Fred Kerley stakes his claim to Usain Bolt’s throne in Eugene

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EUGENE, Oregon – It is accepted in track and field, both in silence and aloud, that there will likely never be another Usain Bolt. There will never be an athlete with Bolt’s ethereal combination of speed, presence and joy. Never another with Bolt’s relentless seizure of moments and of history. Never another with his ability to hoist a niche (being kind here) sport, throw it across his shoulders – or clench it in his radiant smile like a pirate’s scabbard – and make it not just relevant, but viral. He ran faster than any human, more gleefully than should be allowed, and pulled an entire ecosystem along in his slipstream. He was a unicorn.

On the other hand, never is a long time. Track and field did not stop contesting meets or 100- and 200-meter races when Bolt left to start a family of children with weather-themed names. Bolt has been gone for half a decade; his last races were at the 2017 World Championships, and they were not pretty. Two years later, Christian Coleman of the U.S. took the world title, decisively, in 9.76 seconds. He was a short, explosive sprinter in mold of 2000 Olympic gold medalist Maurice Greene, and he was just 23 years old. There was much promise. But subsequently Coleman got sideways with the doping police (three whereabouts failures, meaning he did not test positive but missed too many tests), was suspended for two years, and missed the 2021 Olympics. (He is back, but keep reading).

The post-Bolt 100 meters was left adrift, missing the big man and not just his schtick, but his speed. Missing a logical successor. Italian Marcell Jacobs was the longshot winner of the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, and bless his Texas-born heart, Jacobs will never buy another bottle of wine in his country, but he was not the heir to Bolt’s greatness. He was a one-off, entertaining and perfect on the day when it mattered most, but perhaps never again. Track was left still searching – turning over rocks in the wood, to find only moss and mud.

Until now. Maybe. Not that it has discovered another Bolt, but perhaps another unicorn. (Hold the eyerolls and stay with me). Perhaps a worthy king, if not a worthy successor.

On Saturday night at the new Hayward Field, Day Two of the 18th World Track and Field Championships and the first in the United States, 27-year-old Fred Kerley – just three years ago one of the best 400-meter runners in the world, until improbably dropping down to the 100 meters last year (and winning Olympic silver) – won the 100-meter final in a time of 9.86 seconds. He was just .02 seconds in front of two other U.S. sprinters, silver medalist Trayvon Bromell and bronze medalist Marvin Bracy. It was the first 1-2-3 100-meter sweep at the worlds since 1991, when Americans Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell pulled off the sweep. The U.S. had also swept the medals at the first worlds in 1983, with Lewis, Calvin Smith and Emmit King.

In an interview on the track, broadcast to the near-capacity crowd, Kerley shouted, “We said we were gonna do it, and we did it. USA, baby.”

Kerley is big (6-foot-3 ½) like Bolt (6-foot-5). He is, for the moment, nearly unbeatable, like Bolt, although not really like Bolt yet. Kerley is fast, and while not as fast as Bolt’s best times, he seems poised to challenge Tyson Gay’s 13-year-old American record of 9.69 in a competition without exhausting rounds. At the very least, Kerley has earned the title of world’s fastest human; at the very most, he has the potential to earn much more. As for showmanship, that might take some time; as effusive as Bolt was, that is how taciturn Kerley is. That would not matter in some sports, but it matters in track and field, where TV ratings cannot thrive on performance alone. But stay tuned. There were signs that this, too, could change, right after the race.

Kerley came into the race a heavy favorite. He has been the dominant 100-meter runner in the world since last year’s Olympics and ran the world’s best of 9.76 at the U.S. Championships in June. He matched that time in Friday night’s heats here.

He was less dominant in the final. Kerley broke from the blocks in lane four, stride with Bracey in three, and they ran nearly in lockstep for 90 meters before Kerley snatched a sliver of daylight and then leaned cautiously, chest forward, arms wide, like a man trying to savor a summer breeze on a warm evening. He had beaten Bracey narrowly, though clearly. But far out in lane eight, running blind, Bromell had left Coleman – back in the game after his suspension – behind and closed furiously to nearly catch Kerley at the line.

Kerley applied the brakes, came to a full stop in the middle of the turn and stared up at the giant video board, as if willing his name to appear first. It did. Kerley threw both hands into the air, and a meet worker draped his gold medal around his neck. And then Kerley snagged the medal from around his neck and alighted on a delirious victory lap, slapping hands with front-row spectators and waving his arms while the medal’s cloth lanyard dangled toward the ground. It seemed his lap was nearly in the 43-second range that he had once run, and the display was, dare we say, Bolt-esque.

Kerley is one of those athletes who comes to track and field greatness not in a straight line, but through a maze of trial and error, finding success in one event, only to find more success in another one.

U.S. women’s shot putter Chase Ealey, 27 years old like Kerley, is another one. Early in her high school career she was a champion sprinter and thrower, only to later emphasize the shot and eventually to make that her main event. (It is not as strange a shift as it might seem – both sprints and throws require explosive power. “A lot of throwers were sprinters,” Ealey said before the meet). On Saturday night, 15 minutes before Kerley folded himself into the blocks, she became the first American woman to win a world outdoor championship in the shot (Michelle Carter won three medals as well as the Olympic gold medal in 2016). Track and field has always been a something-for-everyone sport, occasionally in the same athlete.

Take Kerley. He was born and raised in Taylor, Texas, a town of about 15,000, 35 miles northeast of Austin. He played football and basketball and ran track in high school, but didn’t devote serious training time to sprinting until his senior in high school, when a broken collarbone curtailed his football season and shortened basketball’s. “So I started running track more seriously,” Kerley told Track and Field News in 2019. “I didn’t have the greatest times.” He split 46.9 on a relay, which is actually not shabby, but might seem slow in his rearview mirror. He went to junior college and then to Texas A&M, where in 2017, he ran 43.70 to break 1992 Olympic gold medalist Quincy Watts’s collegiate record.

He made the world team that summer and finished seventh in London. Two years later he took a bronze medal in the worlds in Doha and a ran a personal best of 43.64 seconds, sixth-fastest ever by an American. He seemed assured of a lucrative career in an event the U.S. has long dominated. Then came the pandemic lull, and a gradual return. Kerley began running 100s and 200s, while never disavowing the 400. A year ago, he ran 9.78 and finished third at the Olympic Trials and took a silver medal (beyond Jacobs) in the Gamers. His transition was complete.

It’s important to emphasize: Sprinters often move up in distance, as sharpness fades and speed endurance becomes more accessible than pure 100-meter explosives. They rarely move down. They even more rarely move down from excellence in the 400 to even greater excellence in the 100. “Maybe way back in history,” says NBC’s Ato Boldon. “Not in modern times that I can think of.” (A note here: Bolt was strictly a 200-meter runner early in his career, until he dropped down to the 100 in 2008 and twice broke the world record and won Olympic gold. So there is that, and it was stunning at the time, and in retrospect, stripped of what Bolt did afterward, still is).

Kerley’s range is stunning: He is one of only three men to run sub-10 for the 100 meters, sub-20 for the 200 meters and sub-44 for the 400 meters. The others are Michael Norman of the U.S. and 400-meter world record holder Wayne Van Niekerk of South Africa. Notably, both of them remain 200-to-400 specialists, while Kerley now owns the 100 and will also run the 200 meters here, a pure sprinter.

And as darkness fell on Eugene, the best in the world, next in the line of succession.

Fred Kerley stakes his claim to Usain Bolt’s throne in Eugene originally appeared on NBCSports.com