Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce dominated women’s sprinting for the last 15 years. In a recent interview, the five-time world 100m champion and eight-time Olympic medalist reflected on legacy, motherhood, retirement plans, life lessons and Black beauty.
*Edited for length and clarity.
OlympicTalk: You are one of the fastest women in the world, the Mommy Rocket herself. A lot of people see your success now but don’t understand where you came from. Can you describe what growing up in Waterhouse, Jamaica was like?
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce: Waterhouse is a really big neighborhood in Kingston, and it was one of those places where you don’t really have a lot of positive role models. You’re stuck with seeing the influences of other individuals around you and trying to find your way as a teenager.
I lived in a group of homes in a big space called a tenement yard with my two brothers and my mom. The four of us slept on one bed. We had to adjust the way we slept — two heads at the top and two heads at the bottom — to make sure everybody could fit. My bathroom was actually outside. My mom would have to follow me outside and wait for me there as I showered to get ready for school.
A lot of people from my community went to very good schools, but a lot of them didn’t pass. For the girls, they didn’t pass third form (eighth or ninth grade) because they got pregnant. A lot of the boys didn’t survive first form (seventh grade) because they would drop out, join gangs or just skip school to smoke. It was difficult to see that your friends were getting pregnant and just having one kid after another at that age.
I had a strict mom who was really passionate about track and field. From an early age, she always told me that the sport would be my way out. She never let me go outside or talk to the boys on the street to protect me from that lifestyle. It was crazy for me to imagine a future for me as an athlete and also as a girl. I struggled with that identity growing up. Most times I didn’t even tell people at my school that I was from Waterhouse. I would take the bus and get off at a different bus stop and would lie to my friends and tell them I lived around there — which cost me a lot of money.
When I was younger I never knew I was poor. When I got to high school and saw other students getting dropped off in nice cars, and I had to take to the bus, I realized I was poor.
My mom actually sold different things on the streets. I was ashamed because sometimes she would come into school to sell to my teachers, and I would be hiding under the desk. It was difficult. You’re constantly comparing who you are and where you’re from to where your friends are from and who their parents are.
Now that I’m older, I understand clearly that she was doing the best she could with what she had. I appreciate the fact that she never really gave up. She really tried to do her best to make sure that she was steering me on the right path because it was very easy to be distracted by everything that was going on in the community.
How did you get your start in track and field, and at what point do you remember falling in love with the sport?
Fraser-Pryce: The people in my community always called me Merlene Ottey (nine-time Jamaican Olympic medalist sprinter) as a kid because I was always running. When I was about 3 or 4 years old, we had an earthquake. I remember running from the school to my house, and the place was shaking.
I was just always running. I ran barefoot in primary school until my teacher bought me spikes in grade six.
Growing up, I always just went to track training and never really believed that I could be an Olympic athlete or a world champion or even a gold medalist. I was just doing it because my mom said I should do it.
During high school, I was still unsure, but I had so many people telling me that I was good at what I did and that I needed to just focus and really tap into it. I didn’t really believe it at that moment, and I didn’t have the passion for it until I had a breakthrough at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan — my first world championships. I was part of the reserve team (ran in the 4x100m relay heats) and truly just happy to be there. I remember sitting in the stadium, watching the athletes compete, and that’s when everything clicked for me.
I saw so many different raw emotions. I saw people winning, people getting defeated. I saw people crying, laughing, celebrating, and it was just so fascinating. I’m sure it was a result of their hard work and realizing they were in control of their destiny and the things they wanted to accomplish, and it was just mind-blowing. When I got back to Jamaica after that championship, I actually started to read up on getting my BMI in check and going to the gym. I decided for myself that I wanted to do track and field. That’s where the change came.
I went from being stifled by my environment and wanting to follow friends and not having a lot of positive role models to finally being aware of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to become. It was really a life-changing moment for me.
Since then you’ve added many medals to your collection. Let’s walk down memory lane a bit. Give me one word to describe yourself during the following events. 2008 Olympics (gold in 100m).
Fraser-Pryce: Blown away. I was blown away because I really just never expected to win. I was really just excited to be there. My goal going in was to make the team, and then when I made the team it was to make the finals. To be able to come so far beyond that was just mind-blowing. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I remember telling my friends like a couple days before when we were all in the room talking, and they asked me, ‘What would you do if you win the gold medal?’ I told them I would jump and scream. Little did I know I was literally saying everything that was gonna happen, I did exactly what I said I would do. There’s so much power in just speaking — saying what you want to accomplish in your dreams and everything. It was out of this world. I just couldn’t imagine that I actually won an Olympic medal. I look back at the year before (fifth in the 100m at the 2007 Jamaican Championships at age 20), and I’m like a lot can change in a year.
