Britain's rising sprint star chasing Olympic dream

Louie Hinchliffe is presented with his trophy following his 100m victory at the NCAA Championships
Louie Hinchliffe is the first European to win the NCAA men's 100m title [Getty Images]

When 21-year-old British sprinter Louis Hinchliffe sought out nine-time Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis as his coach, he knew exactly what he was doing.

He did so with the ambition of maximising his potential, having moved to America after thoroughly enjoying his year as a university fresher in the UK - and admittedly not taking training too seriously.

Neither he nor Lewis - a coach at the University of Houston for the past decade and with 17 global titles to his name - truly expected what has unfolded in the short period since their first phone call last August.

Hinchliffe had not broken the 10-second barrier at that point. He had not yet made history by winning the United States' collegiate 100m title, as achieved by Lewis himself while at Houston in 1981.

Yet, as surreal as all this still feels, targets must be adapted with Paris 2024 fast approaching.

"If Louis goes to the Olympic Games and wins two gold medals, I'll remind him that he needs seven more," jokes Lewis, speaking to BBC Sport.

"Trust me, I will make sure he stays humble."

Hinchliffe is in safe hands, as he knew he would be.

The excitement surrounding the Sheffield-born athlete's remarkable progress so far this year is understandable.

Hinchliffe made headlines when he recorded the second-fastest all-condition 100m in British history with a wind-assisted 9.84 seconds in May.

Then, in Oregon on Friday, he followed that up by becoming the first European athlete to win the men's 100m title at the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Championships.

The time? A blistering 9.95secs - his first legal run under 10 seconds placing him sixth on the British all-time list in the biggest race of his life so far.

"I really didn't expect all of this to happen," says Hinchliffe, still stunned a day after his historic triumph.

"I knew I had a chance but I wasn't one of the favourites. It's surreal. I'm over the moon but I'm also relieved it's done.

"Last year I finished last in my semi-final. To get into the final and then win is crazy.

"Being in such a high-pressure environment brought the best out of me. Everything just came together."

And it has all come together not only in an Olympic year, but in the same month as the British Olympic trials and seven weeks before the Games.

Louie Hinchliffe competing at the NCAA Championships
Only eight men have run faster than Hinchliffe's NCAA-winning 9.95secs in 2024 [University of Houston]

The first time Hinchliffe spoke with Lewis, the American legend made clear his bold ambition to help him force his way into the Olympic team, as a relay runner.

Prior to seeking Lewis' guidance, Hinchliffe admits that while he would listen to his coaches, he would often end up doing what he liked in training. With a keen interest in golf in particular, he had never quite felt all-in with his athletics.

But Lewis has captured his full attention, and Hinchliffe is crystal clear on the positive influence the 1984 and 1988 Olympic 100m champion has had on him.

"Carl has given me amazing advice, not just on the track but in life in general. This wouldn’t be possible without what he has taught me," Hinchliffe says.

"To have him guiding me has opened up everything. He flipped a switch in my head about what I have got to do. I never predicted it would all happen so fast, but coming to Houston and being coached by Carl has been the catalyst for that."

Hinchliffe, crowned English national champion in 2022, spent the 2023 season at Washington State before making his transfer to Houston.

At the start of 2024 his personal best read 10.17secs and Lewis had predicted lowering that to around 10.10secs would bring a chance of Olympic relay selection.

He has exceeded all expectations. Hinchliffe's NCAA title-winning time is the fastest of any European athlete in 2024 and bettered by only eight athletes worldwide.

Only five British men have ever gone quicker, with 0.12 seconds now separating him from Zharnel Hughes' national record of 9.83secs.

But, and perhaps most crucially, Hinchliffe has no issue blocking out the ever-increasing external noise. All his former teachers would agree, he insists, that he excelled at keeping his head down and "staying out of trouble".

"Louie is a tough guy and he doesn’t take things personally. Now he is learning, he has confidence and the sky is the limit," says Lewis.

"He has to understand that back home he is a star now. He has a great temperament, he's a great young man and he is going to do very well. There's no question he has run faster than I thought.

"But my job is to protect him and help him understand exactly what it takes to be successful over a long career."

Louie Hinchliffe is interviewed following his 100m win at the NCAA Championships
Hinchliffe's next target is the UK Athletics Championships on 29 June [Getty Images]

Hinchliffe was injured when he first arrived at Houston and Lewis' immediate focus was on correcting his running mechanics - specifically getting him to run "taller", as a prominent forward lean placed additional demand on the hamstrings.

The Briton admitted his form was not the best as he clawed back a deficit at the halfway stage to claim his stunning victory at the NCAA's.

For both athlete and coach at this early stage, that is the most exciting aspect of all of this. There still remains significant room for improvement.

However, there is a dazzling opportunity to target in the immediate future.

Hinchcliffe will return home to compete at the UK Championships in Manchester later this month, which double as the Olympic trials.

If he achieves a top-two finish there on Saturday, 29 June then, in just a couple of months' time, he will be preparing to make his Olympic debut.

"Going to Manchester as potentially one of the favourites is a bit crazy," says Hinchliffe.

"It was always in my mind to try and do some damage there, but I don't want to get ahead of myself and I want to approach it in the same way as any other race.

"Just to be at the Olympics would be quite impressive but to be in a position to maybe make an individual event has really surpassed everything I thought possible.

"It would mean everything to go to Paris. I've poured my heart and soul into this."

If Hinchliffe does manage to achieve something he until recently only dared to dream possible, he will be accompanied in Paris by Lewis - a man who knows all about handling the career-defining moments that accompany an Olympic Games.

"It would be tremendous experience for Louie and I will be there with him to make sure of that, to take the variables of the table and make things simple for him," Lewis says.

"What is important for his future is that when Olympic trials and Olympic Games come around, he is ready.

"Nobody comes to me and says 'hey, that was a great meet at so and so'. They say 'he won nine gold medals'.

"I want him to have that same mentality."