Jamal Rhoden-Stevens did not begin taking athletics seriously until he turned 18 years old. Now 23, he is returning home from his first Team GB experience at last weekend’s World Indoor Athletics Championships, where he ran in the 4 x 400m relay.
He vividly recalls how it was his father who got him involved in track, having previously run for Herne Hill Harriers, a club which Rhoden-Stevens would go on to represent himself.
His father would also introduce him to Donovan Reid at Crystal Palace athletics track, who would go on to be his coach to this day along with Dave Serrant.
Despite having an impressive personal best of 46.99 in the 400m after only a few seasons in the event, Rhoden-Stevens tells me that he didn’t initially start out as a sprinter.
“I actually started off jumping.” he reveals. “I used to do this thing where I never used to train but I used to think I could jump far so I just turned up to open meets.
“I used to run with trainers, no blocks and I didn’t know how to run. I was like I’ll just do it for fun.”
He initially recognised his talent for the long jump after breaking school records but was soon persuaded by his coaches to specialise as a sprinter.
The last few years however, have not been easy for Rhoden-Stevens, who was a 100m and 200m runner before he took up the one lap event.
Despite suffering from hamstring injuries for the majority of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Rhoden-Stevens was yearning for an experience of the national championships.
“I was just half fit, and ended up getting hurt in the 200m slowing down before I finished last in my heat – I just couldn’t run,” he says, shaking his head.
Having started the 2015 season well, Rhoden-Stevens was motivated but then felt deflated after having to take six weeks out.
“That was a big shock to me, because in my mind I wanted to run so much quicker than what I did but it was a big wake-up call because I remember that season I said to myself I can’t have another season like this.”
And while Rhoden-Stevens has had his progress hampered somewhat through injuries he agrees that mental strength is of paramount importance in the sport.
“You have to be mentally equipped. I think a lot of people are affected by confidence. Confidence is a really big thing in athletics I think once you get string of good races you think ‘ok I’ve got confidence coming into the next one’”.
After going into the 2016 with a 400m personal best of 48.87 seconds, Rhoden-Stevens had a renewed sense that he would run sub-47 seconds that year, but would have to wait till 2017 to reach this goal.
“I knew what I was capable of. I knew what I was doing in training and 46.99 – it was good because it came early in the season but I expected to kick on, which I didn’t.’’
With little experience running 400m indoors, Rhoden-Stevens relished the challenge ahead and was rewarded with an indoor personal best of 47.14 seconds, improving on the 47.71 seconds mark he set in Switzerland in January.
Having also run in Slovakia this season, Rhoden-Stevens enjoys the experience of running abroad. He has also competed in Clermont, Florida where he benefited from the warmer climate.
Despite his early-season success, Rhoden-Stevens is hungry to continue on an upward trajectory, and is reluctant to put limits on what he can achieve.
He explains: “I don’t put limits on myself. I don’t feel like I’m going to get to a time and think that’s it – I’m never satisfied every time I run a race. I run a PB it’s not fast enough for me, so nothing really satisfies me.”
Yet running fast is not always a guarantee of financial reward for many athletes on the fringes. Rhoden-Stevens has been proactive in his search for funding as he cannot always rely on Lottery funding provided by British Athletics.
“It’s a thin line between getting paid well and not getting paid. I’ve seen some top athletes not get paid that much or not get the recognition they deserve sometimes.”
Rhoden-Stevens’ clothing collaborations include Rio Ferdinand’s brand 5 Supply and Ellesse.
“I like to brand myself – certain opportunities came along which I’m grateful for but there will be more in the future.”
One way that he has successfully done this is via his Twitter bios.
“I’m a very funny character. I make these funny bios and I change them every 2 to 3 weeks,” he tells me.
A recent one made claims that Rhoden-Stevens is the fastest evangelist in the world. He not only has a goal to be a top athlete and his religious beliefs have driven him to regularly contribute in his community.
“I get in the midst of things I like to help young people around me,” he says. “If it comes to jobs advise, anything, I’m there to help the community because I think that’s something that we need to do.
“Athletics keeps a lot of people from doing bad stuff or maybe just gives them a focus, so I like to concentrate on the younger ones that may come through eventually.”
Rhoden-Stevens is also keen to steer some of these youngsters to greater heights as a coach, as he recognises that kids are getting faster and faster.
“It’s scary what 16, 17 year olds can do, so there’s definitely a bright future in Great Britain sprinting.”
Training though is currently juggled with his degree in Biochemistry at Kingston University, and while he expresses an interest in nutrition, an area which will be integral to his athletics success, he is keeping his options open.
After his recent appearance on the world stage, there is no doubt that Rhoden-Stevens will be hungry to get back to competing with the best athletes on the planet.
Featured image: Will Cornelius | Instagram: @willcorneliusphotography