Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography - Usain Bolt (2013)
Chapter 12. The Message
But sometimes I lived too fast.
The car crash.
The aftermath of that life-changing collision on Highway 2000 in 2009 always makes me wonder. The road, the rain and my race to get back for a Manchester United game on the TV;* the oncoming lorry and my car as it flipped over and over before crashing into the ditch. The screaming girl in my passenger seat. How the hell had I survived?
Thinking about it, that wasn’t a question that had hit me in the immediate seconds following the collision. At that moment my body buzzed with shock, I busted the side door open, pulling myself out so I could check the state of the car. It didn’t look good. Shards of black bumper and indicator lights were strewn all over the grass and road. The bonnet had been crumpled up like a can of fizzy drink and the windscreen was shattered. No amount of repair work could have saved it. But that was the least of my worries.
Yo, the young ladies in the car! Where the hell were they?
I’d assumed that the pair of them had crawled out of the side door behind me, but when I looked around, they weren’t there. I stooped down to check inside the vehicle. The ground was covered in long, razor-sharp thorns which tore at my bare feet and slipped into my skin like little syringes, but I couldn’t feel a thing at first. Adrenaline had taken over, because I was panicking bad and I had to make sure those girls were safe.
Please be good, please be good.
There was some movement. The girl who had been in the back came out with a groan – she was a little cut up and looked to be in pain. As I gently pulled her from the wreckage, I checked to see where her friend was and my stomach damn well nearly flipped when I saw her limp body, upside down and twisted at an awkward angle. The impact had knocked her out cold. There was no movement and the thought that she might be dead flashed through my mind.
Oh God, please don’t let her be gone.
I rushed to the other side of the car to pull her clear of the wreckage, but when I yanked at the handle, the door wouldn’t give, no matter how hard I pulled. It was jammed fast. I started to freak – I wasn’t sure if the engine was going to blow up.
‘Yo, calm down,’ I said, taking a deep breath. ‘Calm down, now.’
I reached inside the window and unbuckled her seat belt, carefully supporting her neck and back as I slid her lifeless body out. Another pair of hands reached past me and grabbed hold of her arms. Some dude, another driver who had seen the accident, had pulled over and was adding the extra muscle.
I felt sick. She was still unconscious as we hauled her ass through the window, laying her flat on the grass. I clocked the gentle rise and fall of her chest and, for a brief second, her eyes flickered open before rolling back into her head. That didn’t look good, but at least she was still breathing. I made a silent prayer.
‘Please don’t let this girl die on me right now.’
Everybody was stressed, going slightly crazy. We were offered a lift to hospital for treatment, but the roads were rammed. The highway was packed because people rarely walked when it rained in Jamaica. They hopped into their wheels and drove around instead. The nearest Accident and Emergency unit was located in the Spanish Town district and as my ride crawled through the rain, I made nervous glances towards the back seat. My friend was still unconscious and I felt guilty, scared for her.
This was bad, and I knew it.
I swear none of my previous car accidents had been my fault, and there had been a couple. The first one happened when I’d moved to Kingston in 2003, back in the day when I drove a Honda. I was 17 years old and I’d just got my licence, so like most kids I drove everywhere. And I mean everywhere: even to TGI Fridays to meet a young lady, which was what was supposed to happen on the night of the crash. On that particular evening I’d cruised up to a set of lights before braking. I could have beaten the traffic, passing the junction before the signal changed to red, but I decided to chill instead.
‘Just slow down, Bolt,’ I thought. ‘Calm. Try to be respectful now.’
I got in line. The lights turned green, a guy flashed me to go and, as I moved across, another vehicle came out of nowhere and smashed into the side of me, hard. Bang! The front of the car was a mess, everything was shattered, and I was so shaken by the impact that I couldn’t think straight. In a panic, my first instinct was to climb over the gearstick and crawl out of the window by the passenger seat, on the side that had been smashed in. I then rolled across the other motorist’s car bonnet like a crazy person. I still don’t know why I did it; I could have opened up the door on the driver’s side and walked away, no problem. But that’s how rattled I was.
The second accident was even more ridiculous, though. It took place on 1 January 2006. I was just over 12 months into Coach’s three-year plan and I’d begun the first morning of the year with a positive thought.