2012 Olympics (gold in 100m).
Fraser-Pryce: Let me first say that my second Olympics was when I was already aware of what’s happening in the sense that I’ve already won an Olympics and world championships. I think when I went into the 2012 Games I was relieved.
I had a lot of pressure going into that Olympic Games. I definitely felt relieved crossing that line because I wanted it so bad. I wanted to back it up to prove that I’m good and that I belong.
2016 Olympics (bronze in 100m).
Fraser-Pryce: Disappointed but content. I had a horrible year because I was dealing with a toe injury that was really bad. I never thought I would actually make it to the national championship much less going to the Games because I couldn’t train for months. I couldn’t put my foot in my spikes. When I got to the line for the Olympics, I was like, listen, we’re just gonna do this, and whatever happens, happens. But I’m glad I was there. I fought so hard to be there, and I was grateful and content because I did all I could, but at the same time I still felt disappointed that I was not able to show up 100%. I was satisfied that I got the bronze medal.
2019 World Championships (fourth world title, 100m).
Fraser-Pryce: There’s so many words to describe that moment. I felt powerful. I felt victorious. I felt triumphant. I just felt a feeling like I could do anything, you know? This was definitely my moment.
I missed the 2017 World Championships because I was pregnant. I was so mad because I wanted to be there [in 2017] and defend my title, but there I was watching the world championships with a huge stomach, not being able to run. It was really hard for me as an athlete. I think that’s why it’s so important to know who you are as an athlete and a person. At the end of the day, track and field will have to end, and you don’t want all your worth to be in just sports because when you take it away, you’ll feel like your world has crumbled.
I was excited to welcome my son, but it was definitely a rough time for me because I wanted to compete. I was watching the world championships on the TV and screaming for my girls.
I remember doing a speaking engagement and telling the audience that 2019 was going to be the greatest comeback ever because I was determined to return to the sport. I knew it in my heart and soul that motherhood was going to be an advantage, a superpower. It was going to help me get to the next level because I was more focused. I was hungry. I had my son, and I had new motivation. I felt rejuvenated. I felt like I was ready.
I came back, and I started to work knowing that it would be a difficult comeback. I knew that I needed to have patience and to listen to my body — especially after having a C-section — and I was OK with all of that.
When I finally got to the 2019 World Championships, I was happy and excited. At the line I felt like I could do anything. I remember hearing the gun, and I took off. When I crossed that line I knew it was a victory, not just for me but for so many other women. For so many other mothers. When we were younger they told us motherhood will have to wait ’til after you stop running because it’s going to ruin your career. There’s this constant fear in your head when it comes to motherhood and starting a family, so crossing that line was a moment not just to be celebrated for me as a Jamaican woman but for an athlete, someone who became a mom after 30.
When you turn a certain age, people like to dictate what you can and can’t do. It happens with women more than it does with men. People think that when women turn 30 you’re supposed to be put on a shelf, and that it’s for us. Being able to defy all those in odds in one race was just brilliant. Having my son in that moment was equally rewarding and fulfilling. To see the very person who I thought at the time was going to end everything become the person that started everything … it was an unbelievable moment.
Tokyo Olympics (silver in 100m).
Fraser-Pryce: Confused. I literally didn’t know what happened because I was ready. I changed coaches, so this was my first time going to the event with a new coach. There were so many things that were going on. When I got to the line, one thing that happened differently than before was that my coach was talking to me so much about nailing my start. I usually never have a bad start. I think I was overthinking it, and I had a slight stumble on my third step and just panicked.
I ran the worst race that I could have ran, and I felt like I never gave myself the chance to compete in the best way I could. That hurt. I crossed the line, and I felt so disappointed in the moment. At the end of the da,y I was still grateful that I was able to finish on the podium. It’s better to feel disappointed standing on the podium than it is off of the podium.
2022 World Championships (fifth world title, 100m).
This last season I’ve had so much fun — more fun than I’ve ever had in a long time on the track. Being a consistent 10.6 runner going into the world championships was mind-blowing in itself. I never even thought that was possible and I knew that if I was able to consistently run 10.6 seconds then it means there’s still a peak to come. I didn’t want to stress myself out by thinking I needed to match that number in Oregon, I just needed and wanted to win.
