"Khalifa is fearless in a way that I've never seen a young female sprinter, so she goes out there and has fun and truly enjoys it. That's championship pedigree."
Ato Boldon was high in praise for Khalifa St Fort, the 17-year-old sprinter he steered to girls' 100 metres silver at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia.
Boldon is no stranger to the global stage. He has four Olympic medals, and is the 1997 200m world champion. But on Thursday night, the retired track star experienced a global final as a coach for the very first time.
"New territory for me man," Boldon told the Express.
"I was nervous for that first round like never before, but she was so calm and assured she reassured me. Plus she was waving and smiling and talking to people before the race, so I said ok if she is that calm I should be too."
Boldon was very proud of his young charge.
"To be quite honest I am getting way too much credit for her progress. She is that good. She just needed someone to see it, believe In her and stop making her feel like she wasn't good enough compared to other athletes who were better known or higher rated. For me to be able to contribute to what she has done is amazing, because it's so unexpected. I never planned to be here, but I'm glad God put me here, because she has made my year!"
In Thursday's final, American-born St Fort clocked 11.19 seconds, her third T&T under-18 record in the space of nine hours. She clocked 11.39 in the first round, and then bettered her national standard with an 11.24 run in the semis. It took an 11.08 seconds Championship record run from American world youth record holder Candace Hill to deny St Fort the global title.
"Khalifa has been under-appreciated, under-coached, under-valued and under-rated for the past two years, so my surprise is not the times. I told her father she would run 11.2 when we started training last year. In practice I can see she is actually on course to run 11.0. She has had awful luck with no tailwinds at all in any of her big races since she has been ready to roll. The 11.19 was with no wind whatsoever.
"My plan," Boldon declared, "doesn't involve getting her ready for April or May. It involves getting her ready for July and August. The surprise for me was how well she performs under pressure. At 17!? She was up against the fastest girl in history, and her attitude was she will have to run her best race ever to beat me, which is what happened. Candace's time with no wind is superior to her 10.98 with a 2.0."
St Fort's 11.19 scorcher is 14-hundredths of a second faster than the 11.33 IAAF World Championship qualifying standard. Boldon said he wants the talented teen to represent the Red, White and Black at the August 22-30 World Champs in Beijing, China.
"I am going to officially ask Monday that she be sent to Beijing, even though it will be a little complicated with school. I don't think she should go just because of the times she ran and because only Kelly-Ann Baptiste and Michelle-Lee Ahye have run faster. I think she should go because it's an investment in arguably the best young female sprinter we have ever had.
"She is ready," Coach Ato continued, "her confidence is sky high and she is hungry. I had to tell her she could not practice today (Saturday), but we are back to work on Sunday (yesterday). She can run 11.0 with a tailwind and she has nothing to lose and everything to gain by being in Beijing in terms of experience and big stage reps."
Boldon added that St Fort will enhance T&T's chances in the women's 4x100m relay.
"As people saw from Colombia she will not be overwhelmed by the occasion. The women have done well in semi-finals and not so much in finals. I would like to be given a chance to fix that. They'll be medal contenders in Beijing, Khalifa or not, but Khalifa can make that team better. Khalifa on that relay is an investment in the country's future, and the start of ending our Olympic drought on the women's side."
No female athlete from T&T has ever achieved a podium finish at the Olympic Games. Boldon believes that statistic could change at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
"Next year might be a bit early for an individual Olympic medal (from Khalifa) at 18, but relay definitely. I think Kelly-Ann and Michelle are capable of ending the Olympic female drought individually, but if not, Khalifa is the one, in Tokyo 2020 when she will be 22. I was that age," Boldon ended, "when I ended the drought from 1976-96."
St Fort's silver was T&T's only medal at the 2015 IAAF World Youth Championships. It ended a 10-year drought at the global under-18 meet, and earned the country joint-26th spot on the medal table, with Austria, Norway, Poland and Turkey.
United States finished first with eight gold medals, five silver and six bronze, while Kenya (five gold, four silver, four bronze) and Japan (three gold, one silver, one bronze) were second and third, respectively. Jamaica, with one gold medal, were joint-16th, with Ecuador, Moldova, Romania and Switzerland.