‘You know what?’ I said. ‘It’s New Year’s Day, let’s start this one strong! I’m going to the gym right now to get the year going right …’
I pushed myself hard for an hour, but when I left the Spartan car park for home, Coach pulled out too, moving into the lane behind me. I could see him in my rear-view mirror. Right there and then I knew I had to relax. I couldn’t have him giving me one of his lectures about driving carefully when I got to the track later that day. Instead I cruised home, taking my time, acting sensible.
It was the same story as before, though. I got to the lights and pulled away, but this time some guy came out of a side road. I pushed my foot on the gas to move off, but as I did so he changed lane in front of me without indicating and drifted right across the front of my car. There was no way I could have moved over because it would have sent me into the path of some oncoming traffic and Bam! – he smashed right into my side and his old 1950s vehicle, which felt like it was made out of super-strengthened steel, cracked my bonnet. As I screeched to a halt, I could see that everything was messed up and my car was in bits. Even worse was the fact that there wasn’t a scratch on the other guy’s old wheels. Now that got me seriously pissed, and I officially lost my temper.
As the other vehicle pulled over, I unclipped my belt and stormed across the street, ready to fight, but when the driver stepped out, I was totally disarmed. He was 70 years old and wearing a pair of the thick, square, heavy-rimmed spectacles that old-assed people in Jamaica used when they couldn’t see anything. I had to turn away.
‘Oh God,’ I moaned. ‘I can hardly hit an old guy now, can I?’
Instead I sat on the sidewalk and stared at my busted bonnet, cussing as Coach tried to talk the man down. He was actually blaming me! For once I was glad Coach had been driving behind me; I was happy for the help.
This time on Highway 2000, it was different – the situation was much, much worse. Truthfully, it was a miracle that we were alive. My friend was still out cold, and I genuinely didn’t know whether she was going to survive. But when we finally made it through the traffic and into the hospital, a couple of nurses rushed up to us.
‘Usain, are you alright?’ said one.
I nodded, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’
She sized me up. ‘But your foot is bleeding.’
I glanced to the floor, I’d walked bloody footprints into the waiting room. The thorns in that ditch had ripped my soles to ribbons, but my cuts were nothing compared to the unconscious girl being pushed in on the trolley next to me.
‘Woman, she’s out cold!’ I said, pointing to her limp body. ‘Forget me, fix her!’
Doctors crowded around, a torch was flashed into her eyes, checking for vital signs. While I waited to hear how she was, one of the nurses took me to another room so my cuts could be tended to, and tweezers were forced into my bleeding wounds in an attempt to draw the prickles out. Talk about pain! My nurse had just about the clumsiest hands in Kingston.
Word came across the hallway that my friends would be OK, but when it came to removing the deep thorns from my flesh cuts, I was in agony. The jabbing and tearing tweezers only pushed the sticks deeper into my foot, and each twist of the steel caused blood to well up and drip on to the bed. It got so painful that I casually mentioned how Mom had dealt with my prickle wounds when I was a kid, in an attempt to guide my nurse, but she would not listen.
‘But miss,’ I said. ‘She used to do it all the time …’
It was true. When I was little I suffered a lot of thorn cuts from running barefoot through the bush in Coxeath. Come to think of it, I was pretty stupid back then. I broke my toe, I broke my nails, I trod on a metal spike which slid halfway into my sole like a surgical blade – I had so much stuff stuck into my foot back then that it was a miracle I ever got to run at all.
One time when I was little, a thorn in my foot had turned septic, which was really bad, dangerous even. Mom could see I was in pain, so gently, carefully, the way a parent does, she tried to draw out the wood with a pin and some tweezers.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ she said as the tears came down.
‘No, Mom, it hurts,’ I wailed, loudly.
Then along came Pops. It was 9.30 at night and he was sleeping in the room next door after a day working hard at the coffee factories. My grumbling must have woken him up because he came into the bedroom, ordering me to lift my injured foot. Pops then grabbed my ankle and dug in with the pin. I wasn’t able to pull away from his grip, he was too strong, and the thorn was soon yanked from the flesh as I screamed in pain. When I got older, I teased him about it all the time.
‘Yo, you were evil, man,’ I told him.