Coming across the line, especially being in Oregon where a lot of Jamaicans had the opportunity to come, and the fact that the university already had the green and yellow colors in the stadium, the vibe was just right. I had fun. It was energetic. It was everything. To cross the line again with my fifth world title was definitely one of those record-breaking moments for me adding to my story and legacy of creating your own narrative and finishing on your time. Of not allowing people to dictate what you do and when you do it. If you believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter if anybody goes along with you as long as you’re willing to go the distance to prove yourself.
I definitely believe I can run 10.5, and once I run 10.5 I know 10.4 is possible. I’m chasing this legacy of outdoing myself and putting myself in a position where I can evolve and become extraordinary.
(Editor’s Note: The women’s 100m world record is 10.49, set by Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988. Fraser-Pryce’s personal best of 10.60 makes her the third-fastest woman in history.)
You’ve talked in the past about healing along the way on your journey. What are some of the things you’ve healed from, and how did you do it?
Fraser-Pryce: I think some of the things I’ve healed from include being OK with not telling your side of the story. I’ve realized when you close chapters in your life it’s OK to forgive and move on and not speak about it to the point where you feel you need to be vindicated. If I know the truth, then I’m good. I thank God he’s given me that peace. At the end of the day, he says vindication comes from him and he’ll handle it. Everything in life is a lesson, and it doesn’t matter if we get an apology or not.
What was something you felt you needed vindication from specifically?
Fraser-Pryce: A lot of people still ask me about why I left MVP [Track Club] and the reason I left my coach to join a new camp. Everybody wanted a story, but I truly just never had one to tell. I just felt it was time to move on and do something new. I wanted to embark on that journey for myself. At this age, I deserve to do something on my own, and I was excited about it and embraced that change. People thought that getting a bronze at the Tokyo Games was proof that I should have not left [MVP to join a new club], but at the end of the day I ran 10.6 (at the 2021 Lausanne Diamond League), so there’s a lot to be grateful for in this new beginning.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Fraser-Pryce: Keep showing up. It gets better. Keep trusting the timing of your life and that everything that happens to you is for a reason, and it will ultimately work for your good. Surround yourself with positive people who are going to be there for the long haul. Not those who are here for a short-term stay. We’re not running an Airbnb.
The people around me have made my career 100 times better because of the way they’ve poured into me. On good days and bad it makes a difference what you hear, and those positive people in my life have helped.
First people said, “You’re too young.” They didn’t want you to represent Jamaica in your first Olympics (some wanted Veronica Campbell-Brown to replace Fraser-Pryce on the 100m team in 2008). And now it’s “too old.” You have consistently transcended the limitations that people have tried to place on you in every single stage. How? Where does that confidence come from?
Fraser-Pryce: My confidence comes from God. I’ve always believed the word of God, and when he says that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, I believe those things. I believe when he says that he who has begun a good work in me will see it through to the very end. What he starts, he finishes. Those are the things that I forever hold on to. It’s in the foundation of everything I do. I’m also very stubborn. I don’t take no for an answer. I’m very competitive, and I’m not leaving until I get my way. It’s who I am.
My coaches and teammates keep telling me that I have another 10 years left. I don’t know about all of that, but having those people around me keeps me young and energized. At the end of the day, I have a dream that I really believe in. I know I’m not being forced to be here. I want to be here.
What is that dream?
Fraser-Pryce: I want to run 10.5 or 10.4.
How important is it to you to get that world record?
Fraser-Pryce: I’m working towards that, but I also don’t want it to be the end-all, be-all. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be satisfied knowing that I gave 100% towards that effort. Being able to push myself beyond something that a lot of people think is impossible has given me wings beneath my feet. I don’t want to limit myself. I want to think about potential and where I can go with that.
What single medal or accomplishment means the most to you?
Fraser-Pryce: It’s a tie between my 2008 Olympic gold and the 2019 World title.
What would it mean to be able to compete at a fifth Olympic Games for Jamaica?
Fraser-Pryce: It would be remarkable not just for me but for other young athletes that are watching. Some of us are late bloomers. Some people make their first Olympic team at 30, so it’s about defying those odds and showing people that you can do anything and age is just a number. Nobody gets to choose your path or tell you when to start or stop but you.
Are you planning for 2024 to be your last Olympics?
