For Candace Hill, life is now divided into two eras: before the 10.98 and after the 10.98.
Last June the Rockdale County high school junior ran a 100-meter sprint in Seattle in 10.98 seconds and became—officially—the fastest girl in the world. Candace also became, at 16, the youngest American sprinter to ever turn pro when athletic apparel company Asics signed her to a 10-year sponsorship deal. Two other major shoe brands also made offers, but Candace opted to sign with Asics because she and her parents liked the company’s long-term, low-pressure approach to her career. The six-figure contract covers the cost of college—any college—and allows her parents and sister, Rachel, to travel to competitions.
“Ever since that day, everything changed,” says her father, Gary, a technician for United Airlines.
Before the 10.98, Candace practiced with the team at Rockdale High’s Magnet School for Technology and Science. She still works out alongside her old teammates, but now she has her own coaches, paid for with Asics funds—including Tony Carpenter, who has coached veteran Olympians, and Sayon Cooper, a former Olympic sprinter.
Before the 10.98, Candace thought about attending Stanford or the University of Southern California, both elite colleges for track and field. Now, as a professional, she’s ineligible to compete at the collegiate level. She’s even thinking about a career after racing, maybe sports journalism. For now, though, she’s focused on finishing 11th grade; last semester she had a weighted GPA of 4.9.
But the most exciting post-10.98 development is Candace’s plan to attend the Olympic trials in July in Eugene, Oregon. If she makes the cut in the 100 or 200, she’ll head to Rio to compete in the 2016 Summer Games.
Stretching out in the cozy first-floor sitting room of her family’s two-story colonial in Stockbridge, Candace smiles as she recalls last summer’s Brooks PR Invitational in Seattle. It was the first time she’d competed against the “West Coast girls,” whose results she’d followed from previous meets.
In the 100-meter race, she quickly pulled away and finished several strides ahead of the pack. No photo finish there. “When I crossed the finish line, I knew I had run the fastest I’d ever run,” says Candace, who turned 17 in February.
Still, when the result was announced, she looked around in disbelief. “I thought there’s no way; there must be a mistake; there’ll be some technicality,” she says. But there was no mistake; she had finished nearly a half second in front of her nearest rival. Her 10.98 time would have tied her for a silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and it automatically made her eligible to attend the Olympic trials this year.
Candace is in a different class from her fellow teens, says Rich Kenah, the Atlanta Track Club’s executive director and a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team. “It is uncommon, rare, [and] unexpected to have a [track and field] athlete—male or female—rank so high as a teenager.”
In contrast to many of the girls she’s competing against, Candace wasn’t an early prodigy. She didn’t break out until high school when, as a freshman, she became the state champion in the 100-meter and the 200-meter events, shattering records that had been set by seniors. Before Seattle, her previous best time in the 100 was 11.21 seconds.
Tall and shy, with a sweet disposition, Candace possesses a quiet confidence. Just as she looks up to stars like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, Candace wants to be a model for younger athletes. She joins her coaches for two-hour private practice sessions six days a week, alternating between running and lifting weights—sometimes begrudgingly. Training is always followed by homework. And her parents make sure she eats plenty of fruits and vegetables, though she’s been known to hold out for Froot Loops. She is, after all, a teenager.
She looks forward to Fridays, when she can relax, go to the movies—G.I. Jane is her favorite film—or goof around with friends. “They still treat me the same,” she says. “They’re always like, ‘Don’t change up on me.’”
Venson Elder, the head track coach for Rockdale High, compares Candace to sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, who won three gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The 10.49- second record Joyner set there in the 100 still stands. “If Candace stays in the game, she could be better than Flo Jo was in her prime,” Elder says.
As of April, Candace hadn’t duplicated her 10.98, but track season was just getting underway. Carpenter, however, says she’ll probably need to exceed her Seattle performance to make it to Rio.
Sitting at home, surrounded by her ribbons and plaques, Candace says she dreams about competing in the Olympics.
“I have a different feeling when I run,” she says. “I just feel like I’m free. I can take over the world.”
Candace’s age when she became the world’s fastest girl
number of major shoe companies that offered her contracts
women’s world record in 100-meter, in seconds
Candace’s previous best time, in seconds
This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.