Fred Kerley is world’s fastest man in 100 meters for US


EUGENE, Ore. — The tattoo on the inside of Fred Kerley’s left arm reads Meme. It is the name he uses for his aunt, the woman who raised him in Taylor, Tex. Kerley moved in with her when he was 2 years old, after his father went to jail and his mother lost her way. He lived with his siblings and his aunt’s children, 13 kids under one roof in a three-bedroom house.

“Things were never given to him,” said his agent, Ricky Simms. “He had to go take things because that’s the way it was when there were so many mouths to feed. He’s wanted this for a long time. He really wants it quite badly, to be the best and to be one of the greatest ever.”

Kerley cemented all-time status Saturday night at Hayward Field. In a 100-meter final drenched in red, white and blue at the world track and field championships, Kerley seized the title of fastest man in the world by inches over countrymen Marvin Bracy-Williams and Trayvon Brommel. Kerley finished in 9.86 seconds, 0.02 seconds ahead of both bronze medalist Bromell and second-place Bracy-Williams, who led until the last five meters. Kerley’s lean gave him the crowning achievement of an ascendant career and the Americans a podium sweep.

“We said we was going to do it, and we did it,” Kerley said told the crowd. “USA, baby.”

The second night of the first world championships contested on US soil belonged to the host country. Minutes before the 100-meter final, American Chase Ealey earned the first US women’s shot put world championship gold medal with a heave of 20.49 meters (67 feet 2¾ inches) on her first throw, 10 centimeters better than reigning Olympic gold medalist Liljiao Gong of China. Ealey, a 27-year-old from Los Alamos, NM, covered her face with both hands after her final throw, already assured of victory. “I couldn’t contain it,” Ealey said.

Ealey’s triumph was just the appetizer. Four Americans qualified for the eight-man final, with reigning world champion Christian Coleman finishing sixth. Kerley, who declared his intentions by running 9.79 seconds in Friday’s opening round, bolted from the blocks in Lane 4 but couldn’t separate. On the outside in Lane 8, Brommel inched ahead of the pack. Bracy-Williams, running to Kerley’s left in Lane 3, seized a small lead. At the line, Kerley lunged and stretched his neck.

Kerley, 27, jogged to the top of the track and stared at the board and waited for the official result. When his name popped up first, he raised both arms in the air, and an official placed a gold medal around his neck. Brommel, favored to win Olympic gold last summer before he failed to qualify for the semifinals, broke down in tears.

“I believe in myself, first and foremost,” Kerley said. “I put the work in to be great. I don’t come to run to be second best.”

At the outset of 2021, Kerley expected to contend for an Olympic gold medal in the 400 meters, the event in which he once reached No. 1 in the world and remains the eighth-fastest man ever. He switched early last year, to much derision within the sport, to the 100. He won the Olympic silver medal, and this year he separated himself from the rest of the world.

Kerley built his career with single-minded drive. His aunt, Virginia, took him in after his father went to jail and his mother “took wrong turns in life,” Kerley once wrote in Spikes magazine. He credits his focus on his desire to transcend those circumstances.

There have been faster sprinters than Kerley. There have never been any quite like him. Other runners have swapped distances in search of success or any easier path to a medal. None, perhaps, have risen to the top of the world in one, then done the same in another that asks such a different question. “What he’s trying to do is unprecedented, at least in recent history,” said Olympic medalist Ato Boldon, now an NBC analyst.

Kerley is one of three men, along with South African Wayde van Niekirk and American Michael Norman, who have run 400 meters in less than 44 seconds, 200 meters in less than 20 seconds and 100 meters in less than 10 seconds. Add up their best performances in each race using World Athletics’ scoring system, and Kerley’s is highest.

It took time for Simms, a prominent agent who represented Usain Bolt, to understand how Kerley operated. Most sprinters radically shift their training when they move from the 100, 200 and 400. Kerley believes he could run his best 400 tomorrow.

“They’ve convinced me now, if you gave him a chance to run the 4×400 in this meet, I think he’d run a 43 split,” Simms said. How big of a statement is that? When the US 4×400 relay team won gold in Tokyo and posted the fastest time in 13 years, only one runner, Rai Benjamin, broke 44 seconds.

“He’s definitely the best there ever has been with the range,” Simms said. “Michael Johnson could run 100, 200 and 400 but almost at different times. He would prepare for the shorter one and do it. Fred’s ability to do all three simultaneously, that’s something that is quite unique.”

