Brianna Rollins finishes the women's 100m hurdles at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Brianna McNeal wanted to let loose and run as fast as possible. Instead, she was told to just slow down.
Lawrence Johnson, McNeal’s personal coach, had devised a plan to get the world’s top-ranked women’s hurdler prepared for what will almost certainly be another busy year.
His plan called for 27-year-old McNeal to spend more time in the offseason improving her technique and getting fit than showing off her record-breaking speed.
“(My training) has been a lot different, so things have been a lot slower than usual,” McNeal told TeamUSA.org. “At first, it was uncomfortable for me, but my coach told me to just continue to trust the process and everything will be fine.”
Running fast has never been a problem for McNeal, who established herself as a track sensation while competing under her maiden name of Rollins. An NCAA champion at Clemson, Rollins went on to earn a gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2013 world championships in Moscow.
Then, the day before her 25th birthday, McNeal led an American sweep in the 100-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 with her gold-medal finish in 12.48 seconds.
McNeal was, by any measure, at the top of the sport. But rather than keep things the same, Johnson asked her to stay patient this offseason as he changed up her training regimen. He wanted her to practice differently with the 2019 world championships quickly approaching and the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 not much farther on the horizon.
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McNeal would eventually get opportunities to race on the track, including Friday when the 2019 IAAF Diamond League season opens in Doha — the site of the upcoming world championships.
But first Johnson wanted McNeal to take a step back and improve the small things in her technique that could make a difference as she looks to defend her 100-meter hurdles title in Tokyo.
“I was a little impatient for a little bit,” McNeal said of the change to her training. “But once we started to actually hurdle and things started feeling better, that’s when I was like ‘OK, I can relax. I’m OK. I’m good.’
“But you know, as an elite athlete and as a champion myself, I always want to run fast. I don’t ever want to not run fast.”
MeNeal wasn’t able to race at all during a one-year suspension for missing three drug tests in 2016, but she said she wasn’t surprised that she came back and immediately returned to her old form — and her place atop the podium.
In her first race in 20 months, McNeal won the 100-meter hurdles at the 2018 Stanford Invitational in 12.62 seconds, which was then the fastest time of the year. Her next race was even faster.
She was again dominant during the 2018 Diamond League season, winning four races — including the final — despite missing the entire 2017 season. Her winning time of 12.38 seconds at the Diamond League race in Stockholm was the second fastest time in the world that year.
In total, she posted four of the seven fastest times in 2018.
“I definitely have had people say that it’s going to be hard for you to come back after having a full year of not competing,” McNeal said. “But I don’t let people put things in my head. I don’t doubt myself and my capabilities.
“I did stop running. I didn’t run for a little while, but I kept myself in the weight room. … I didn’t completely shut my body down. I continued to do things, and I think that’s why I was able to be successful the next year.”
As much as McNeal hoped to avoid the suspension, it wasn’t the first time she had to stop competing for unforeseen reasons. She has had to shut down her season a few times because of injuries, only to return and be successful the following year.
At the moment, McNeal’s gold medal from Rio is packed away because she hasn’t found a proper place for it in her house. She hopes to eventually add a gold medal from the Tokyo Games to it.
“Of course, that’s definitely a goal of mine to get another medal. Hopefully, we’ll win another gold medal,” McNeal said. “Those are definitely my goals.”
In the meantime, she wants to stay focused on the events immediately ahead of her.
McNeal opened her 2019 season in late March by winning the 100-meter at the Stanford Invitational in 11.43 seconds. She’ll get back to competing in the hurdles during the Diamond League season as a tune-up for the world championships.
“I don’t ever really look too far ahead,” McNeal said. “I just focus on what I have to do right now, and my main focus this year is the world championships.
“The Diamond League is just like icing on the cake.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.