Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography - Usain Bolt (2013)

Chapter 13. A Flash of Doubt, a Lifetime of Regret

It was party time.

From the minute I’d taken my 200 metres gold medal in Berlin, I was dead. It had been a tough year and my lack of background training after the car smash meant that I wasn’t as fit as I would have liked. When the 4x100 metres relay came around in the Olympiastadion, I was a different athlete to the one that had helped Jamaica to break the world record in Beijing. As soon as I set off on my leg, my energy faded. I could hear another athlete breathing down my neck, but there was nothing I could do to get away from him. I collapsed to the ground after I’d made the change with Asafa, who sped to first place, but it had been too close for comfort. Michael Frater had to pull me up from the track afterwards because I was too burned out to celebrate.

I wanted to rest; I needed to chill out. The following season, 2010, was set to be a quiet year – there was nothing in the way of major championships, so I made the decision to relax for 12 months. Sure, I would train and I would try my best to race fast. I just didn’t want to exert the same amount of effort as I had done in previous years.

Shortly after the World Champs had finished, I explained my new mindset to Coach.

‘Yo, 2010 is my off season,’ I said. ‘I’m gonna take it easy. I’ll work hard, but I’m not busting my ass like last year, or the year before …’

The man was not happy.

‘No, Usain!’ he said. ‘You’ve gotta train. You can’t relax. You have more championships to win.’

I understood his reasoning. He was my trainer; he was supposed to motivate me to be the best in the world. Coach was always reminding me that I was getting paid, and I had to win races, but I’d made a decision not to stress until 2011 came around. I knew I needed to blow off some steam. My body was weak, my brain was tired out from all the hard work. I wanted to enjoy myself for a while. Besides, without a break I wouldn’t be able to step up when it really mattered.

In the off season, the parties came thick and fast. As soon as I’d returned home, I organised a ‘9.58 Super Party’ in St Ann in Jamaica. I wanted to celebrate my new world record. All the money raised went to the building of a health centre in Trelawny and a lot of people came out to support the night. Asafa was there, Wallace even showed up. The top DJs from Jamaica played sets for all the fans. It was wild.

The only downside to my success was that some people were now viewing me as a national star on the scale of Bob Marley, especially after my world record-breaking performances. Sure, I was happy to represent Jamaica and promote the image of the country, but the comparison to Marley – the most famous Jamaican ever – freaked me out. When I had travelled to Hungary as a kid for the World Youth Championships, we had been taken to a concert, and I’d watched amazed as European bands covered all his songs. I couldn’t believe it. The crowd was going crazy. I knew Marley had been massive in Jamaica, but I didn’t know his popularity had extended that far.

‘What?’ I thought. ‘This is huge! What’s really going on here?’

So naturally, I felt weird when people compared me to him. There was pressure all of a sudden. It bothered me, and any time someone made the suggestion I would shrug it off and make excuses.

‘Nah,’ I’d say. ‘Let’s not say that I’m bigger than Bob Marley. I’m one of the icons of Jamaica, yeah, and being compared to Bob is an honour, but he’s huge, man.’

Still, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was the most famous athlete on the planet. I won the Laureus Award for World Sportsman of the Year in 2009 (I would win it three times in total, later in 2010 and then 2013), which was a huge deal because the previous winners had included the tennis player Roger Federer, the golfer Tiger Woods and the F1 driver Michael Schumacher. All of those dudes were massive. It was amazing to know that I was in that top class.

The madness that had first exploded in 2008 hadn’t calmed down, either. Wherever I went, I was bombarded by autograph requests, often by other sportsmen and sportswomen, or celebrities. After the Olympics, I was invited to functions all over the world and every night the queue for my signature stretched down the hall. The line was filled with famous faces, including sportsmen and women, musical artists, and famous businessmen. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t know who some of them were and often I’d have to turn to Ricky for help.

‘Who was that?’ I’d whisper, as another guy left my table with an autograph.

‘Oh, that’s the world champion in such and such a sport,’ he’d say.

