Fred Kerley leads US sweep in 100 meters at Worlds

Fred Kerley didn’t know he was the fastest man alive when he crossed the finish line at Hayward Field on Saturday night. Like so many other things in his life, he needed to wait and ask questions.

A slew of runners, including three from the United States, had finished the men’s 100 meters at the world athletics championships a fraction of the way apart, lightning fast as dusk descended on the stadium. Kerley, dressed in a red and blue speed suit, crouched down and studied a video board. It wasn’t until the number 1 appeared next to his name, along with his time of 9.86 seconds, that he knew he had won gold.

“I got the job done,” said Kerley, an efficient man in both his stride and his words.

Kerley, a former 400 meters specialist for whom none of this – cheers, gold medals, world championships – had been heralded when he was growing up, had his arms up when the rest of the results were released, revealing a medal sweep for the Americans. , with Marvin Bracy-Williams in second and Trayvon Bromell in third, both finishing in 9.88 seconds. Bracy-Williams took on his sparring partner Bromell in an episode of unscripted joy.

“I don’t know what went through Marvin’s head,” Bromell said. “I know it’s the emotion.”

Italian Lamont Marcell Jacobs, the reigning Olympic champion, withdrew from competition before his semi-final on Saturday. Jacobs was reportedly struggling with a muscle injury. “I have to stop”, Jacobs said on Twitter.

Kerley managed to turn Jacobs’ absence into little more than a footnote.

Typically a deadpan athlete, Kerley let his emotions surface after his win. He was thinking of his aunt, Virginia Kerley, watching at her home in Texas and “blowing up her phone,” he said. She had raised him from the age of 2, with several of his brothers and sisters. At the time, Fred’s father was in prison and his mother had taken “wrong turns in life,” according to a first-person story he wrote for Spikes magazine in 2019. At one point, Virginia Kerley had 13 children under her roof.

“If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you all now,” Kerley said Saturday. “She actually sacrificed her life for me, my brothers, my sisters and my cousins.”

He added: “I’m grateful to him for putting me in a position to win in life.”

Still, Kerley was not a high-flying freshman coming out of Taylor High School outside of Austin. He landed at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, where he suffered a hamstring injury as a freshman and placed a modest 11th in the 400 meters at the Junior College Nationals as a sophomore. But he always worked hard and uncomplainingly, said Chris Beene, his former coach at South Plains.

“He’s always been a great teammate,” said Beene, now the head girls track coach at Anna High School outside of Dallas. “I mean, he would be willing to die on the 4×400 track for our team.”

With more practice, Kerley’s talent emerged. At Texas A&M, he was the NCAA champion in the 400 meters in 2017. Two years later, he was a bronze medalist in the event at the world championships.

His future seemed to be in the 400, but he started considering the shorter sprints during the pandemic. In a way, Kerley said, he wanted to go back to his roots as a sprinter and long jumper. Or, as he put it, “I’m just back in my playground.”

The track world was in turmoil over his unconventional decision. Going from 400 to 100 isn’t quite like hanging up your steeplechase points and throwing the hammer, but it’s not a straightforward transition either. The 100 requires different skills and a fresh approach to training. There’s a reason few athletes have ever been world-class in both disciplines.

But Kerley justified his decision by winning the silver medal in the 100 meters at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, and has continued to improve. At the US Championships last month, he ran 9.76 seconds in his semi-final, which was the third fastest time ever by an American, then dismantled a deep field in the final to win the title in 9.77 seconds less than two hours later.

But while many sprinters fill journalists’ notebooks like fighters, Kerley tends to keep his thoughts to himself. After winning his first-round heat on Friday, he hovered over reporters without answering questions. When a reporter from the athletics website FloTrack asked him about his plan for Saturday, Kerley glanced over his shoulder and, without slowing down, said: “What did I tell you last time?

(It was not immediately clear to anyone what Kerley said last time. After some detective work, FloTrack detectives determined that Kerley said, “You’ll see.”)

Bracy-Williams said Kerley was more playful and chatty with friends and fellow athletes.

“Contrary to popular belief, he’s not as deadpan as you think he is,” Bracy-Williams said. “He’s a fun guy. But when he comes here, he is completely professional.

Kerley’s competitive streak extends beyond the track. He played cornhole with Bracy-Williams on Thursday and treated it like an Olympic final. Kerley will seemingly compete in anything.

“Even if it’s drinking water,” Bracy-Williams said. “So you have to come with it.”

There’s one topic that seems to pique Kerley’s interest when it comes to public speaking, and that topic is specific – people who doubted he’d be good at the 100 yards. As to how many of these people actually exist, who can say? But Kerley used them, real or imagined, to fuel it.

As for the future, Kerley said he will compete in the 200 meters this week while also making himself available for the relay in the 4×100-meter and 4×400-meter races. (Stay tuned. Or, as he likes to say, “You’ll see.”)

But while he knows being world champion in the 100 meters will change his life – “The future is bright”, he said – he is not about to limit himself or bend to conventional wisdom.

“In a few months,” he said, “I’ll probably do the 400 again.”

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