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

Chapter 3. My Own Worst Enemy

I arrived in my khaki uniform at Waldensia Primary and friendships happened quickly. I had energy and good manners, so I got on with most people, but I really liked the kids who enjoyed cricket and I’d hit it off with anyone who had a bat and a ball. I became friends with a kid called Nugent Walker Junior, because he was as excited as I was by watching the likes of Courtney Walsh and Brian Lara on the TV, and we hung out most days, smashing sixes around the school field.

Nugent lived down the way from me and he would be waiting for me outside his house as I walked to school. We became inseparable. Almost straightaway he was nicknamed ‘NJ’ by friends, which made sense – it came from his initials after all. But after we’d been hanging out for a while, everyone at school called me ‘VJ’. I had no idea where it came from, but I really didn’t mind the tag because I’d taken to hating my name. Nobody could say it right and I was called ‘Oosain’, ‘Oh-sain’ or ‘Uh-sain’ whenever I met someone for the first time. Some kids referred to me as ‘Insane’, which gave the impression I was bad or tough. But it was only when girls started saying my name at high school that I finally got into it.

Yooo-sain! Yooo-sain!’ they cooed.

‘Oh, I see,’ I thought when I heard it for the first time. ‘Usain sounds kinda nice whenever a girl calls for me from across the street.’

At school I was pretty good in class, especially math, and when lessons began I made an important discovery: man, I loved to compete! As soon as a problem went up on the chalk board, I’d race to finish. Often NJ would battle me to see who could complete the sums first, and that’s when a killer instinct showed up. Everything I got involved in, I did it to win. I had to win. First was everything, second only meant losing. And I really hated losing.

I cruised through my first few years at school, and sports quickly became my thing. Thanks to all that running around the wild bush in Coxeath I was fast. In cricket when I bowled I could come down on the wicket hard, with speed, and I was quick in the field. My physical size gave me an advantage over the other pupils because I was a growing into a tall kid, and at the age of eight I was taking wickets off cricketers a lot older than me, guys that were 10 or 11 years old. I was already the same height as them and it wasn’t long before I’d opened the batting for Waldensia a couple of years earlier than most kids even made the team.

I was pretty good at sprinting, too. I had potential. I was quick on my feet and after I’d beaten Ricardo in the Waldensia sports day, I entered my first serious inter-schools race (where the prize was made out of tin and plastic rather than rice and peas), winning all my events. After a few more competitions in 1997, it was obvious to everyone that I was the fastest kid in Sherwood Content, and I later won the Trelawny parish champs when I was 10. People were taking notice of what I could do and I was winning school race after school race. Our house creaked at the fittings with all the plastic trophies and medals I was bringing back for winning this championship and that, but none of it was really serious to me. I just enjoyed running for fun. I loved the sensation of coming first in school races, of beating the other kids, but there was no way I could have seen that track and field was a serious future for me at that time. How could I? I was just a kid.

It was opening doors, though. After a couple of years competing at school level and winning parish meets with Waldensia, I was invited to race the 100 and 150 metres events in the National School Championships. I got my ass whooped in both, but because I was clearly one of the fastest in the north-west of Jamaica of my age, I was invited to be a sports scholarship student at William Knibb High School, which was a short car ride away from home, near Falmouth, where a lot of the big cruise ships dropped off their tourists.

William Knibb was a great place, a nice school with a fantastic sporting history. One of their former students, Michael Green, had competed in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where he’d finished seventh place in the 100 metres. They also had a strong reputation for cricket, but it was my racing ability that made me eligible for a spot in one of their classes.

Here’s why: in Jamaican high schools, track and field was huge. The passion for athletics was as big as it is for football in English schools, or the US colleges’ love for American football and basketball. The way the system worked – from youth talent through to pro level – was that a kid first competed at local meets. If they got hot and won a few big inter-schools races at junior level, as I had at Waldensia, then they got to race in the parish, or state champs, where the standard went up a little. Get to high school and make some noises in the bigger meets and an athlete soon found himself competing at secondary school national level. That was where life got interesting. A kid with serious game in his mid-teens could draw flattering attention from American colleges, who usually offered sports scholarships. Pro contracts and big dollars followed soon after.

I was on the bottom rung of that ladder, but William Knibb could tell that I carried the potential to compete in some of the bigger meets in the coming years. One of those was the Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Championships, or ‘Champs’ as everyone called it back home. To anyone outside the island, the event sounded like a super-sized sports day, but Champs was the biggest deal for any junior athlete in Jamaica and a national obsession. In fact, it was probably the biggest school event in the Caribbean.

