KINGSTON, Jamaica —It’s just after 6 a.m. at the University of Technology’s Back Field, and Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, known as the Pocket Rocket because of how she explosively launches her 5-foot frame off the blocks, is singing along to Adele’s “Hello,” which is blasting into her ears through pink headphones. The storied Blue Mountains loom in the distance behind her.
“I’m sor-ry for breaking your heart,” she croons, pulling up the collar of her gray performance shirt to wipe some sweat off her forehead. She was the first to arrive for practice at 5 a.m., listening to Donnie McClurkin gospel music in her black Mercedes-Benz ML350 and reflecting on her “overall gratitude for the morning” before starting her stretches — bending down every three paces to touch a pointed toe like a pecking egret.
Like her countryman Usain Bolt, she owns the 100-meter race. In Beijing at 21 years old, she took Olympic gold, and she repeated the feat at the London Games in 2012. Now on the cusp of 30, she’s looking for a three-peat this summer at the Rio Games. But though she’s dominated her sport in the world championships and Olympics, her meteoric rise has occurred remarkably under the radar, especially compared with Bolt’s.
Standing by the chain-link fence as she swigs some water, she jovially chats with a middle-aged campus employee who stops by this MVP Track & Field Club practice every morning to see history in motion. He also has a crush on her 23-year-old teammate Elaine Thompson, and Fraser-Pryce gently ribs him about his slim chances.
Thompson, who with Fraser-Pryce was part of the 4x100 gold medal relay team at the 2015 world championships in Beijing, has something else on her mind: a carb-heavy breakfast.
“You want dumpling?” Fraser-Pryce says to motivate her teammate. “Then you have to work hard.”
Fraser-Pryce takes on a sort of mother-hen persona here at practice as the understated captain to whom other runners flock. She speaks in rapid patois. “Weh yuh ah seh?” she offers as a common salutation. When someone doesn’t hear her, she will jocularly question, “Yuh deaf?”
Fraser-Pryce has flyers advertising an upcoming fundraiser at Kingston’s Penwood Church of Christ, which she has attended since she was 4. A portion of the ticket sales for “Runeesha and the Birds,” inspired by her career, would go to the church in the Waterhouse ghetto where she grew up.
Her ascent from the ghettos of Kingston — amid the political strife on the island in the 1980s and 1990s — made her success all the more improbable, but her time there strengthened her grit and introduced her to running by unexpected means. Her mother, Maxine Simpson, supported her three children by working as a higgler, a street vendor. A single mother and promising athlete in her own right who had gotten pregnant in her teens, she didn’t want her only daughter to meet the same fate and was extra strict with her. Trying to flee her mother’s overbearing watchfulness gave Fraser-Pryce a reputation in the Waterhouse as a fast runner who heard the name of one of the country’s great runners as she dashed through the lanes.
“There are times when I was a little older and she wanted to give me a whipping, she’d run me down, and I’d run down the street, and the guys would say, ‘Run-run, Merlene Ottey, run,’ ” Fraser-Pryce says.
She now lives with her husband not far from Bob Marley’s old house in Kingston’s Barbican neighborhood, but she doesn’t forget her humble origins.
Come 7 o’clock, with the sun rising, a whistle blows to start the serious running portion of the practice. Fraser-Pryce pulls a pair of 16-pound weighted shorts over her black stretch pants and touches her hands down to her lime-green running shoe s. She straps on her GPS watch as if she’s going into battle.
She will run four timed repeats of 50 meters . She’s listening to Lauryn Hill, getting in the zone.
Of course, Fraser-Pryce is still networking with the guys on the field — little enterpriser that she is — trying to convince them to support her fundraiser.
“God will bless you,” she says.