But my Spanish Town nurse was just as brutal. The prickles were pushed deeper and deeper into the skin and there was blood everywhere. Nothing was working. In the end, her plan was abandoned and a senior doctor was called to fix the mess. He took one look at my lacerated soles and explained that I’d need minor surgery to remove the spikes before they could turn poisonous. It would be painful, he said, but I had two options when it came to numbing the sensation.
‘Either we can stick you in the spine and kill the pain from the waist down …’
‘Hell no,’ I said, laughing. ‘I’m not gonna let you do that.’
‘Or, we can numb the area around your foot.’
I figured that to be the most sensible choice under the circumstances, but it quickly turned out to be a huge mistake. The needle, when it arrived, was about eight inches long. The doctor slipped the point into the thin, tender skin around the middle of my shin and as it pricked the flesh and probed slowly, I could see the steel of the needle moving across the bone towards the top of my foot. It was like an awful torture scene from some horror movie. I started screaming as a sharp, blinding pain shot through my body.
‘Oh God, be tough,’ I thought, gritting my teeth and gripping the rails on the bed. ‘Be tough …’
The doctor administered the anaesthetic, but the agony wasn’t over. Another part of my foot needed to be numbed, but rather than completely removing the syringe from my shinbone, he withdrew the slicing needle to its point and moved the angle of attack by 45 degrees. The spine slalomed across my bone for a second time and, as the pain hit me, all sorts of colours flashed before my eyes. I wanted to vomit.
‘No, forget this,’ I shouted. ‘Just stick me in the spine.’
Minutes later, the spike in my back had knocked me out, I was unconscious, and when I woke up I felt dead from the waist down. My feet, legs and torso were paralysed. That was a sensation I’d never experienced before, and it shook me up.
The doctor warned me it would take around 12 hours for any feeling to return to the lower half of my body, and that moment couldn’t come quick enough because not being able to feel my dick was the strangest experience in the world. I kept staring at my watch, pinching my legs and hoping for some life to return. Time seemed to drag. I felt some tingling in my toes and some sensitivity in my feet and my calves, but there was nothing else.
Oh crap, nothing in my dick.
My knees were good, my thighs, too.
Please, God, there’s nothing in my dick. Nothing …
What the hell is going on with my dick?
When a flash of feeling finally came around, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Forget the car crash – a numb crotch was probably the most stressful situation I’d experienced in my entire life.
When Coach first flipped on the news and saw the images of my wrecked car, he figured I had to be dead. He went crazy. ‘There’s no way anyone could be lucky enough to walk away from a car that messed up,’ he said, after NJ had called to tell him that I was actually OK. Coach wouldn’t believe anyone who told him otherwise. It must have given him the rush of his life to see me walking around afterwards, with only a few inches of dressing on my feet to show for the horrific accident. He and I both knew I’d nearly been lost for good.
All of a sudden, the crash had changed my way of thinking. I understood that God had saved me, that He had a plan for me. When I was a kid, the fact that I was bigger, stronger and much, much faster than anybody else was taken for granted. Not now. I understood that something special had been handed down to me and I got a Bible to take on my travels. My Aunt Rose, my dad’s sister, started sending me a verse by text every day, which I then wrote down so I could remember the words.
All of a sudden I felt safe in the knowledge that there was somebody looking out for my well-being. Not long afterwards, I got on to a plane to Miami. The flight was choppy and as we bounced around in a pocket of turbulence, everybody freaked out around me. I was cool, though. I pushed my seat back, closed my eyes and relaxed.
‘Nah, I’m not going to die in a plane crash – not yet,’ I thought. ‘I still have a little bit more running to do …’
I became more appreciative. I understood what I’d been given all of a sudden and I wanted to make the most of it. I wanted to run even faster. I also took to chatting to the other athletes at Racers. It was my turn to teach and I gave out advice to the younger kids about their racing techniques and running styles. I wanted to pass on what I’d learned about track and field, because I felt that if I could give them as much help as possible, then it might change their lives for ever, without them even knowing.
One day, as I worked my way back to fitness on the track, I watched some of the younger athletes running the 4x100 metres. During their warm-up sessions, one dude was jogging slowly, stretching and flexing his muscles as he moved around the curve. Every now and then, though, he’d explode into a hard sprint. It was an amateur’s move, and a risky one at that, so I stopped him dead in his tracks.