It was crazy.

I wasn’t complaining, I got to meet some cool people in some wild places. Shortly after Berlin I was hanging out in a London nightclub, chilling with friends and a bottle of champagne, when all of a sudden I was approached by some crazy dude with insane long hair and an even crazier shirt. When I looked at it, the colours blew my mind. It was an explosion of red, blue and green, with polka dots and shiny patches. Wow, even Mom’s seamstress skills couldn’t have pieced that top together!

‘Hey, Usain, I’m Mickey Rourke,’ he said, extending a hand. ‘Fancy a race?’

I’d heard of Mickey from his movies. He was a Hollywood superstar, but his challenge caught me off guard. It was 4 a.m., and the man looked a little worse for wear, but I thought it would be fun, so we stepped outside. When the small crowd that had gathered around us shouted ‘Go!’ I let him beat me by a couple of inches. Mickey was pushing 60 years of age at that time, there was no way I was going to smoke him in the street at 4am. It would have been rude.

Clearly, the world was spinning so fast that even I couldn’t keep up with it. Luckily, I had my friends around me to keep my feet on the ground: Ricky and Coach, Pascal Rolling of Puma. Puma had been my long-time sponsor and whenever a football team or school in Jamaica asked me for help, he would always send them some kit to play in, or training equipment. Meanwhile, I bought a house in the hills of Kingston and was able to chill in peace and quiet. NJ had returned to Jamaica to work as my Executive Manager and he moved in to the house, my brother Sadiki, too. Most nights we would sit around and play video games or dominoes.

Despite my relaxed attitude, when the season started, I wasn’t in bad shape. There were a few 100s during the schedule, plus a couple of 200s. I made some pretty good times too, including 9.86 seconds in Daegu and 9.82 in Lausanne; in the 200 I made times of 19.56 and 19.76 in Kingston and Shanghai. I even ran a 300 metres race in Ostrava, where I nearly broke the world record, but without a World Champs or Olympic Games in the diary, there wasn’t a big enough challenge to inspire me. When my races were done, I tried to find a party.

I was careful, though: when I went out, I always made sure not to drink too much, and I kept my behaviour away from the public eye most of the time. The only time I got caught out happened during a beach party in Jamaica. At first I wasn’t convinced I should go. The sun was shining, the crowd was outdoors and that meant that everybody would be able to see what I was getting up to.

In the end, I figured, What the hell? And man, was I glad I did, because it was the baddest party I had ever seen in my life. There were semi-naked chicks on the beach, people were drinking and the beats were everywhere. It was insane. Then a friend handed me a huge funnel overflowing with beer. The plastic tube seemed to go on for ever. There must have been several bottles of drink poured into the container.

‘Come on, you think you’re The Fastest Man On Earth,’ he said. ‘Let’s see how fast you can do this.’

It was the chance of a lifetime. I was an athlete, I had never been to a college ball or a frat party before. This was my chance to act like other people, so I drank that beer down fast. But damn, the next day a photo of my stunt was splashed all over the internet and Coach was not impressed. I couldn’t blame him.

Sometimes the fans got angry as well. They saw me enjoying myself and freaked out. One time, a guy came up to me in a Kingston club and started to complain.

‘Come on dude,’ he said. ‘You party way too much.’

I stopped him in his tracks. ‘Listen, what’s the problem with me partying?’ I said. ‘Am I not doing my job?’

He looked flustered. He tried to answer back, but I wasn’t finished.

‘Think about it for a minute: I party and I still win. I don’t party, and I win. What’s the difference?’

The cat had nothing to say after that.

The only guy who was able to lecture me with authority was Coach. He tried to push me into working harder at the track and the gym, but even he struggled. For the first summer in four years I had returned to Jamaica in the middle of the season. It was the time when the World Championships and Olympics normally took place, but without them I could chill at home instead, and in summer the parties in the Caribbean were epic. When I went back to race in Europe in August – the DN Galan in Stockholm was my first meet – I was not prepared properly. I’d enjoyed too many late nights before my flight to Sweden where I was due to run the 100 against Tyson and Asafa.

