subsided. Hughes represents Team GB because the International Olympic Committee does not recognise Anguilla, which is a British overseas territory. Instead, Hughes became driven by the buzz from rubbing shoulders with track royalty such as Bolt and an opportunity to achieve greatness.
“When I moved to Jamaica at 16 years old. I left my family, we’re really close. I remember leaving my mum at the airport and that final goodbye, you’re a little fish into a huge ocean. It’s scary,” Hughes tells The Independent inside a Shoreditch coffee shop ahead of a busy year leading towards the Paris Olympics.
“But you have to grow up, you have no choice. I was a junior, stepping into a professional environment and it was so strict. I had to work hard. Watching Usain at training was just incredible. I was looking up to him, studying him on YouTube every day. That was motivation.
“I saw him dying on the track. If he’s working hard and already the world’s fastest man, what do I have to do? I just tried to compete. I remember he said to my coach: ‘Who’s this little boy?’
“I came home and shouted: ‘Mummy, I ran with Usain in training!’ We have a very good relationship, he’ll give me a fist pump and he congratulated me after Budapest. I still look up to him. You have to respect the man, he changed the sport.”
Hughes has gathered immense momentum after a breakthrough last year, banishing his Tokyo Olympics demons after squandering an opportunity in the 100m due to a false start. After a series of blazing runs last summer, he is now the British record holder over the 100m (9.83 seconds) and 200m (19.73 seconds). Indeed, lightning struck twice to snatch two 30-year-old records from ââBritish icons Linford Christie and John Regis.
Given that 100m time is identical to Noah Lyles’ gold-medal winning performance in Budapest, it would be easy to allow his mind to wander, knowing a similar performance in Paris could clinch sporting immortality on one of the greatest stages in sport.
“We’re keen to go even lower, I won’t tell you the exact times, but I intend to smash last year, I’m even stronger this year,” Hughes says.
“I don’t study Noah, but he’s a 200m specialist like myself, we have very good top-end speed. If I can keep that and work on my first bit of the race, that’s where I lose a bit of time, because of my height, I’m trying to get my steps as quick as possible, while maintaining my positioning to get to my top speed. I don’t think about Noah, I need to set myself up properly and turn on the afterburners in the second half of the race.”
Hughes might not mix with Lyles much away from the track, but his presence is inescapable, namely inside the cauldron of the call room moments before the gun is fired, which often proves pivotal before the first stride.
“I don’t need to be close to my rivals,” Hughes explains. “We’re super competitive. Our egos won’t allow it, we can clash.
“The tension in there, you can cut it with a knife, it’s tough. People are screwed up, slapping their thighs, staring at you. It’s all mind games.
“It has settled races in the past, most definitely, and the start line too. You hear people making strange sounds, trying to get into your head. The Americans, screaming ‘USA, baby!’ It has shown me that sport is 90 per cent mental and the rest is physical. If you can’t manage the pressure, the 100m really can break you.”
After succumbing to the pressure in Tokyo, Hughes now embraces the spotlight and the added glare from the Netflix cameras that follow his every move around London during an intense day of media duties with new sponsor GetPRO. Track and field is preparing for its Drive to Survive treatment this summer.
But despite a chill from a gloomy London and redemption in the 100m, a fire still burns inside Hughes. The 4x100m silver medal in Tokyo was cruelly taken away after CJ Ujah tested positive for two banned substances, but that heartache now unites a group and gives purpose to Hughes beyond personal glory.
“What happened, it hampered us, but it has made us more determined,” Hughes admits. “Going forward we have another opportunity. We’re more motivated, it’s like we want revenge.
“We take lots of pride in relays. We’ve shifted that narrative. There’s unity. We take time to get the practice done. Warm weather training, we get our relay camps in, the details have helped us to fine tune everything.
“There’s good chemistry. We’re evolving, too. Reece [Prescod] is running nine seconds, Eugene [Amo-Dadzie] is running nine seconds, Jeremiah [Azu] is running 10.0. We have versatility now.
“There’s great energy and good vibes. Especially Richard Kilty, he gets you pumped up. We are still one unit. There’s love and respect there.”
GetPRO is the Official Yoghurt Partner of Team GB for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games