‘Yo, don’t do that,’ I said. ‘If you use that style you’ll put your hamstring into shock and it’ll pop.’
He nodded and got himself back into a normal running rhythm. It might not have seemed like a big deal to him at the time, but I figured that if that one kid avoided serious injury and got his chance to win a championship that season, then I’d done my bit. It was the beginning of a new world-view for me.
That I was alive was miraculous, that I could walk was luckier still, and the only physical issues I had to negotiate in the weeks after my crash were my injured feet, which I knew would take a few weeks to heal. That was good news, because 2009 was a big year for me and the World Championships in Berlin were coming up fast. All the talk of Tyson Gay’s absence at the Olympic finals had fired me up during the off season, and I wanted to prove to everybody that I was the best runner on the planet. As I rested, I became focused again, as I knew Tyson would be.
Then the guy made a miscalculation. He told the media that my world record was within his reach, and that he was going to take it. When I first heard the quotes, as I recovered from my injuries and built on my background training, I couldn’t get my head around it. If another runner was coming for my time, why would he announce it to the world all of a sudden? Tyson now had to deliver the fastest 100 metres time ever, otherwise he was going to look pretty foolish. He had heaped a whole load of pressure on himself.
That news was a help to me, as the information enabled me to figure out my opponent’s mental tactics. If track and field was a psychological game of poker in the build-up to a major champs, then Tyson had overplayed his hand, big-style. That one soundbite made me realise he hadn’t spotted my inner strength. He hadn’t analysed how I was and how my brain worked during the build-up to a major race. Sure, Tyson might have understood my physical prowess. But he should have realised that big talk, from any rival, always inspired me to work harder. It brought out the competitor in me. Everyone in Racers knew that talking crap was a big mistake because it forced me to step up.
I guess we were poles apart in attitude. Huge statements weren’t my thing, no matter how confident I was feeling about going into the World Championships. Coach and experience had both taught me that anything could happen in a race to throw me off course. Once I’d stepped on to the track and the gun had gone Pow! I was at the mercy of so many different random factors, each one capable of derailing my world record attempt. I might make a bad step or pull a hamstring, or I might trip and fall at the tape. So much could go wrong to stop me from living up to my own hype. Afterwards, it was a different matter, though. If I wanted, I could claim that I knew a world record was there for the taking. Nobody would be able to say any different – who could prove it? Not Tyson, not anybody. So I left my talking to the post-race interviews and press conferences.
At first, Coach’s training sessions were tough work. Because of the injuries to my feet, I started my World Championships challenge at a disadvantage; I was behind on my background training schedule and unable to pick up the pace for a while. Every time I ran, the cuts in my foot burned. I used shoes with protective foam to guard the sliced flesh on my toes and instep, and that relieved the pain a little, but running on the turn was impossible. Every time I trained on the corner, my wounds were shredded.
Coach watched as I worked through the pain, his face rarely registering any concern, despite my struggles. That was an unreadable look I’d come to recognise as an athlete. Yeah, I knew he felt sorry about my troubles, for sure. But trainers often assessed their racers the way a horse owner assessed the prize beasts in a yard. From the side of the track, Coach was no different and he studied my muscles like they were the tools of his trade. As I powered around the University of West Indies lanes at top speed, he judged my form and strength. My potential for victory was being reviewed with every session.
Then the man revealed his master plan for Berlin.
‘A’ight, Usain, this is how it works,’ he said, one night after training. ‘You need to give me six weeks of intensive work if you want to beat Tyson in the World Champs. Relax on the partying and cut out the junk food. Let me take care of the rest.’
On the track, my schedule was adjusted. We cut back on the background work and focused on explosive speed training. Off it, I became a role-model athlete again. I turned off my phone and messenger for six whole weeks, I cut out the junk food and late nights. Before long, I was running the 100 metres in 9.70 seconds without stressing. I was also killing it on the curve in the 200. Once again, Coach had figured out a way of getting me physically ready, despite the time I’d lost to the crash.
If my form was anything to go by, Tyson had some serious worry. I was primed.
