Samba-Mayela prepares her “final masterpiece” for Rome

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  • Samba-Mayela prepares her “final masterpiece” for Rome

Heading into a year loaded with medal-winning opportunities, it takes a lot of courage to make a change.

With the World Athletics Indoor Championships, European Athletics Championships and Olympic Games all on the horizon, many athletes might be unwilling to deviate from their set routine, preferring to stick with what they know.

But France’s Cyrena Samba-Mayela decided it was a risk worth taking – uprooting herself from her home in Paris and moving to Orlando, training alongside reigning Olympic champion Jasmine Camacho-Quinn of Puerto Rico.

“It hasn’t been easy from the start because everything is new,” she says of the past five months. “But everything helps me discover myself in a new way. It’s refreshing for me as a person, but also as an athlete.”

Breakthrough in Belgrade

After a breakthrough year in 2022, when she won the world indoor 60m hurdles title in Belgrade, Samba-Mayela had a disappointing 2023 – eliminated in the semifinals at both the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Istanbul and at the World Championships in Budapest. She had run a PB of 12.68 to win the French title last July, but only clocked 12.95 in the semifinal in Budapest a few weeks later.

“I was disappointed because I wasn’t able to put in my best,” she says. “But I gave everything I had so I don’t regret it. I know [the semifinal] was a kind of ceiling for me. I knew I had way more stuff to work on, especially technically. It was another way to confirm I had to try something new.”

In recent years, Samba-Mayela had been based at INSEP, the French Institute of Sport, Exercise and Performance, studying architecture and interior design remotely. There, she’d been coached by Teddy Tamgho, the 2013 world champion in the triple jump who led her to that world indoor title in 2022.

But with an Olympic year about to dawn, Samba-Mayela felt a change was needed. A friend of hers who is based in Florida knew John Coghlan, an Irish coach who guided Camacho-Quinn to Olympic gold in 2021 and she linked the two of them up, with Samba-Mayela moving to Orlando last October.


“The training with John is really good, I’m discovering a new way,” she says. “I definitely see more volume in my training.

“It’s pushing me to my best every day. I know how my opponents are running and how to run alongside them. You can see the way things are, how it is for an Olympic champion every day, taking that experience and changing everything I need to change with my technique, (learning) how I can go faster.”

Coghlan made a raft of changes with her mechanics. He watched her win the world indoor title in 2022 at the age of just 21 and was highly impressed. “I thought, yeah, she could be really good,” he says. “She obviously was really good, but I saw more potential there.”

He says Samba-Mayela is “like a sponge; she wants more and more information”, which makes her the ideal protegee. From the start, she was fully on board with the changes needed.

“It’s much more technical than this, but her concept of hurdling was jumping across the hurdle and you’ve got to run through the hurdle,” says Coghlan. “It’s modified sprinting, not jumping or hurdling as such. That’s very general and easy to say, but we’re breaking things down way more into specific movement patterns and doing a lot of drills, trying to breach coordination barriers. Movement and coordination is a huge part of hurdling, and it’s easier said than done to change it.”

Silver in Glasgow an unexpected bonus

Given the changes in the winter months, Samba-Mayela didn’t make concrete plans for the indoor season, aware that her hurdling would be very much a work in progress until the summer.

They decided she would race some low-key events rather than take on the best at the Millrose Games or other top-level meetings. When she ran 7.90 in Arkansas in February, Coghlan acquiesced to Samba-Mayela’s desire to compete at the World Indoor Championships.

“I wanted the gold medal but the intent was about the honour – to defend my title,” she says. “I am going through so many changes so I couldn’t predict everything I was going to do. I had really good sensations in training.”

Still, their eyes were focused primarily on the outdoor season, with anything she did in Glasgow simply a bonus. “A month before the world indoor final, she was running up grass hills,” says Coghlan. “It wasn’t what you’d do if you wanted someone to really run fast indoors.”

But as soon as Samba-Mayela took to the track in Glasgow, she knew things were clicking. She ran 7.81 to win her heat, then broke the French indoor record to win her semifinal in 7.73. In the final she ran 7.74 to win silver, beaten by Devynne Charlton of the Bahamas, who ran a world record of 7.65.

As big of an achievement as it was, one of the best things about it was how excited it left her about the outdoor season. “I had so much energy left to use and I wasn’t at my top speed yet,” she says. “My thought after that was that if it was the 100m hurdles, it might be so much better.”

The first major target of the summer is the European Athletics Championships in Rome from June 7-12 when Samba-Mayela is among the leading contenders. In 2021, she won silver behind Poland’s Pia Skrzyszowska in the European Athletics U23 Championships in Tallinn, but for all of her brilliance since, she’s yet to win a senior European medal.

Dress rehearsal for Paris in Roma 2024

“I plan to go to Rome and have as much fun as I had during the World Indoor Championship,” she says. “I’d like to defend my flag, defend my country as best as possible, which is always winning. I know I will face great competition, like Pia, (Nadine) Visser, (Ditaji) Kambundji. It’s going to be a really great way to prepare for the Olympics.”

After Rome, she will have almost eight weeks to prepare for the Olympics. The Stade de France is less than half an hour’s drive from where Samba-Mayela’s parents live in Champigny-sur-Marne.

Three years ago in Tokyo on the biggest stage possible, Samba-Mayela’s Olympic dream was shattered after she injured her hamstring while warming up for her 100m hurdles heat, forcing her withdrawal. It’s been a long wait for redemption.

“I’m really confident about this outdoor season,” she says. “I know there is a lot of stuff I still have to work on. Yes, I figured out some technical work that I’ve been working on but everything is not perfect, I’m still at the beginning (of the process).”

Samba-Mayela plans to take in several top-level races on the circuit on the road to Rome and Paris to “make sure I have learned everything and have mastered it”. The indoor season was all the evidence she needed that the plan is on course and her outdoor PB of 12.68 is looking ripe for serious revision.


She was in high demand with the French media afterwards, the hype building fast ahead of her home Olympics.

“My first medal in Belgrade was a surprise for people, they might have thought it was a miracle, in a way, so this silver medal was a way to confirm my position, that I am there,” she says. “Now a lot more people are behind me. It’s helped me to believe more than I already believed in myself. I’m not letting myself be troubled by (the hype). Attention comes and goes. I just take it as a plus. I’m already back to work.”

And already dreaming of bigger days to come.

“I saw the potential in Glasgow, but I’m preparing the final masterpiece for this outdoor season,” she says. “And especially the Olympics.”

Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics


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