Fraser-Pryce: Yes, 2024 will definitely be my last Olympics. As I chase world championship and Olympic glory, the legacy that I leave off the track is important and my Pocket Rocket Foundation has been near and dear to me. We’ve been trying to expand on what we do here in Jamaica and hopefully go regional. Being able to run fast and win medals is great, but using that platform to give young people the chance to succeed and balance education with sports and transcend their own thoughts and ideas is what I’m passionate about as well.
Do you see that as your last year competing overall or will we see you competing in 2025 or 2026?
Fraser-Pryce: I definitely want 2024 to be my last hurrah. I’ve accomplished so much, and I’m so, so grateful for it all. All the people that I’ve been able to touch, all the memories that I’ve made. After the Olympics I want to make different memories.
Switching gears, I want to talk about Jamaica, a small island with a big punch in track and field. What makes track and field such a big part of Jamaican culture, and how much pride do you have representing your country?
Fraser-Pryce: To be from a small country — just a tiny dot on the map — and represent the way that we do is special. We’re little, but we’re tallawah. (Editor’s Note: Tallawah means strong in Jamaican Patois) Eighty percent of us are homegrown. We train here and to be able to represent in that way speaks to our tenacity. We don’t have the best resources, and we’re hoping it gets better, but we make what we have work for us. We show young girls here that you, too, can have that.
We run at every level of schooling, and Jamaicans love and support track and field here. We’re able to identify a lot of talent and nurture it and show our athletes that you can stay in Jamaica and train. Back in the day, a lot of athletes used to go overseas for school and to compete because we thought it was the only way.
(Editor’s Note: The Jamaican women swept the 100m podium at the 2008 Olympics, the Tokyo Games and the 2022 World Championships.)
Fraser-Pryce: Lots of pot covers, lots of screams and lots of excitement. It’s good for us as a nation because sometimes we don’t have a lot of things to be proud of, but track is definitely one of those things that unites the nation.
American viewers think about sprinting and often think of Usain Bolt. What do you want the world to know about the Jamaican women’s team?
Fraser-Pryce: We have phenomenal female athletes that continue to dominate. We’ve been showing up from the days of Merlene (Ottey) to today. We continue to prove that sometimes you have to send a woman to do a man’s job. As women, we’re here and we’re just as strong, powerful, fearless, and we continue to dominate, and we’re excited about what it means for females here in Jamaica. Looking back at the last world Championships, the majority of the [Jamaican] medals came from the females. We deserve all of the praise and accolades you would give to our male counterparts if they were dominating.
Switching gears — let’s talk about motherhood. Take me back to the day you found out you were pregnant. How did you find out, and what was your initial reaction?
Fraser-Pryce: I was a bit sick, so I took a test at home and it said I was pregnant and I remember thinking, impossible. So I bought six more, and I remember my husband saying, “You’re pregnant,” and I was still in disbelief, like no, I don’t think so. I stayed home for a week because I couldn’t believe it. I was really scared and nervous. I didn’t know how to tell my coach. I think I felt that way because I had just come back from the Rio Games and I was disappointed after dealing with a toe injury and I just wanted to give myself the chance to be in a better position [to win].
How hard was your recovery post C-section?
Fraser-Pryce: As a new mom I was scared. I remember calling my doctor every minute, asking “Is this supposed to hurt?” I remember coming home from the hospital with my son and thinking I need to go back because he was just crying, crying and crying, and I didn’t know why. I called my doctor just flustered, and she was like “Yeah, it happens. Babies cry, it’s OK.”
The recovery was difficult, but I really listened to my body during that time. I went back to practice 11 weeks after I had my son, and I did literally only two days. I didn’t put any weights on my shoulder. There were no (world) championships in 2018, so I had the opportunity to take my time to get back to fitness.
Tell me about your son Zyon. How did you pick his name?
Fraser-Pryce: I had my son’s name picked out from a long time ago because I’m a huge Lauryn Hill fan. (Editor’s Note: Hill has a song called “To Zion”)
I still have my CDs to this day that my friend bought for me in high school. I thought it was so fitting that choosing my son over my career was iconic, definitely a blessing for me, and I needed that rest. I’m very spiritual, and Mount Zion is also in the Bible. It’s in the City of David and considered the highest point. As a woman, I believe motherhood is right up there, so that’s why we went with the name.
I want to talk about breaking generational curses. You grew up in tenement yards, your mom had a baby when she was in high school and you’ve said that was something that was common in your community. When you look at your life and the kind of your life you’re able to provide for Zyon, what does that mean to you?