By 7:15, she runs her first sprint, kicking up turf on the all-grass field. It’s an active rest week because a large percentage of the athletes would soon compete in the Jamaican Collegiate Track and Field Championships. But she’s not taking it easy, blasting Beyoncé’s “Formation” from her headphones to psyche herself up. Her diminutive physique is uncharacteristic of sprinters competing at this distance, but even though she’s wearing the weighted shorts, she’s even with her teammates on the finish line. She pedals those little legs like rapid-fire pistons fueled by a diet of yams and ackee and saltfish.
After her fourth sprint, she cools down by strapping on some resistance bands and walking with an eight-pound medicine ball in a series of compound exercises. She later uses that ball in an ab workout with Thompson.
Once practice finishes come 8, she heads to nearby Shelly’s Cafe, a campus eatery she opened last spring. She’s the first female athlete to take home three gold medals at a single worlds, and though expectations are high, the big question is whether she can take home a third Olympic gold in the 100 in Rio. “I’m also wondering myself,” Fraser-Pryce says, but it’s not something she’s letting herself dwell over.
“For me, I try not to think about it too much, because you find that if you think about it too much, then you start to panic at every little thing that goes on in training,” she says. “I’m trying not to overwork the muscles because I’m thinking about accomplishing this great feat.”
Many competitors could stand in her way, such as her buddy Thompson and Veronica Campbell-Brown from Jamaica, Blessing Okagbare from Nigeria , Michelle-Lee Ahye from Trinidad and Tobago, and Dafne Schippers from the Netherlands.
Fraser-Pryce hasn’t been on the track at all this year except for a 4x100 relay in February and another at Penn Relays on Saturday, and she has battled tendonosis in her knees and some toe issues. But even as her body succumbs to age, she thinks she can run faster times now given her experience.
“For training, you know what works and what doesn’t work,” she says. “And you know where you fall short and you need to pick up, so I’m not worried about the age factor.”
She may be right not to worry. Fraser-Pryce has the fourth-fastest time ever in the 100 at 10.70 seconds, just behind Marion Jones’s 10.65. But American Carmelita Jeter, now 36 and still active, ran the second-fastest time in the event at 10.64 in 2009 when she was about Fraser-Pryce’s age. In 1988, when Florence Griffith Joyner ran the 100 in 10.49, a world record that has stood unbroken for almost 30 years, she was nearly 29.
Despite Fraser-Pryce’s success, she has played second fiddle to Bolt, who trains at his own track with the Racers Track Club at the University of the West Indies at Mona. His bumping nightlife spot Tracks and Records, far more chichi than mellow Shelly’s Cafe, is perhaps an apt representation of their public receptions worldwide — with Bolt as an animated ambassador for the sport and Fraser-Pryce a subtler figure.
“Usain brings a different level of competition to the sport, and also I guess it has to do with his exuberance,” she says.
Even though she doesn’t crave the spotlight, she does want equal treatment. Recently, the controversial comments from the CEO of Indian Wells Tennis Garden (Calif.), saying female players ride the coattails of their male counterparts, along with the ongoing wage discrimination lawsuit by members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team against the U.S. Soccer Federation, have attracted attention to this issue.
“The only thing I advocate for is for equality for female athletes because we train just as hard and we’re always having a lot of head-to-head clashes, always competing against each other,” Fraser-Pryce says. “So I definitely think in terms of not only our sponsors but our meet organizers and stuff like that, definitely should push a lot more the female athletes out there.”
She leaves the café, stopping by her house before heading to the hair salon she owns, Chic Hair Ja, to do something crazy to her locks before her 3 p.m. workout. Changing her hair, she says, is also part of her routine in competition.
“It relaxes me, just gets me feeling happy and not worried about anything but having fun and enjoying the moment,” she says. “It takes away the nervousness.”
Fraser-Pryce, who is vocal about the role of her faith in her pursuits, believes she is moving toward something greater beyond the track in her message.
“I believe there’s no coincidences in life,” she says. “I believe that God has given me the ability to do what I do for a bigger purpose. And that purpose is not only to bring awareness to His name but to the persons in my community.”