Coach took one look at me as we met in the hotel and realised that my involvement was a waste of time. I looked awful. Just by checking out my eyes, he knew I wouldn’t be able handle the competition. I wasn’t energised, and a couple of days later, I finished second in the 100. My back had tightened up because I hadn’t done the exercises I needed to strengthen my core and my legs felt sore. My natural rhythm was gone. I flew to Munich to see Dr Müller Wohlfahrt for a check-up.

‘No, no, no, Usain,’ he said. ‘It’s as if your back and hamstrings are made of stone. No more running for you this season.’

It was time for the celebrations to wind down.

***

It wasn’t just Coach who was hassling me to work harder. There was a new face at the track, a young dude by the name of Yohan Blake – or just Blake, as we called him – and it was clear from the minute he’d arrived at Racers in 2009 that the kid was going to be a strong athlete. For starters, he ran both the 100 and 200. But also, he was quick, really quick, and his junior times had been nearly as impressive as mine. In July 2009 he had run races of 9.96 and 9.93. He was 19 years old at the time.

Physically, Blake was very different to me. He was shorter, around five foot 11, and he was younger by three years. But he was built like a bulldog. The muscles in his body started at his broad neck and shoulders and seemed to explode outwards on the way down. There was serious power in his arms, core and legs, and when he came out of the blocks he looked like an animal as he tore down the track.

I admired his work ethic straightaway, plus he was a nice guy. I learned pretty quickly that he loved cricket, which gave us something to talk about. But while I had a passion for the sport, Blake was obsessed. He lived for it and at weekends he would play for a team in one of the Jamaican leagues. He was also sheltered. He didn’t drink and he certainly didn’t party. From what I could tell he had been a little naïve when it came to girls, too. One day when we were kicking back at the track, talking about sex (like men do), he told me that his high-school coach had warned him that if he fooled around, it would slow his races down, and he wouldn’t run smoothly. Even worse, Blake had actually believed him.

What?’ I thought. ‘For real? I was way smarter than that when I was studying at high school.’

The guy had desire, though. From the minute he arrived at Racers, Blake had attacked me on the track. He loved to compete and he would battle me in everything we did together. If Coach got us to run a 10-metre sprint he would try to beat me. If we had to run 300-metre reps, he would have to finish first. I think crossing the line ahead of me when we worked together made him feel better about himself, but it didn’t bother me. I understood that we had different attitudes to training.

‘Dude, chill out,’ I said to him one afternoon. ‘Relax. Seriously.’

Even though I was putting my feet up at the time, I still knew he had his priorities wrong. Having worked with Coach for several years, I had learned to listen to my body. I usually knew when I had to work harder, or if I wasn’t running correctly. If I had been sprinting for an afternoon with my shoulders too high, I would realise it before Coach could start shouting at me. I also knew when I could relax and get away with it most of the time. I always did the right amount of training to get me to the start line of a major champs in good shape – never too much, never too little. If Coach asked me to run a 25-second run over a set distance, then I would run 25, maybe 26. I would never push myself any harder. That’s how I knew it had to be done.

Blake was different, though; he pushed hard. If Coach told him to run 25 seconds, he would go at it and run a 23. He was way too competitive. Blake also had some learning to do of his own. A bit later on in the season, Coach was forced into giving him a week off because he was too fit.

‘Go home, Blake,’ he said. ‘Your body cannot get in any better shape than it is now. It doesn’t make any sense for you to train anymore. You’ll only tire yourself out and you won’t be prepared for the next race.’

Too fit? That was the first time I’d ever heard of that happening at Racers.

If Blake thought he was psyching me out with his performances in training, then he was wrong. He hadn’t come to understand me yet. Some people might lose heart if they’re continually getting beaten by a younger rival in training. Their confidence might drop. They might think, ‘Oh s**t, this cat’s going to take my place.’ I didn’t think like that. I let the daily competitions wash over me, because I knew that I only came alive when the stakes were much, much higher than background training or practice starts.