Champs was – and is – the heartbeat of Jamaican track and field success. It was first set up in 1910 to pitch the best athletic kids in the country against one another, and every year in March over 2,000 children would battle it out. The best schools were crowned ‘King’ or ‘Queen’, and the event was always screened on TV. Hell, it even took over the front pages of our national newspapers. A lot of countries all over the world were having difficulties when it came to financing their junior athletic meets, but Champs was such a big deal that a number of serious sponsorship contracts paid for its organisation every year.

I could understand the appeal. The four-day meet was usually held at the National Stadium in Kingston and the 30,000 tickets for each day sold out fast. The demand was huge because people wanted to see the next generation of national superstars, and when those tickets had gone loads of people jumped over the fence to get in, which meant the bleachers were always jammed. People would dance in the crowd, there were horns blaring, school bands played noisily in the seats. If anybody wanted to pee they were screwed, because it would take an hour to get to the bathroom.

On the flip side, Champs provided a hunting ground for Jamaica’s government-funded coaches. In 1980, our old Prime Minister Michael Manley established the GC Foster College – an educational facility working entirely in physical education and sports coaching. It’s one of the reasons why, with a population of 2.7 million people, Jamaica developed as many gold medallists as a lot of the world’s bigger countries. GC Foster College produced the coaches; the coaches scouted the best junior athletes at Champs, then they turned them into title-winning pros.

Understandably, head teachers from across the country were always looking out for new athletic talents to add to their Champs alumni. Schools got a lot of props for producing successful track and field competitors, and William Knibb’s principal, Margaret Lee, was a teacher with sporting smarts. After she had got wind of some of my race times, Miss Lee told me that the school would pay a chunk of my tuition fees as part of a sports scholarship. They had spotted my athletic potential. A subsidised education seemed a fair trade for my track and field talent in 1997, especially if I stepped up and made it all the way to Champs a few years down the line.

That pleased Pops. Although he worked real hard for the coffee company, we weren’t rich enough to afford expensive school fees; our life was financially modest. But Dad believed it was important that I got everything I needed when I was a kid. He loved me dearly and cared for me, so if there was something I required for some forward movement in life, like a pair of running shoes or a place at William Knibb High School, then he made sure I got it – no problem. I wasn’t spoiled and I definitely didn’t go around getting everything I asked for, but Mom and Dad gave me the helping hand I needed to get started.

My only problem with going to William Knibb was that the school didn’t want me to play cricket any more, not seriously anyway. I was 11 years old, and I was hoping to go to PE lessons, pick up my pads and bat and continue with my dream of becoming a Test sensation. The teachers had other ideas, though. They wanted me to focus on my running, and in the first week at school, when I wandered over to the wicket in the middle of the school field to play, I was turned away.

‘No, Bolt,’ said the teacher. ‘You’re not supposed to be over here, I can’t keep you. The running track is that way.’

That was a bit of a bummer. I went home that night and complained, but Pops set me straight on the matter. Cricket, he said, would prove to be a political game for me, rather than one that was based on my talents and hard work. A coach’s team choices were sometimes swayed by favouritism, but in athletics a person was selected through his times and personal bests.

‘Bolt, if you do well in track and field, it’s on you and no one else,’ he said. ‘In cricket, there are other people involved because it’s a team sport. It can get tricky. You could play well, better than anyone else, but if the coach has a favourite, then you might not get picked. That happens quite a lot in life and it’s unfair. But in track and field you’re the boss of yourself.’

His words sunk in. I liked the idea of being in charge. When it came to the next PE lesson I focused my efforts on the track, and over the following 12 months I must have tried every distance going: the 100 metres, 200 metres, 400 metres, 800 metres and 1500 metres. I did relays, I even tried cross-country once, but hated it, because running that far felt like way too much hard work.

Eventually, I settled on running the 200 and 400 metres as my competitive events, because it was clear I didn’t have the lungs or will-power to run anything longer, not at a serious level anyway. Those events also made the most of my speed stamina, the power to run at a high pace without tiring. All those hours running around the bush at Coxeath and playing sports had paid off. I was fast and strong on short to medium distances.

The 100 metres was out because I was already six feet tall and still growing. That physical stature apparently made me too big to run the shorter distance. The belief among William Knibb’s coaches was that it would take me for ever to unravel my body out of the blocks, and by the time I’d fired out of the start position, they said, my shorter opponents would be halfway to winning the race.

