On the Line with CJ Ujah

The record-breaking British sprinter and Nike athlete talks about his inspirations, the successes and near misses that come with living life down to the second, and wanting moreFor 23-year-old CJ Ujah, everything comes down to the split second. Since he started competing at age 15, the young sprinter has emerged as something of a prodigy in British athletics. In 2013, he became the European Junior Champion, and in 2014, his first year since graduating from the juniors category, he became the fifth and youngest ever Brit to run the 100-metre sprint in under 10 seconds. “I don’t think I realised what I did,” he says now. “It was a different life after that. I went from nothing to being Britain’s next sub-10 runner.”

Initially inspired to get into athletics after watching his older brother race, for Ujah, born in London, it was the image of Usain Bolt slapping his chest as he crossed the finish line in the 2008 Olympics that pushed him to take the sport seriously. “The style he broke the world record in was incredible,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Okay, maybe not the next Olympics, but let’s aim for 2016.’” Speaking to Ujah, this kind of resolve shines through time and again, and he has managed to meet many of the impressive goals he sets himself. “Bolt was definitely a big influence and it’s crazy now to be on the line with him racing.”

Last year, when competing in 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro alongside Bolt, he narrowly missed making the finals by two-thousandths of a second. “Me and the person who actually got through actually ran the same time (10.01) but it was down to the thousandths,” he says. “It was a bit upsetting, but my current coach, Stuart McMillan, said, ‘Listen, no final will be given to you.’ I’ve taken that with me this year and here we are, selected for the 2017 World Championships team and I’m looking forward to doing Britain proud.”

Throughout his career so far he has balanced his athletic pursuits with his studies, and currently has one year left of a sports science degree at Middlesex University. But his early aspirations to be an athlete were, at first, not always understood at home. “My dad was always more driven by education and he didn’t see the hype until 2011 when my parents got a letter in the post inviting me to the World Youth Games in Lille,” he says. “It was a bit of a battle when I was younger, in terms of sports, but when he realised I was good, he understood. My family’s very supportive now.”

He also talks about finding balance elsewhere, and stresses the importance of having fun even at professional level. “It’s always about enjoying yourself,” he says. A quick glance at his Instagram shows him to be a positive, jocular guy even with the pressures of his career. “I just want to inspire more and more people in this country to push on and do great things.”

Ujah, who is part of Nike’s latest Fast campaign to encourage young runners, has a confident, naturally competitive spirit and rules out little for himself. When asked about the IAAF World Championships in August, he maintains that anything in possible. “You’ve got to want more,” he says. “And as well as want it, you’ve got to believe it. That’s where I am right now, I believe I can beat anyone and I just want to get on the line.”

Starting and ending at Tate Modern, join Nike for a unique, borderless running experience through landmark London locations and celebrate the World Championships with London’s Fastest Night on 13 August.