By Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero
It is easy to tell when Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake has won. Most athletes will raise a fist or collapse to the floor in exhaustion when they cross the finish line, but not him. When Mitchell-Blake wins, there is no holding him back.
“I can only speak for myself, but the way I carry myself after a race, it’s not rehearsed, it’s not premeditated, that’s just how I express my happiness.
“It’s a euphoric moment and my body is jubilant, I like to have fun. I could be the person to clap and shake [hands]… I don’t want to be deemed arrogant but it’s winning, it can’t really be explained. It’s something that can’t be explained but I hope that I show you how I feel through my celebration.”
That happiness was evident as Mitchell-Blake anchored the men’s 4x100m relay team to a gold medal and a British record at the World Athletics Championships this year. As Usain Bolt stumbled in the final leg, Mitchell-Blake powered ahead to send the London Stadium wild. But before he could celebrate, he had to be sure of the result.
“I didn’t know we’d won it until I’d seen it on the scoreboard.
“It was a race of fine margins, and [running] the anchor leg, I didn’t have the chance to lose focus, my main focus was running and passing the line, staying relaxed. I told myself all of this prior to the race because if you do that in the race you can overthink things and things go wrong.
“When I realised that we had won, once again, it was a crazy celebration, but it was just sheer joy, almost disbelief that we’d actually done it. When Iwan Thomas gave me the mic, when we were talking to the crowd, all I could say was ‘We’re world champions, we’re world champions’.
“Even me saying that now, I still get goosebumps because it’s crazy, it’s a big thing to be a world champion.”
If the magnitude of what he and his teammates had just achieved did not sink in at first, it certainly did when they visited 10 Downing Street after the Championships. Mitchell-Blake has fond memories of that day.
“I got the opportunity to shake Theresa May’s hand, I got the opportunity to talk to her, and she even said something like “Great celebration!”, and I was like ‘Woah, she actually knows who I am!’
“That’s something, also, that’s a generational thing. I’ve got some pictures, and down the line you show your kids, they show their grandkids, [that] with my gold medal I went to 10 Downing Street, so it’s pretty special.”
And yet, it could all have been so different had Mitchell-Blake decided to pursue his first love instead: cricket. He recalls the day he first realised he wanted to run.
“I joined a local cricket club in Ilford, and it was fine for the first week, but there was an athletics track right by. It was just a spontaneous decision, I said ‘Dad, I want to run instead’.
“At that time I was probably about nine, and then I’d known the local track and being a young kid I was always the fastest in the playground… you take great pride in things like that when you’re a little boy in primary school.”
He describes himself as a “competitive young kid” who looked up to Dwayne Chambers as he was growing up in East London. When Chambers made an appearance at the Ilford Exchange, Mitchell-Blake stuck to him all day.
“I think I just hung around there like the fan that I was. He may have been there for a couple of hours but for some reason, I don’t know why, kind of stalkerish, I just stayed there with him.”
He loved running, but nothing could have prepared him for what he experienced when he moved to Jamaica with his family at the age of 13. Even now, Mitchell-Blake seems in awe when he talks about it.
“I thought I took it seriously but going to Jamaica, it’s a whole different thing.
“They have something called Boys and Girls Champs, and it’s where the national stadium is packed out by people as young as babies to old men, old women… it can capacitate probably about 35,000 people and it’s full to the brim to watch high school people compete.
“In Jamaica it’s definitely your high school you go to, you pride yourself on that. In a sense, how people follow their football team in England, that’s how they follow their high school in Jamaica.”
He joined Jamaica College in Kingston after his first year, an all-boys school who were “vying for the championship, a top four finish, all the time”. There he became known as ‘British’, and the name stuck. He soon realised he would have to prove himself to his peers.
“I had to earn my respect, and I remember there was a particular meet where, say there’s 20 boys in the under-15 category, and we’re all trying to get into a heat… because I was down the pecking order, I hadn’t proved myself, I ended up getting into the last heat, I just kept getting pushed to the back of the line. I was in the slowest heat but I ended up running the fastest time of the day, and that’s when people started giving me a little bit more respect.”
Mitchell-Blake is calm and collected over the phone. He is methodical in explaining each stage of his career so far. “Each school that I went to primed me for another level to take it to,” he explains. “It’s just like going up the ranks in a job.”
He says he was not “that sought-out” when he left high school due to injuries sustained at Jamaica College, but he was drawn to the attention of various US colleges. The academic side of things was never a problem for Mitchell-Blake, but finding a university which would get the balance right between track and education was.
Scrolling through his phone now, he says he was unaware of how many colleges tried to get in touch with him.
“[On] Facebook Messenger, it wasn’t until probably about last year where, when someone messages you and they’re not your friend, they’re in a different category. I went through that list because I just discovered it last year and there were a load of schools messaging me. A lot could have happened; everything happens for a reason. I didn’t know about that part of the internet for a reason.”
Louisiana State University (LSU) had their eyes on Fitzroy Dunkley, one of Mitchell-Blake’s good friends from school, and his coach saw an opportunity.
“He kind of said “Well, you can get two of them. This guy’s smart, he’s cleared the academic standings and I’m telling you he can be something special.” And they took the risk, they took both of us, and that’s how I got to LSU.”