Luckily, it didn’t matter if I was slowest out of the blocks in the 200 or 400, because with my long strides and quick legs I was able to catch up with the shorter athletes after 50 metres or so, even though my technique was raw back then. I would run with my head up, looking around at everyone else in the race; my knees would come up really high as I pounded the lane. If I’d flapped my arms a bit more, I probably would have taken flight.

That crazy-assed style didn’t stop me from dominating all the other kids at William Knibb on the track. As I took to the 200 and 400, I’d sometimes show off a little bit because I was physically so much faster than everyone else and winning came so easily to me. In PE everybody else seemed extra slow, and there were times when I’d burn away from the pack in a race, stopping at the finish to walk over the line in first spot, just as everybody else had closed in on me.

One time, I remember running the 400 metres final during an inter-schools meet and for a while I was neck and neck with the fastest other kid in the lanes. He was sprinting alongside me, giving everything he had. The veins were popping in his neck, I swear his eyes were on stalks with all the effort, but I hadn’t even got into second gear. As I came off the corner I looked over and smiled.

‘Yo, later,’ I shouted, showing him a clean pair of heels.

When he got to the line, which was a long time after me, he looked seriously pissed.

I couldn’t help fooling around, because competition brought out a determined streak in me and winning was a joy. I had so much natural talent that on sports days nobody else came close to me and I’d line up in just about every race on the card and come first. One time I even entered the high jump and long jump events because I figured they might be fun. When I finished first in both, the other kids cussed as I collected all my medals, but I couldn’t blame them. The boys at William Knibb had to line up against me in an event – any event – knowing that first place had already been taken. There wasn’t a kid in the school that had a chance of catching me once the gun had gone.*

The school could see that I had a serious talent. It got to the point where I was running so quickly in training that the coaches wouldn’t tell me my times. They didn’t want me to get big-headed because they were off the scale for a boy my age. I later heard that when a new PE teacher timed me in the 200 he had to double-check his watch afterwards.

What?!’ he said to the kids standing around him. ‘The times Bolt is running are ridiculous. They cannot be for real.’

He reset his watch and made me run again. Then again. And again. Every time I crossed the line and looked over, he was pulling the same shocked face, tapping on the face of his watch like it was broken. The readings on his timer were as quick, if not quicker, than before.

***

I was my own worst enemy. Despite Pops’s discipline at home, I became lazy. At school, I wasn’t too keen on training either. I never pushed myself when it came to practice and I’d do enough to get through a session without really exerting my body. Because my raw talent was out of this world, I used to cruise through practice and get by. Usually getting to the start line and running was enough for me to win a school championship, but my lack of effort meant I wasn’t improving or working on any new techniques. The trophies and accolades had papered over the cracks – there were some major flaws in my running. With my floppy neck and high knees, I really had no style at all.

The problem was that I still couldn’t face the hours of training, especially in the 400. Working the 200 metres was so hard, but at least it didn’t kill me. There I only had to run intervals of 300 and 350 metres, time after time, in what was called background training: the tough endurance programme every athlete had to do to prepare them for the season ahead. Background training gave me the strength and fitness to run at high speeds for longer periods of time in a race. It also gave me a high level of base fitness, so if I got injured in a season, I could still maintain my strength and stamina for when I returned to work.

In the 400, though, background training was an altogether different game. I had to run for consecutive reps of 500, 600 and 700 metres. That seemed impossible to me, and often I would vomit on the track after sessions and beg the coach for a rest from all the pain. Even worse, there were exercise routines to be done, because if I was going to be a top runner, my core muscles had to be strong so I could generate some serious power in my legs as I burned around the track. But doing them was tough. One of my roughest coaches was a sergeant-major type called Mr Barnett, and the guy was real awful. He would make us do 700 sit-ups a day. Seven hundred! Even worse was that all the student athletes had to do his abs sessions at the same time. If one person stopped, we all had to start over from scratch.

‘Forget this,’ I thought. ‘I can’t deal with it.’

From then on, I would do anything to duck out of practice, especially if I knew I was working on the longer background runs, or one of Mr Barnett’s torture sessions.

The truth was, I saw running as a hobby rather than the main reason for my spot at William Knibb. At the age of 12, I would skip evening practice sessions at school and head into nearby Falmouth with friends to play video games at the local arcade. The place was owned by a guy called Floyd, and his set-up was pretty simple: there were four Nintendo 64 games consoles and four TVs; it was a Jamaican dollar per minute to play. To get the slot money, I would skip lunch and save the coins Mom had given me for food. Super Mario Cart and Mortal Kombat were my games, I was on them non-stop, and most evenings my hands would hurt from the joystick because I’d played for too long.

