Nia Ali's young son knows the drill.
“If we get out in the hallway, he’ll say, ‘On your marks, get set, go!’ and he’ll start running,” Ali says of Titus Maximus, who will turn 2 on Monday.
It’s the start of a new season for Titus’ mom, who will be among the Team USA stars competing Friday as the Diamond League kicks off in Doha.
Ali won the silver medal in the unprecedented U.S. sweep of the 100-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 last August.
“The greatest thing has been meeting so many people and just having so many people recognize you for what you’ve done,” said Ali, 28, who was raised in Philadelphia and now lives in Los Angeles. “I’ve been running since I was 6, and when you actually get a medal you see people say, ‘Hey, we were at the bar, or we were in a restaurant and everyone had the big screens up and you’re like, ‘Thank goodness I did well. I never knew so many people were watching!’”
|(L-R) Kristi Castlin, Brianna Rollins and Nia Ali celebrate with American flags after the women's 100-meter hurdles final at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 at the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.|
Ali also posed with gold medalist Brianna Rollins and bronze medalist Kristi Castlin for one of the most iconic photos from Rio: snapped in mid-air on their victory lap, American flags behind them.
“Everywhere we went from then on, they said, ‘Hey, can you guys do the jump?’”
Ali also shared the spotlight with Titus, who ran onto the track after the race. Titus’ father, Michael Tinsley, was also a Rio Olympian, running the 400-meter hurdles, and Titus is with him this week in Texas while Ali is in Doha. Tinsley was the Olympic silver medalist at the London Games and will also compete on the Diamond League circuit this season.
“Titus has been to so many different meets, he’s traveled everywhere, so it’s definitely something he’ll enjoy doing till we’re done,” Ali said, “and then we’ll be cheering him on.”
In Doha, Ali will line up against a stellar field that includes Team USA teammate Keni Harrison, the world-record holder at 12.20 seconds.
The others are Sharika Nelvis and Christina Manning of Team USA, Cindy Ofili of Great Britain, Phylicia George of Canada, Cindy Roleder of Germany and Megan Symmonds of Jamaica.
Ali and Roleder are the only competitors who have not raced yet this season. Harrison ran 12.56 seconds under cold and rainy conditions at the Drake Relays last weekend.
Ali, whose personal best is 12.48 seconds, had planned to open her season at Drake, but her calf muscles cramped up that week at practice and she backed off to avoid injury.
However, when Ali saw that the temperature was 44 degrees, she wished she’d been there.
“Because I’m from Philly, I’m like, ‘Aw, that’s my weather,’” she said. “I literally love running in rain.”
Alas, Doha is expected to be hot and dry. Ali also plans to race the Caribbean circuit, the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, and the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships in Sacramento June 22-25, the qualifier for the world championships in London in August.
“I’m feeling good about the season as a whole,” said Ali, the world indoor champion in the 60-meter hurdles in 2014 and 2016. “My goal is to get through this year with some consistency in my race. I feel like last year, and even previous years, I’ve always been known as this clutch performer. I really want to be solid all year round and then still be able to perform on race day.”
At the world championships, Team USA has a chance to achieve another unprecedented feat: go 1-2-3-4. Because Harrison is the reigning world champion, she gets a bye. That leaves three more spots in the most loaded event on the American scene.
Going into the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field, 11 of the top 15 performers on the international list were American. Harrison had the four fastest times in the world, but – in a shocking turn of events – placed sixth and did not qualify for Rio.
“I enjoy being in a loaded event because it’s always fun and it’s unpredictable,” said Ali, who was third at the trials, “and I feel that’s what keeps people watching us.”
To accomplish the sweep in Rio, Ali said she, Rollins and Castlin had to “believe in one other and pump each other up. We had to pray together, talk with each other, really tell each other, ‘Hey, I have faith in you. I believe any one of us can win, so we’re going out there to try to win. Don’t try to get 1-2-3. Go for the win.’”
Ali is also supporting Rollins as she serves a one-year suspension for failing to properly file her whereabouts for drug testing.
“She made a mistake that plenty of us have made before, and it’s super easy to make,” Ali said. “I definitely reached out to her and told her, ‘Hey, you’re my friend first, and I want to make sure your head is on good.’ People are so relentless. They troll on Twitter and Instagram and just tear you apart, and forget that you’re human. I told her, ‘Do whatever you have to do to come back just as strong as you left.’”
Ali has a skill – or actually six of them – that differentiates her from other 100-meter hurdlers. She’s also competitive in the heptathlon, an event she has mostly kept in reserve.
“The heptathlon is always in the back of my mind for 2020,” said Ali. “It’s definitely something I want to conquer. I feel like I haven’t peaked and I have a lot to offer to the event. I just have to find some stability in my primary event first, and then I’ll figure out the heptathlon down the line.”
At the Mt. Sac Relays/California Invitational in April 2016, Ali finished third with a personal best of 5,870 points. She led after the first day with 3,712 points following the 100 hurdles (in which she ran 13.14 seconds to grab 1,103 points), the high jump, shot put and 200-meter.
The second day comprised the long jump, javelin – her weakest event at that meet with 623 points – and 800-meter.
With the retirement of Olympic medalists Jessica Ennis-Hill of Great Britain and Brianne Theisen-Eaton of Canada, “the top people are clearing out right now,” said Ali, who was fourth in the 2009 NCAA heptathlon with 5,824 points for the University of Southern California.
“It’s such a fun event. The ladies who compete are so genuine. I just love being around them. It’s definitely something I want to go back to.”
Ali considered doing the heptathlon at the Olympic trials, but it was the day after she qualified for Rio in the hurdles. “I made the team, yay! So to wake up the next morning and do the hep, I was like ‘No…’”
Improvement in the heptathlon begins with her signature event. “I haven’t run a fast hurdle time in a hep before, which is quite odd,” said Ali. “I’ve always done just enough to win the race, and it’s never been a fast time – also on top of the fact the hep starts at 9 in the morning…”
Ali said her second-best event is the high jump, while her most frustrating is the long jump, “because I can jump so high and run so fast, but it just doesn’t quite add up.”
Ali picked up the shot put easily “because I used to dance,” she said. “It’s a timing thing and moving your hips and power, so those are things I’m pretty strong with.”
Ali said she just needs “to get the technicalities down” with the javelin, but has experience with the grueling two-lap final event after running the 800 and 1,500 growing up.
While Ali makes it a habit not to eat anything on the day she competes in the 100 hurdles – “My anxiety is through the roof, and I like to feel really light” – she is more relaxed for the two-day heptathlon.
“Eating between events is not that much of a problem,” said Ali, though she added, “I have done the whole first day without eating.”
Ali also had a case of the nerves when she began doing speaking engagements in the offseason, but quickly warmed to the role.
“What I like to touch on the most is being limitless,” she said, “because I come from the inner city where I recognized so much talent growing up, but they never went anywhere. I think it’s because they felt like they were good, but deep down inside, they didn’t know how to get there or that it was possible.”
Ali has come back from tragedy – her father killed himself in 2009 in a murder-suicide – and her unexpected pregnancy in the pre-Olympic year, and now has to contend with the stress of entering the season without a sponsor.
“I know how to persevere, that’s for sure,” she said. “You don’t want to always have to come from behind, but persevering is what it’s all about. I’m just happy that it’s the part of my story, honestly, because the more I go through, the more I can share and the more I can be relatable.
“Because if I’m relatable and I’m successful, then more people can succeed.”