Omar McLeod loves being in the spotlight, and he’s not shy to admit it.
“Ever since I was a kid I knew I wanted to be famous,” he laughed.
“I wanted to be a TV personality. I wanted to be an Olympian. I wanted to be a gold medallist. I used to be a wild dreamer.”
Like most Jamaican kids, he was a student of the country’s national sporting: running. Like everyone else, he was inspired by the exploits of Usain Bolt, the eight-time Olympic gold medallist who has been immortalized as the greatest sprinter mankind has ever known.
And so McLeod ran. On anything. Over everything.
He used to set up buckets and trash cans on the road and challenge his friends. Every time he saw a speed bump on the road he just had to vault over it.
“I loved hurdling. It was like I was born to be a hurdler,” he said.
Whenever his mother sent him on an errand to buy groceries, McLeod and his cousins would take up starting positions outside his home before racing to the store, running on dirt tracks, tarred roads and through grassy fields. There were no medals for victory, just sweets.
Just like Bolt’s Olympic career, McLeod was undefeated.
“I ended up winning all the sweets so my aunt told me I had to share with the rest of the kids or I would get lots of cavities,” he chuckled.
McLeod went on to run for Manchester High School and Kingston College before moving to the United States. There, he lit up the collegiate athletics scene with the Arkansas Razorbacks, becoming a four-time NCAA champion in the 60m and 110m hurdles as well as the 4x100m relay.
The man loves his discipline. Each hurdle, he said, reminds him of the struggles he went through in life. The death of his beloved aunt in 2014 is the most significant one of all. She was only 27 years old.
“When she passed away, I was reintroduced to myself. It was one of those redefining moments that got me thinking about what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.
“I realised that life is short – I really had to go after what I wanted.”
And go for it he did. The next year, he clocked 12:97 to beat Hansle Parchment, the national record holder of the 110m hurdles, at the 2015 Jamaican Championships. In April 2016, he posted 9.99 seconds in the 100m sprint at the John McDonnell Invitational in Fayetteville, US.
No other living being on this planet has managed to run the 110m hurdles and 100m sprint in under 13 and 10 seconds respectively.
Just like Bolt, McLeod had feats he could truly call his own.
His stock was now rising. But he knew he was far from perfect. Technique is something he knows he has to work on. He knows he could probably learn a thing or two from the Chinese.
“I know China is famous for their technical events. Last year when I was here I got to see how a Chinese athlete warms up. He was just doing a bunch of stretching exercises but his technique was amazing. He made the rest of us look really bad,” he laughed.
“Liu Xiang’s technique is just sublime. He never hits hurdles. He never falters. He always gets the job done. There is no hurdler in the world who does it like Liu Xiang.”
Moments later, McLeod couldn’t resist wresting the spotlight back from the Chinese legend.
“He reminds me of me. We don’t lean into the hurdle as much.”
His Achilles’ heel, ironically, is his explosive pace. He approaches the hurdles faster than he can react. He crashed out of two races before the 2016 Rio Olympics.
But the bruises he suffered were merely superficial. A few months later, on sport’s biggest stage, McLeod made history by becoming the first Jamaican to win the 110m hurdles at the Rio Olympics.
His childhood dream was now fulfilled. He was truly famous. He confessed that he took his time with the victory lap, savouring every bit of adulation that went his way.
“I just didn’t want that moment to pass. I ended up going back to the hotel at two or three in the morning,” he said.
“I spoke to my mum when I got back to the hotel. We started crying as soon as she called me.”
Has this fame gotten to his head? McLeod claims it hasn’t, saying the quotes from the Bible he frequently gets from his family and agents help to tame the beast named Pride. He claims that his child-like personality has a nullifying effect on egotism, too. He admits to playing a lot of video games and watching Pokemon. He also sings regularly in the church choir.
Ambition, however, is his biggest anchor.
“I’m still young, there’s so much more I have to accomplish – that’s also what keeps me grounded,” he said, before citing the Bible verse Luke 12:48.
“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
This is turning out to be a good year for McLeod. In February, he broke Jamaica’s indoor 200m record. In April, he became the new record holder of the 110m hurdles at the Drake Relays in Iowa.
His latest 110m hurdles triumph came last Saturday at the Shanghai Diamond League. Again, his pace threatened to derail his race. He sent the second hurdle crashing to the track. But he was unfazed, never once losing the lead in a tight race that saw Spain’s Orlando Ortega breath down his neck every inch of the way. But it was also this power that sealed the win in the final three meters, allowing him to peel away from the Spaniard to finish 0.06 seconds quicker.
Despite declaring that he was the man to beat at Saturday’s meet, he knew better than to be smug about his status as Olympic champion.
“Ortega is one of the best. There was no time for complacency. I didn’t get to control the race the way I wanted to but I felt him and all I wanted to do was maintain my composure,” he said.
“I knew with my speed and technique I would get to the line first.”
If anything, the pressure of being at the top has amplified his hunger. He wants to win the world championships in August. He wants to focus on training for his favourite event, the 200m, next year.
But what about the 100m? McLeod knows he’s got the pace but he isn’t a big fan of the blue ribbon event.
“There are so many technicalities involved in running a 100m that I didn’t know about. I used to think that you just go into the blocks and run. But when I ran it, I ran it like the hurdles. It was so much harder. There is no drive phase, no transition. I told my coach: ‘Man, this is hard!’” he laughed.
“You get some leeway for the 200m. You can back off a little bit and make your move. I love the event. I actually like it more than the hurdles.”
Breaking the world record held by Aries Merritt is also on the cards, but McLeod is in no hurry to do so. In reality, he has all the time to do so. He is only 23.
“I’m still a learner of the sport. I think people forget how young I am. I want to break the world record when I’m ready. If it’s not this year, that’s fine. But that’s a career objective for sure.”
McLeod paused when asked what his secret is. He doesn’t fancy Jamaican yam like Bolt does. He settled for something a little more visceral, saying it was all about “just being myself.”
Then he grinned, his eyes lighting up. It was fried chicken.
“Actually, I think my secret would be Popeyes. Yeah, I love Popeyes.”
The rising star has already been compared to Bolt, the legend he has revered since childhood. Only a few athletes in the world get to enjoy such an honour, but that isn’t quite enough for McLeod. He’s not interested in living in someone else’s shadow.
Because he loves being in the spotlight, and he’s still not shy to admit it.
“I do not want to be Usain Bolt. I want be my own spark to the sport,” he said.
“I want to be Omar McLeod.”