Berlin was huge. If the Olympics was considered to be the track and field equivalent of the FIFA World Cup, then the World Championships was more like the Africa Cup of Nations, the European Champs or the Copa América. The hype was always big, the fans got really excited and the best athletes on the planet arrived with their A-game.
To me, Europe was a beautiful part of the world in which to race: Zurich, Rome and Lausanne always gave me a lot of love whenever I showed up for Diamond League events, but Berlin, when I arrived, was on another level. The venue was the impressive Olympiastadion, a huge arena that held 74,000 people. The field was ringed by a bright blue track, its bleachers were ram-packed nearly every day, and when the athletes took off on the gun the noise got wild.
But the World Championships felt like just another race to me. I was relaxed, I felt strong. My back was in check thanks to all the physiotherapy and gym work, not to mention Dr Müller-Wohlfahrt’s treatment, and as a result the muscles in my back were tough. My hamstrings were full of strength. There was nothing for me to stress about. I cruised through the heats in both the 100 and 200, and by the time I’d hit the warm-up track before the 100 metres final I was beyond hyped.
I was so relaxed that an hour before the race, as Eddie stretched my muscles on his massage table, I started fooling around, just like I had done in Beijing.
‘Yo, who wants to bet how fast I’m going to run?’
Yeah, OK, let’s do this.
We all guessed times: Ricky took 9.52 seconds, Eddie 9.59 seconds; I went for 9.54.
I guess there was a confidence to my game, not just because I was fit, but also because the 100 metres final had brought together the best of the best. Tyson was in there, Asafa too. All of us were running at 100 per cent and I knew that if I could take first place, nobody would ever be able to cast doubt on my position as the best sprinter on the planet; nobody could make excuses for the other athletes.
Mentally, rather than crushing me, like it did some athletes, that realisation fired me up. It gave me reason to be happy because I knew I always thrived on the biggest challenges. Tyson must have freaked when he saw me walking through the call area to the start line. Despite the scale of the competition, I was chilled. I even started joking with the Antigua and Barbuda runner Daniel Bailey. The pair of us were laughing and pulling dance moves. We had competed together in every heat of the World Championships so far, and along the way we’d become wrapped up in a running joke about who could get the fastest start with each gun.
Bang! Bang! Bang! After every race we checked the replay to see who had left their blocks the quickest. But what had started as a bit of fun was threatening to derail one of us, because in the semis I had false-started. I’d been so eager to get ahead of him that I moved too fast and the athletes were called back for a restart.
In those days, the rules for runners and false starts were pretty clear. Any athlete who moved within 0.10 seconds of the gun was deemed to have false-started. That time was based on the fact that scientists had reckoned that any human judgement made at that speed was based on guesswork rather than reaction. It was impossible for the brain to move to a noise that quickly. After the first false start, the athletes received a warning. If somebody false-started on the next gun, they were immediately disqualified.
That rule was open to some serious manipulation, though. It was figured that some of the American athletes were deliberately false-starting to throw the other guys off their concentration. It was a trick used by seasoned pros, especially those guys who tended to be slow starters.
Let me explain: if there was a line of 100 metres athletes in a race and one guy knew he was going to false-start, that placed him in the strongest position, psychologically. The restart didn’t come as a shock to him; it was in his head all along. Once the race was reset, the other guys had worry all of a sudden, because if someone jumped the gun again, they were immediately disqualified. A race official would walk to their lane to flash a red card. That meant the faster starters in the pack had to chill. They had to move a little slower on the Bang! just in case. The slower starters in the pack were competing on a more level playing field.
I didn’t want to lose a race to disqualification, not when my number one status was up for grabs. I took Bailey to one side.
‘Yo, please let’s forget this starter thing,’ I said. ‘I just want to execute. When we start putting pressure on each other, we always do dumb stuff …’
He nodded. Bailey understood me more than most runners – we had become friends since he had started training at the Racers camp, and he knew that I liked to fool around before a race. It helped me to relax. He also knew the stakes were a little higher for me that night, but that still didn’t stop us from dancing around, busting out some dancehall moves. I looked across the lanes and smiled. Tyson’s face was a picture of intense concentration. He had to be thinking, ‘What’s wrong with these dudes? This is a World Championships final, and they’re playing and joking?’
