Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce on legacy, retirement plans, motherhood, being a ‘hot girl’

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.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at 2008 Olympics

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.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at London 2012 Olympic Games - Athletics - Women's 100m FinalShelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica, celebrates after winning the Gold Medal in the Women's 100m Final

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.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at 2019 World Championships

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).

Fraser-Pryce: Fun.

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.)