Still, I liked the fact that I’d been given a serious rival in the camp. Everyone knew that Blake had ambitions to take my title; he wanted to be the number one sprinter in the world, but I found it useful to see him working on my doorstep. Every time a season started, one of my first thoughts was always, ‘Hmm, I wonder what kinda shape Tyson’s going to be in? And Asafa? And the next guy, and the next guy …’

With Blake, I didn’t have that worry because he was right there beside me. I could watch him. I could check how he was going to work out as a competitor. If he was going to be a challenger, I could see it every day and step my s**t up; if he was getting stronger, I could learn about it at close hand. But I was also in a position to learn about his weaknesses and what made him tick.

One or two athletes thought it might be a bad deal for both of us. Kim Collins claimed that it would be a disaster because ‘two male crabs can’t live in the same hole’. But I couldn’t work out why everybody was stressing. I was able to look at everything that was going on with Blake. That meant I could do enough to be one step ahead of him when it really mattered.

***

Stepping up was tough, though.

For the very first time, I worried that the magic might have gone for ever. I feared the moment when I might not be able to execute on the track. An athlete’s life is short, their time at the top fades quickly and I knew at some point in the future I might lose my edge. Occasionally, as the 2011 season got started, I would run poorly, and sometimes I had to work really hard to win races in the last ten metres, which was unusual for me. In those moments I would ask questions of my form as I crossed the line.

‘What the hell was that?!’ I’d think. ‘Hmm, I wonder if I’ve still got it …’

The flashes of insecurity were brief, but understandable. By the start of the 2011 season I kept getting injured. I travelled to Munich to see The Doc again, but despite his treatment I still wasn’t running smoothly, and when background training began there were niggling pains in my hamstrings, calves and toes. My Achilles killed. It was as if my whole body had gone haywire. Every time I made some progress another injury flared up – I could not catch a break.

When I first visited Dr Müller Wohlfahrt in 2004, I had been warned that as I matured, I would have to work harder to stay fit while my metabolism slowed down; I wouldn’t be able to eat as much junk food. But I would also have to work more than most track and field stars simply to keep my back strong, and it was clear that I’d have to step up and get serious in the gym again if I was to avoid any more injuries.

From January to March I was unable to take part in what would be considered normal training. There was more jogging that sprinting, and rather than practising starts or working on background sessions, I was doing rehab work in the pool for the first time to build up my fitness. That gave me stress.

It was a big year for me. If 2010 had been an off season, then 2011 was the defence of my titles at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. There was pressure all of a sudden. I needed to make the 100 and 200 metres finals in top shape.

Coach managed my mind. Whenever I had a worry, if ever I looked at the schedule and began counting down the days from January to March, I always turned to him for reassurance.

‘Yo, we good?’ I’d say.

‘Yeah, we’ve got enough time, Usain.’

It was like our early years together all over again. My faith in his experience was enough to keep me going, which was important because in situations where I wasn’t running well, I knew I had to stay confident. I had to trust my ability to come alive in the bigger competitions – whenever the major meets came around, either my body or my mind had always stepped up in the past, almost from the minute I’d walked into the athletes’ village. I knew that once I was settled into my Daegu digs, the buzz and the intensity around the place would give me a lift as good as any pep talk from Coach; my stress levels would go down.

‘Yeah, championships,’ I’d think. ‘That’s what I do.’

So I didn’t worry at first. Coach’s programme would eventually be enough to get me in shape, I knew it. When I finally did get to the start line in Rome and Ostrava that May, I won all my 100s, but my starts were poor, probably the worst ever, and I couldn’t get my rhythm right. It was the same in my 200s in Oslo, Paris and Stockholm during June and July. Prior to the World Champs, I only ran six times competitively and while I finished first in all of them, the performances weren’t convincing. I still wasn’t as fit as I would have liked.