Kerley probably would have played football in college had he not broken his collarbone in the final game of his high school career, an injury that made him a sprinter for good. He dominated in short sprints in high school and junior college, but coaches at Texas A&M saw him break 45 seconds as part of a 4×400 relay and moved to 400 meters. He won an NCAA championship and, in 2019, a US title. He entered last year with realistic visions of winning Olympic gold in the one-lap race.

Kerley has always insisted he simply followed the instructions of his coach, Alleyne Francique, when he dropped down to 100 meters early in 2021. That’s not what really happened, though. An injury decided for him.

Kerley ran two 400-meter races at the start of 2021, and afterward his ankle was “swollen like a balloon,” Simms said. Kerley could run straight without pain, but turns demolished his ankle. Simms entered Kerley in the 100, 200 and 400 at the US Olympic trials.

On the day athletes needed to declare their events, Kerley texted Simms a picture of bloated ankle and told him he couldn’t make it through three 400-meter rounds. They decided Kerley would focus on the 100 and 200, a decision that prompted disdain among track cognoscenti. Why sacrifice a potential gold medal in the 400, their thinking went, to chase glory in a race in which he had little experience?

“He knew he could be good,” Simms said. “He always fancied the short sprints because that’s where he came from. But this almost forced him to go down this path because of that injury.”

Kerley made the team, showed up even faster at the Olympics and won a silver medal, losing to surprise gold medalist Marcell Jacobs of Italy by 0.04 seconds. He had become the second fastest at 100 meters despite only a few months of training tailored to the event.

With his focus solely on the 100 for another year, Kerley transformed himself, especially his start. He needed to come from behind in Tokyo. In Eugene this year, he buried opponents from the gun. “I don’t know if I can give enough credit for how much better his start looks,” Boldon said.

Kerley runs with immense power and ruthless intensity. The fastest sprinters typically treat preliminary rounds as calisthenics, content to build a lead and cruise to the finish in about 10 seconds. Kerley barrels through the tape as if trying to stomp on his opponents’ soul. In his heat of 9.79 seconds, he posted a time no man has beaten this year and only 10, himself included, have ever surpassed.

“The guy is running out of his mind right now,” Bracy-Williams said. “We always expect fireworks from him, especially early on. He’s a guy that likes to come out, make a statement early.”

Canadian sprinter Andre deGrasse said Kerley’s strength from running 400 meters enables him to maintain top-end speed longer than his rivals. Boldon said Kerley’s experience in the 400 explains how he can obliterate preliminary rounds and have enough energy left to win finals. “He’s a quarter-miler,” Boldon said. “Do you know what kind of pain they go through?”

Standing 6-foot-3 with bulging muscles, Kerley towers over his competitors. In some races, he looks like a kid sprinting in the wrong age group. His strides appear as if they could crack the track into pieces.

“Kerley looks like he could be an NFL player that stepped into the 100,” Boldon said. “He does look different than everyone else, but that difference is his advantage. When you get a big wheel turning, as we saw with Bolt, it can be devastating.”

“One thing I know about the guy, he’s a competitor,” Bracy-Williams said. “He fears none. He focuses in on himself, and that’s what this sport is about.”

Bracy-Williams found out before the world championships even started. He and Kerley played cornhole Thursday night, the eve of the event. “He’s serious about everything we compete in, even if it’s drinking water,” Bracy-Williams said. “You got to come with it.” Bracy-Williams insists he beat Kerley, two out of three.

The title of fastest man in the world confers celebrity on the man who holds it. Kerley appears to be wholly uninterested in anything the sport offers outside a narrow strip of vulcanized rubber. He answers questions with few sentences composed of few words. After his blazing first-round sprint, Kerley strode past reporters with his head held high and silently flashed a thumbs up at reporters who approached him. Simms believes Kerley will grow into his more prominent status. On Saturday night, he told an on-track interviewer after one question, “I’m going to take a walk.” He then approached the stands and high-fived hands.

“He’s the coolest customer you’re ever likely to meet,” Simms said. “He’s still building his confidence in the media. When he’s around people he knows, he’s a joker. He’s got a lot of talk. If we’re at a Diamond League meet and we’re all sitting around the table, there’s a lot of laughs coming from something Fred has said.”

The world will get to know Kerley. On Saturday night, under a piercing blue sky and a setting sun, Kerley jogged around the Hayward Field track with an American flag stretched across his back, so far from where he had started and not finished yet.

“I think it’s a mistake to underestimate what he’s capable of doing,” Boldon said. “Fred has continued to improve. He has one heck of a work ethic when you talk to his coach and everyone around him. All things are possible for Mr. Kerley.”

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