Fraser-Pryce: It means everything to be able to give Zyon, 5, the life that I never had when I was younger. It’s a huge blessing. Creating this new path for him gives him the opportunity to create for his children a new avenue and way. I’m so grateful for that, and I realize I did all of that standing on my mom’s shoulders.
She did the best that she could do with what she had, and it’s part of my story. Looking back, people ask “Would you change anything?” But ultimately all the sacrifices that she made gave me the willpower, strength, confidence, grit and resilience to get the job done. Being able to pass all that knowledge to my son is not giving him “the easy way out” in life but a better way for him. Just because I had it hard in life doesn’t mean he has to have it hard.
What’s the biggest lesson that being a mom has taught you, and what do you want people to know about being a mom, and an athlete and even age?
Fraser-Pryce: You’re not always going to get it right. I always wanted to be perfect. I remember buying my son the best things early on — diapers, clothes, etc. — thinking if I had those things it would make it easy, but it’s being able to understand that you’re not perfect, but it’s going to be worth it. Showing up each day, starting over and trying to get it right is what’s important. Also don’t beat yourself up. As a working mom, leaving my son and not being able to be with him 24/7 is difficult at times. I don’t get to drop him at school in the morning or pick him up at times, and it’s hard. But I know I’m doing my best to make a better way for him. Being present in the moment is what counts. What works for me might not work for other moms, so you really have to find your balance.
One other thing that motherhood has taught me is to be soft. I’ve never been an “I love you” person. I grew up tough. We’re taught that as Black women that we need to be strong, but I’ve learned that nothing is wrong with being soft and cuddly and mushy, and I think my son has made me that way. The older I get, I’m more appreciative of the village that I have — my nanny, who gives me so much support, my mother-in-law — and I’m more open to being vulnerable and admitting when I need help.
I turned 36 in December, and I’m not afraid to age. Age is a blessing, and I embrace it because you learn new things and see yourself in a different light.
What makes your relationship with your husband Jason so special?
Fraser-Pryce: We balance each other out. He’s definitely more on the soft side than I am, and he understands me a lot. He’s always there. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. He’s always showing up, whether it’s getting my water bottle ready for me to go to practice, packing the car with my equipment or staying at home with Zyon. He keeps everything floating. There are times when people talk about gender roles, but having someone who is so supportive, who has no problem cooking, it’s top-notch. You don’t just get that anywhere.
I want to talk about Black hair and beauty. It used to be “taboo” and almost embarrassing to talk about hair as a Black woman — the wigs, weaves, extensions — it’s a process. But I love that you’ve embraced it, you celebrate it and people look forward to seeing what hair color you’re going to have each race. Can you talk about what Black beauty means to you?
Fraser-Pryce: It’s about accentuating your own beauty and being comfortable in your skin and knowing that you’re already beautiful. You’re just adding to what’s already there. It’s about having fun and celebrating your crown in many different ways. It’s OK to celebrate that crown in whatever way you choose. I’ve always said it’s just hair. It’s going to grow back. Be comfortable with expressing yourself the way you want, and be confident in doing so. Hair doesn’t define you, and if anybody thinks it’s ghetto or has something [negative] to say, that’s on them.
Funny story, my mom actually used to wear blue wigs and white wigs to come to my sports day as a kid.
You often refer to yourself as a “hot girl.” What is that by definition?
Fraser-Pryce: In Jamaica we’re always hot girls. We get our hair done, nails, eyebrows, facials. Being a hot girl is self-care.
Time for rapid-fire questions: If track and field had walk-up songs, what would yours be?
Fraser-Pryce: “Big Energy” by LADIPOE.
If you could only listen to one artist for an entire workout who would it be?
Fraser-Pryce: Lauryn Hill.
I’m not ready for a race day without …
Fraser-Pryce: My lashes and my wigs.
If you weren’t competing in track and field, what other Olympic sport would you compete in?
Fraser-Pryce: Football (soccer).
Which actress is playing you when they make the movie about your life?
Fraser-Pryce: Keke Palmer.
Fraser-Pryce: Anything shrimp. Curry shrimp, fried shrimp.
Salty or sweet tooth?
Must-have food for anyone visiting Jamaica for the first time?
Fraser-Pryce: Ackee and saltfish, fried chicken, curry goat. I know you guys [in the U.S.] don’t mess with the goat, but in Jamaica it’s all goat for us.
(Editor’s Note: I guess you really are what you eat.)
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