My drive, those first few steps from the blocks, started to really bother me and when I arrived in the Daegu Stadium for the 100 metres heats there was an intensity in my game, one that I hadn’t experienced before, mainly because my normal routine had been disrupted. Like in Athens ’04, I feared my fitness would let me down. I allowed worry to cloud my judgement.

I kept thinking the same thing over and over: ‘Got to get this start right … Got to get this start right …’

Coach could see it. One day at the practice track in Daegu, he stood over me as I caught my breath on the sidelines.

‘What’s going on, Usain?’ he said. ‘You’re not your normal self. You need to relax. You’ll succeed in your races …’

He could tell I was concerned, and at first I tried to shrug it off because the field in the World Champs was probably the weakest I had ever faced in a big competition. Later, when I won my heats easily, the anxiety started to fade, like a switch had been flicked in my head. As the 100 metres final approached, there was a sense that I might do something special; the race looked easy to me, none of the big guns were there. Tyson was out of the champs through injury, as was Asafa. The line-up consisted of the Caribbean sprinters, Blake, Kim Collins, Daniel Bailey and Nesta Carter, plus the American Walter Dix, and Christophe Lemaitre and Jimmy Vicaut of France. I figured I could win the final just by cruising down the track.

Still, there was some added pressure because the rules on the start line had changed. In 2010 it had been announced that there would be a ‘zero tolerance’ policy to anyone jumping the gun. There would be no second chances for anyone making a false start, and one early move would mean that an athlete was disqualified. The heat was cranked up a notch in the blocks, and my anxiety returned as I warmed up in the lanes.

‘I need to get this start,’ I thought.

Then I cussed myself.

‘No, to hell with that! No stress. You’re gonna get a bad start, but don’t worry. You’ll still win because at the end of the race you’ll run past everyone, like you always do.’

We were called to our marks. I could not shake my race chatter.

‘I need to get this start.’

‘Usain, forget this “Need to get a good start” thing! Focus …’

Get set …

The damage was done already. Mentally I wasn’t right. I was over-eager, too keen to make those first few strides. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but in a split second, probably a pulse before the gun went crack!, I heard a voice in my head. A whisper. One word.

Go!

And I leapt forward, bursting down the track. The muscles in my arms, calves and hamstrings tensed and then released as I exploded forward out of the blocks. I had gone too early and there was nothing I could do to stop my momentum. I realised the stupidity of what I’d done instantly. My heart sank; I knew I was in trouble. I’d freaked, pre-empted the gun, and I was about to be disqualified. My World Championships were over.

I didn’t even have to look towards the officials – I understood what was coming next, and I was full of fury. I tore off my vest and started to cuss.

‘F***! No, it’s too easy! Too easy! The field is weak. It’s the easiest race you’re ever gonna run in. You could have won by chilling …’

A race official came over. At first he pointed at where I should walk to. He wanted me to leave the track. When I wouldn’t move, he grabbed my elbow and tried to guide me away. That made me even more angry. The red mist came down – I wanted to punch him so hard. It took every ounce of self-restraint to hold myself back from doing something awful.

‘Yo, don’t touch me,’ I hissed, yanking my arm from his grip and walking towards the tunnel of the stadium. When I got there, I pounded the bleachers with my palms as the pain of what had happened hit me hard. I started beating everything – the walls, the colourful drapes that hung down from the stands. The fans looked down on me from their seats. My hurt was being played out in front of millions of people around the world. It was the most stressed I’d ever been on the track.

The start was reset, and as I watched from the sidelines, I knew Blake was going to take the gold. Now I was out, there was nobody in the field better than him. The gun popped, and as I followed the action down the track, I burned with anger; but I applauded him as he came in first place, because I was genuinely happy for him. I knew how hard that kid had worked at Racers for his first taste of glory.

The fall-out, when it hit me, was hard. I walked away from the crowds and went through all the reasons for my misjudgement. I hadn’t been myself. The doubt that had trailed my injuries had messed with my thinking; I’d obsessed about the start. I had put too much pressure on my performance.