His alias followed him from Jamaica, and again he had to prove himself as ‘British’ in the U.S. After two years at LSU getting to grips with the tough collegiate season, he decided it was time to make some “life changes” before the start of the 2016 campaign.
“I worked tremendously hard, made a conscious effort on my diet… I started to lift in the weight room properly, I met the strength and conditioning guy and I just learnt a lot in that off-season, [I’d] done a lot of research. I said I wanted to become a better athlete and it paid dividends.”
It all came together at the SEC Outdoor Championships in Alabama that year. Mitchell-Blake won the triple in style in the 200m final, becoming the second fastest Briton of all time over that distance with a time of 19.95 seconds. Only three-time Olympian John Regis had run faster.
“That particular week I had five races in, like, three days. It was just about managing the rounds.
“Won the 4x100m, that’s one down, interview. I win the 100m, that’s two down, I get an interview. Then John Anderson, who’s our ESPN anchor, he said to me “Are you going for the triple?” and I said “Why not?”
“I look back at the clock and [when] I saw 19, I said “Oh crap, no way” … When you see sub-20 on a clock, that’s like a striker banging in maybe 40 goals or scoring a hat-trick, and then the hat-trick [goal’s] like a Panenka penalty or something. It’s just something that’s crazy.”
He went one better in Birmingham at this year’s team trials, beating Regis’ championship record with a time of 20.18 seconds. The fact it was Mitchell-Blake’s first race back in the UK since the age of 13 made it particularly special. He says it was a “fun day”.
“Each race that you see me win has a significant story behind it,” he tells me. “As you said, I hadn’t been back in 10 years, and my family had made the trip from London.
“If you see a picture of me pointing, that’s me pointing to my dad in the stands. I was pointing to my dad, to my brother, to my sister. I was pointing and I was saying ‘This is for them’ because they made the journey, the sacrifice to come here.”
Speaking to Mitchell-Blake, the huge sacrifices he has had to make as an athlete become clear.
As the men’s quartet revelled in their success in the aftermath of the 4x100m final at the London Stadium, Mitchell-Blake spotted someone he knew in the crowd. It was his mother, who he had not seen in three years.
“Being in the States, being at university, I’ve had the Olympics one summer, the summer before that I was in summer school, the summer before that I think I was at a competition or something. I’ve sacrificed a lot… that’s why when I celebrate it means so much to me, that’s why every race means so much to me, because I haven’t seen my mum in three years.
“I got the opportunity to fly her down from Jamaica, and she came every day. Every day I could see her in the stands, she was real happy. She got a way to come trackside and we got to share a special moment on our victory lap.”
Years of bungled handovers had turned the British men’s relay team into something of a joke. So why did it all go right for Britain this time?
“This is the first relay I’ve been part of on the senior team so I can’t speak [for] the other relay teams… But there was a real calm demeanour within the group, not just the four of us, but the whole relay camp.
“The head of sprints and relays Steve McGuire, the relay coach Christian Malcolm… Everybody was real calm, and I believe that transcended into the athletes and it was perfect, that’s what we needed. We didn’t overcomplicate anything, we didn’t overrun each other, and [that’s a] testament to all of us as a group because we believed in each other.
“I promise you, if we’d got a silver medal, we would have been upset. I feel that belief allowed us to perform the way we did.”
What was going through his head before the race?
“I remember they had us waiting for a long time… I think we went through two national anthems and it was kind of chilly, I can’t lie, so everybody was trying to bounce around. It’s also kind of daunting too, because you see all the teams there, you see the Americas, you see the Jamaicas, the Japans, the Chinas, and everyone’s just trying not to give too much away because at that point it’s all mental.
“We get introduced, then Jamaica got introduced… I think whatever race Bolt was in, [his cheer] was parallel to the cheer Great Britain got.
“Obviously, I’m on the anchor leg, Usain Bolt’s on the anchor leg, the cameras are all in Bolt’s face. I’m trying to get right, and I’m just trying to keep myself calm. The gun goes off, crowd goes silent, you could hear a pin drop. Everybody ran out their skin, it was near the perfect race for the quartet.”
In the 200m final, Mitchell-Blake just missed out on the podium in fourth place. The year before, he failed to make the final at the Olympics in Rio and admits he “sobbed like a baby”. I ask him how he would have felt had he not won the relay either in London, particularly given his personal disappointment.
“Yeah, that would have been pretty upsetting. The reason I also love athletics is because what you put in is what you get out, in the sense that I ran my best, I can’t blame anybody but me, I’m accountable for everything I do on the track.
“I gave my best effort and it wasn’t enough, but to be able to top off the championships… To be the last event, for 60,000 people to wait 45 minutes just so you could pass them on our victory lap, made it all the sweeter.”
He is unerring when asked about the next goal in his career, and his answer is hardly surprising. “Individual success,” he replies immediately.
“I’ve achieved the team success, which I think and I’ve said previously, is probably more satisfying than individual success, because you get to share the moment with other people who have also sacrificed many things. But I don’t want to be, the rest of my life… labelled as the guy who anchored Great Britain to victory.
“You can’t show anything for fourth place… you want to be able to show hardware. That’s what it comes down to, hardware, that’s what athletes are judged on. If you want to be deemed an elite athlete, which I aspire to be, individual success is what I need to achieve.”
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