Shamier Little hardly had to pack for the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
That’s because she hadn’t unpacked from the Pan American Games, where she won the gold medal in the women’s 400-meter hurdles last month in Toronto.
“I have to just buy snacks and stuff,” Little said before her departure, “probably some cookies and water.”
She also brought her unique style to China – a bow in her hair, unless her new short haircut makes it too hard to stay put – and Malcolm X-style glasses.
“I’m recognizable without the bow,” said Little, who favored neon green this season, “but with the bow, it makes a lot of difference because (people) associate it with my personality and how I’m running. I like standing out like that.”
Of course, being undefeated this season and posting the world-leading time of 53.74 seconds will make you stand out, too.
After winning her second straight NCAA title in Eugene, Oregon, in June, the Texas A&M sophomore returned to historic Hayward Field two weeks later and captured her first USA Track & Field national crown. Little’s time of 53.83 seconds was just a tad slower than the NCAA-winning mark that is still the top mark going into worlds. Zuzana Hejnova of Czech Republic, who ran 53.76 in Paris last month, is the only athlete to come close.
Little, 20, became the first hurdler to win NCAA and US. titles in the same season since Sheena Johnson of UCLA in 2004. She was also the first U.S. junior champ to win the senior title the following year since Edna Brown of Temple in 1978-79.
“Every day I’m learning more new stuff about my accomplishments,” Little said. “It’s mind-blowing. I never expected any of this to happen.”
However, going from “knowing everybody and talking to everybody” at world juniors and the U.S. junior championships to finding herself at the next level has been an abrupt change for Little.
“Now that I’m a senior, I’m still like a baby and most of the seniors are way older than me,” she said, “so I don’t know anybody going into Beijing. I’m just like by myself almost.”
Little is also out of the country for only her third time. Her first trip was to Barcelona for the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships. In that race, Little was in medal contention when she tripped over the last hurdle and did not finish.
And yet it’s still a “fond memory,” she said. “I know it was bad, but I don’t think of it as bad. I think of it as a big turning point in track and field for me.”
Little vowed not to let that happen again and so far, so good.
She is undefeated over seven finals this season in the 400-meter hurdles and her winning streak is now 10 finals (23 total races) since placing third at the 2014 SEC Championships. It should be noted Little had double-duty that day and took first in the 400-meter.
Prior to the Pan Am Games, her five biggest wins the past two seasons all took place at Hayward Field, which will be the site of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and the 2021 World Championships.
Little won the 2014 NCAA title as a freshman, clocking 55.07 for the junior world-leading time. She then won the 2014 USATF junior title with a meet-record 55.43, followed by the 2014 world junior crown (55.66).
Little was more than happy to return to TrackTown USA for the NCAA meet and U.S. champs.
“That’s where most of the competition is,” she said of Eugene. “It’s not a small meet, so any time anyone goes to Oregon, it’s expected that they do something good.”
In Eugene, Little has even picked up her biggest fan outside of her mother: a man who sits at the start and yells her name the entire race.
“When I get on the track, he says, ‘Shamier Little!’” she said, imitating his rapid speech pattern. “I could never find him. And then I finally met him.”
Little thought he was just another track fan when they started talking at the U.S. championships. He congratulated her and there was something about his voice that she recognized.
“I said, ‘Are you the one that screams for me?’” she said. “’Ohmigoodness, I need to give you a hug,’ because if it’s not my mom, it’s him, and I like to know that there’s somebody in the crowd cheering.”
When Little’s mother, Tiffany Mayfield, comes to races, she makes sure her daughter can hear her above all others, not only in volume but because she is yelling her middle name, Khalia.
“Everybody is like, ‘Who’s Khalia? Who’s she running for?’” Little said. “I know that’s my mom. ‘Go Khalia!’ I can hear her. In the replays, I can hear her. It’s a great feeling.”
When Mayfield is not at the meet, Little telephones her as soon as she can. Just talking about her call with her mom made her start crying at U.S. nationals.
“I love my mom so much,” Little said. “She’s my biggest supporter. She’s always been there for me and I’ve just got to let her know how I’m doing all the time. On the phone she cries, I cry.”
Mayfield, who did not make the trip to Beijing, primarily played basketball in college at East Tennessee. In her junior and senior years, she joined the track team, running on the 4x100 relay and high jumping.
She put her daughter in a track program in Chicago when Little was only 6 or 7 years old.
Back then, Little ran the 100 and sometimes the 400.
A coach encouraged her to try the hurdles and estimated how fast she could go. Little didn’t even pay attention to the time because it wasn’t important to her.
“He was telling me I could do it and I was like, ‘No, I’m barely making the 400, and you want me to go over hurdles?’”
About two years later, Little reconsidered. Running the 400-meter, she didn’t make the U.S. national team. Two weeks later, Little tried a 400 with hurdles and recalled some flailing as she made her way around the track.
“I hated it, but my coach just insisted that I keep on doing it and that’s what I did,” she said.
Little didn’t find immediate success.
“It took me a couple of tries,” she said. In her third race, she won the USA Track & Field Junior Olympics in Kansas with a respectable time of about a minute.
In her fifth race, she won the AAU Junior Olympics and set national record of 57.83 seconds.
“Everybody was just so shocked and I was like, ‘Oh, this was fast?’” Little said. “That’s when I got into it.”
She felt a slight twinge of regret. “OK, I wish I would have moved into this earlier,” she said. “And since then I knew it was my calling.”
Little cites her toughness for making her a champion and relishes good competition. “It’s like a chase for me,” she said. “I’m a chaser, I don’t like running from the front.”
Still, she is the definite front-runner going into the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing.
“It’s going to be a target on my back, so I know that I can’t relax or take anything for granted,” Little said.
She faces stiff competition from her own teammates. Cassandra Tate (54.01) is the fourth-fastest performer (just behind Sara Stott Petersen of Denmark at 53.99) and Kori Carter is 11th at 54.41.
At the U.S. championships, the young trio defeated a pair of 32-year-olds: Lashinda Demus, who won the gold medal at the 2011 world championships, silver at the 2011 worlds and 2012 London Olympic Games and bronze at the 2013 worlds, and Tiffany Williams, a 2008 Olympian.
“It’s really been in good hands,” Little said. “These ladies are great.”
Little hopes the American flag will this time be raised in her honor. While packing her bags, she was searching for one of the Stars & Stripes bows her mother bought for her last year, and which she wore at world juniors. One way or another, she lost them all.
They’re the only things she has lost recently.
Little is not worried about finding that extra gear she uses to kick down the homestretch, even though running collegiately has made her season especially long.
“I’ve made it this far,” she said. “I’m strong. I’ve got heart. It’s always mind over matter for me.”
And then a call to her mom.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.