As the night wore on and I relaxed in the Village, I heard all kinds of stupid theories about why I had blown it. Everybody had an opinion. Some dude believed that Blake had deliberately twitched in the blocks alongside me. He reckoned that had set me off; I’d moved because he had and that was the reason for my start. I was not happy about the idea for one minute.

‘Yo, let’s not try to blame anybody or any of that crap,’ I said. ‘I didn’t even see that. I’ve learned over the years not to look at other athletes, because someone always false starts and we’re all competitive with each other, so if somebody jerks or moves then it might be enough to send me off down the track too early. So let’s not think that …’

People blamed the new rules, they said they were unfair – I was one of the first high-profile victims, after all. But my attitude was that we all had to play by them. Then I heard that some TV commentators had claimed I should have acted dumb. They argued that when the race had been stopped, I should have played as if nothing had happened. They suggested that if I’d left my vest on, if I’d kept calm, then the officials would have found it much harder to disqualify me because of who I was and what I’d achieved for the sport. But I wasn’t accepting that, either. Had I pulled that kind of stunt I wouldn’t have felt good about myself. The knowledge that I’d been sneaky wouldn’t have sat well with me. It would have been cheating and I’m not into that. I would have spent the rest of my life knowing that I hadn’t deserved that gold medal.

Not everyone else saw it that way. The instant I had been disqualified, some of the crowd in the Daegu Stadium had left the bleachers and gone home. The show, for them, was over.

***

Coach didn’t say a word to me about the false start. He still hasn’t, even to this day. It was the lowest point in my track and field career and he’s never mentioned it to me since, not even in a playful way. Maybe because he knew it had hurt me so bad. I guess he’s trusted me to handle the situation well enough on my own.

In the days after my disqualification, it was an effort to get myself together. I played video games with the Jamaican team, Blake included. I watched a Manchester United game on the internet. Despite a full day of rest, my energy was low. Mom and Pops had come over from Jamaica to watch me compete. I met with them one evening and ran a few jokes because I knew I would have to lift myself out of the slump for the 200 metres final. But I was sick of people asking me over and over, ‘What are you gonna do about your start in the next race?’

I truthfully didn’t know, but I had to shake the smoke of worry that had come over me. Thankfully, the boost, when it arrived, happened on the track, and when I walked out of the tunnel to a huge roar from the crowd for the 200 metres final my mind was buzzing.

‘I really need to make a statement right now,’ I thought. ‘But I’m not in the best shape – what’s gonna happen?’

Then I saw some kids in the crowd. They were waving to me, smiling and laughing. I went over to say hello and as we goofed around, the reality of my situation dropped with me.

‘You know what? To hell with this stressing!’ I thought. ‘I’m supposed to be having fun. Being relaxed in the past is what made me a champ, like in the World Juniors. So stop worrying and be yourself.’

Almost instantly, I became happier. I had less worry, more bounce. The weight was gone from my shoulders. Those kids had reminded me of what I was all about; I remembered putting my spikes on the wrong foot in 2002 and still winning. I was a champ, and when I came out of the blocks on point, I ran hard. I’d been placed in lane three, which was quite close to the curve, and I could feel the muscles in my back tightening as I powered around the corner. But that wasn’t enough to slow me down. By the time I’d made it home I was in first place, finishing in 19.40 seconds. I later helped the 4x100 metres relay team smash the world record again with a time of 37.04 seconds. Talk about lifting myself out of trouble.

As I chilled in the village afterwards, I assessed my situation. I took the attitude that everything in life happened for a reason.

‘If I hadn’t false started here,’ I thought, ‘then my issues might have moved into the following season.’

That would have been a disaster. London 2012 was on the horizon and I didn’t want to blow the defence of my titles – not there.

‘God, I hope I’ve learned a lesson,’ I thought.

As I looked at my gold medals, I prayed that my issues with fitness and stress had gone for good.

I should have known better.