World Athletics Championships 2019: Zharnel Hughes on piloting and Usain Bolt’s career advice

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Zharnel Hughes on 'breaking records on the ground & the air'
World Athletics Championships 2019
Venue: Khalifa International Stadium, Doha Dates: 27 September-6 October
Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport website and app; Listen live on BBC Radio 5 Live; Live streams, clips and text commentary online.

"I like to run fast and fly even faster!"

Zharnel Hughes is addicted to speed.

That may come as little surprise given he is the European 100m champion, but while his rivals focus strictly on earthbound feats, Hughes' "obsession" has taken him to literal new heights.

Last year, the man nicknamed 'Captain' by former training partner Usain Bolt attained a private pilots' licence after completing a solo flight with just five hours of airborne experience - half the time it takes most trainees.

"To one day be Olympic champion and a commercial airline pilot, that's the dream," says Hughes before winking and breaking into a beaming smile.

A Caribbean superstar living in Jamaica, the British athlete is charismatic and confident, but there is no hint of arrogance.

"Heartbreaking" experiences - such as missing Rio 2016 through injury and being disqualified at last year's Commonwealth Games - kept him humble, as did growing up in Anguilla - where he hopes to launch an aviation business.

That, though, is for the future - this week athletics has his full attention.

In Doha he hopes to become Great Britain's first 100m world champion since Linford Christie in 1993 and break his British record of 9.87 seconds, which has stood for 26 years.

British sprinter Zharnel Hughes
Zharnel Hughes got his pilot's licence in half the time it normally takes to train

Racing is more stressful than flying

You may think running 100m or 200m would seem somewhat mundane to a man who flies thousands of feet into the air in challenging conditions - but you would be wrong.

"I feel more pressure on the track than in the air," he admits, while staring at the sky - clearly visualising being among the clouds above Kingston, where he lives.

"There's such focus on performing and executing your plan in athletics, then there's the crowd as well, but when you're flying it's just so much more relaxed.

"When I'm in the cockpit, I'm in complete control. Even when there are crosswinds and bad weather I'm up there soaring, looking out at the scenery, feeling like a bird - and it's amazing to just feel free."

Hughes' body language and the relaxed way in which he speaks suggests he is not someone who generally struggles with the weight of expectation - but flying, as well as playing Fifa and Call of Duty, is his way of "keeping calm and chilled".

"Yes I like parties, but you have to stay focused. That's what Usain always told me: 'Don't let ANYTHING distract you and enjoy the sport'," he says.

"After that's over, then I can enjoy my guilty pleasures like pizza, really spicy wings, jerk chicken and chocolate - I love chocolate and biscuits!"

'Bolt is still watching me!'

Hughes practically giggles when he thinks back to the first time he saw Bolt in person, which was shortly after moving to the island in 2011, when he was 16 years old.

"I almost flipped and lost my mind," he recalls, clearly awestruck at the time.

"My mum and I used to watch videos of him when I was growing up and then there he was, the world's fastest man, breathing in the same air around me and dying just as much as me during training.

"I was young and naive at the time and would sometimes slack off, but Usain is very motivational and I'd watch and learn from his attitude to training.

"Even now he's retired, he'll sometimes show up with a stopwatch and be on my case saying, 'That was too slow,' or 'Get out harder'. He watches my Instagram stories as well so I know he's watching and supporting me."

British sprinter Zharnel Hughes
Hughes has his sights set on Olympic glory - and commercial flying

I could have chosen Jamaica over GB

Anguilla does not have its own National Olympic Committee (NOC), but as a British overseas territory, citizens are able to compete for Great Britain - which Hughes decided to do in 2015.

However, he did have another option and while he still aims to chase down Bolt's world records one day, he could have been the Jamaican's heir.

"They [Jamaica Athletics] never called, but my mum is Jamaican and I do get a lot of comments from people saying they wish I'd chosen Jamaica.

"It's an honour, but truthfully I'm so proud to represent Great Britain.

"I remember racing in London for the first time in 2015 [Anniversary Games] and I thought no-one knew me, but the announcer read out my name and the stadium erupted.

"I was like 'wow', and it's given me so much motivation."

'My heart was ripped out of my chest'

Hughes gives the impression of being a man who is always positive, but has endured real lows in recent years.

After a breakthrough fifth place in the 200m at the 2015 World Championships, the sprinter says he was "desperate" to prove he "belonged" at the top of the sport.

However, he tore a knee ligament by stumbling over the finish line in a race in Jamaica early in 2016 and failed to recover fully for the Olympic trials.

"I took it really hard. I cried a lot and it was like my heart was ripped out of my chest," he recalls with a grimace.

"I'd watched the [London] Olympics in 2012 on the TV and to have to do that four years later, when I'd planned on competing, was heartbreaking."

More heartbreak before European redemption

After a recovery year, he began 2018 in breathtaking form with gold for England in the 200m at the Commonwealth Games in Australia, but that win stood for only the time it took for him to complete the victory lap.

Hughes was then approached by an official, who informed the athlete that he had strayed into an opponent's lane and was therefore disqualified.

"It was hard and I don't want to ever experience that again," says Hughes. "Moments like that have given me the determination and motivation I need to become a world and Olympic champion."

Redemption would come later that event, with Hughes helping the English 4x100m relay team to gold before he secured a maiden major individual 100m title at the European Championships in Berlin later in the year.

"It's a moment I'd been dreaming of and it was spectacular," says Hughes.

"It put me at the top of Europe which was a goal, but now I have to work 10 times harder to chase down my other targets.

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GB's Hughes second in 100m as Simbine takes victory

We all want to break Bolt's records

The debate about who could be the new Bolt will continue until someone shows the potential to rival the Jamaican's 100m and 200m world records. And although Hughes' own personal bests are some way short, he thinks breaking them is achievable.

"Back in the days of Jesse Owens, when he ran the times he did, no-one thought anyone would be able to run 9.58, so it's evolution, it will happen," he says.

"I'm pretty sure everyone sprinting right now - Christian Coleman, Noah Lyles and loads of others - want the world records, so I'm going to add myself to the list."

Hughes' season-best of 9.95secs ranks him eighth in the world for the 100m in 2019, while his 200m time of 20.25 has him down in 35th. But now in "top condition", he believes historic achievements are possible.

"Britain hasn't got any world gold medals since Linford Christie in the 100m or 200m and it's time to break that curse," says Hughes with a playful expression, before turning towards the TV camera.

He clears his throat and states: "I want to make great things happen - and it's going to happen."

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