When the athletes were called to the line … Bam! I caught a hot start and my early strides were smooth. I pulled away in no time at all, and as I got to 50 metres I glanced sideways to check on my opponents, but I knew it was a precautionary peek. I had executed the perfect start. There was no way anyone else in the pack was going to catch me.
I looked again, just to make sure.
‘Nah,’ I thought. ‘I’ve got this.’
The race was won, and with 20 metres to go I looked for the clock. The seconds were ticking over, almost in slow motion, and in a heartbeat I could see that the world record was within reach. The funny thing was, I felt calm. There was no feeling of shock or surprise as there had been when I’d broken the time in New York and Beijing. Instead I maintained my cool and shot through the line.
The roar of the crowd told me everything I needed to know: 9.58 seconds. A new world record. I was number one for everyone in the world to see, and I raced around the bright blue track in the Olympiastadion, my arms spread wide. I pulled the lightning bolt pose and sent the crowd wild; somebody threw a Jamaica flag around my shoulders. It was becoming a familiar experience.
Later I heard that Tyson was pissed – seriously pissed. People had caught him cussing afterwards, getting angry and flashing his hand. In his mind he’d really thought there was a chance of him beating me, but I’d known from the minute we had arrived at the track that I was in better shape – mentally at least. Tyson was wound up too tight, whereas I hadn’t been fazed at all. My only worry was whether I was going to win the 100 euro bet with Eddie and Ricky. Meanwhile, Tyson was thinking about titles and world records, both of which were heavy pressures. Had he lightened up a little bit, he would have run a better race; less stress would have made him more relaxed and allowed him to execute.
The following day, I got word that Tyson had withdrawn from the 200 metres. Rumours flew around that he’d decided not to face me again, that the thought of being beaten was too much for him. The truth was that he’d damaged his groin and was unable to compete, but I wasn’t too concerned because I’d already shown that I could take him in a major final. The fact he hadn’t competed in Beijing was forgotten as far as I was concerned.
Looking back, my thinking was so very different from ’08, especially in the 200. In Beijing, I’d been initially unsure about how quick I was going to run and whether I could beat Michael Johnson’s time. But in Berlin, when it came to the 200 metres final a couple of nights later, I was pretty confident I could improve on my own record. My time in the 100 had confirmed that belief, and once the gun fired I chased hard.
It’s funny, that whole race was about running hard. My drive phase was hard, I ran the corner hard and I tore down the straight hard. But I wasn’t straining or over-exerting myself. I was fresh, I had power. And once I’d established that the race was won, I glanced up at the clock. Whenever I ran a 200, I could tell roughly how fast I was going to run by judging my distance from the line and looking at the time. Once I approached the finish, I knew my record was there for the taking. I didn’t even bother leaning.
Another world record.
The truth is, had I dived at the line, I would have gone faster, 19.16 seconds maybe, but because I had made it look easy, people started talking crap about how I had been holding back. The fans knew that whenever athletes broke a world record they received bonuses from their sponsors, and a conspiracy theory went around that I was chilling so I could break my time again and again in some crazy money-making venture.
If only it was that simple. Track and field is hard, and while I could judge whether I was going to beat my own time, or not, as I was going round the track, it was impossible to gauge exactly how fast I would finish. The reality of a sprinter’s life is that several factors come into play whenever they break a world record, including strength, fitness, state of mind and luck. That night it all came together and I’d run the perfect race. Well, I thought I had. Coach had other ideas.
‘Nah, your shoulders were a little bit too high,’ he said. ‘You kept looking over.’
That was the final straw for me. I decided in that moment never to ask him about my performances again. Think about it: I had run well, I’d broken the world record and taken gold. In my mind, that was as good as it got. But not for Coach. He still managed to find faults.
And that was just a little bit depressing to me.
* I’d been a United fan since I was a kid. I’d first watched them when Premier League games were screened on Jamaican TV. The Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy had been playing at the time and I was really impressed by his game, he was such a good striker. I’d loved them from that moment, and every Sunday I turned on the television set hoping Manchester United would be playing.
The older I got, and the more I travelled with track and field, the more I saw of them. Then I found out they were the biggest club in the world, so I guess it was lucky that they were my first game. Oh man, can you imagine how bad it could have been had it been West Ham or Blackburn Rovers?