Whenever Mom or Dad wanted to know how training had gone, I never told them that I’d skipped a session. Instead I’d shrug my shoulders and act like I’d been running real hard – a yawn or two would usually do the trick. But the fun soon ended when a cousin snitched on me. She had moved into the area near the games room and knew that my dad didn’t like me playing in there. As soon as she spotted me walking into Floyd’s place, she couldn’t wait to tell my parents, and Pops brought out the whoop-ass real bad. I was so pissed at her. I was banned from the arcade, and the school’s head coach, a former Olympic sprinter called Pablo McNeil, tried to explain the importance of my training.

‘You’re running phenomenal times, Bolt,’ he said. ‘If you take this thing serious, can you imagine the times you might establish?’

Mr McNeil was a serious force. He was a stern-looking man with grey hair and a moustache, but back in the day when he was an athlete he had a bunch of wild, afro hair. He looked cool, then. Mr McNeil had been a semi-finalist in the 1964 Games in Tokyo, but despite his experience, the advice didn’t sink in and I carried on fooling around. One evening, after I’d skipped training again, he hired a taxi and drove to Falmouth. He found me at Floyd’s place, hanging out with some of the girls from William Knibb.

My dad’s mood wasn’t improved by the news that my grades were bad too, especially in math. The speed I’d once shown with sums at Waldensia had disappeared, and I couldn’t get my head around the stuff my tutors were trying to teach the class. I became confused at first. I thought, ‘S**t, what happen?’ Then I tried to convince myself that I didn’t need any of the ideas they were trying to put on me.

‘Come on, when am I going to need Pythagoras’s Theorem in real life?’ I thought. ‘Why do I need to know about the hypotenuse formula? Please.

It was clear to everyone that I couldn’t care less about school. In my first two years at William Knibb I did what I had to do to scrape through. The teachers tried to convince me that my lessons would help with a sports career, just to give me some extra incentive, but that didn’t help either because I couldn’t imagine that a career in track and field was going to happen – not really. My languages teacher, Miss Jackson, even told me one day: ‘Usain, you should learn Spanish. If you’re going to be an athlete you’re going to travel and you’re going to meet different people and you’re going to want to talk to them. Spanish is a language you should take up.’

I wasn’t impressed.

‘Nah, it’s not for me,’ I thought. ‘I hate Spanish.’†

Dad’s problems with my slack attitude were the annual, supplementary tuition payments he had to make to the school. He knew that if I failed a year I’d have to repeat it, and that meant an extra bunch of school bills. He got mad again. It was whoop-ass time.

‘If you get held back, Bolt, that’s it!’ he shouted one evening. ‘Anything can happen in track and field – you could be injured and never run as quickly again. If you haven’t got something in your head to fall back on there won’t be anything to help you later on in life.’

To focus me even more, Dad took to getting me up at half past five in the morning. It was crazy. School didn’t start until 8.30, but he wanted me up at the crack of dawn. I would moan every time the alarm went off.

‘What is this?’ he would shout, if ever I stayed in bed. ‘Boy, why are you so lazy?’

Luckily, Mom was a lot softer. As soon as Pops had left for work she would let me go back to sleep. To make sure I wasn’t late for lessons, Mom would then call me a cab to school.

***

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my lazy attitude to training was affecting those all-important competitive performances. Hands down I was the best runner at William Knibb, but when it came to the Regional Championships, I was forever getting my ass kicked by a kid called Keith Spence from Cornwall College. And that pissed me off.

Spence was a mixed-race Jamaican boy and he was pumped up with muscle. The one thing we’d heard about him at school was that his dad had pushed him hard, and I later learned he would make Keith go to the gym all the time. But the extra work had given him an advantage over me because he was more developed, more ripped than I was, even though we were both only 13. His strong abs gave him extra power on the track and I could not take him at the line, no matter how hard I tried. Because I hadn’t bothered with the gym work, because I’d skipped too many of Mr Barnett’s sit-up sessions, I had fallen behind the competition.

But losing to Keith Spence was just as painful to me as those 700 stomach crunches, so after yet another defeat at a regional track meet in 2000, I decided enough was enough. I got furious, and the annoyance gave me focus. Like my race with Ricardo Geddes and Mr Nugent’s promise of the box lunch, I had a goal. I wanted to beat that kid, even if it broke me.

‘Nah, Keith Spence,’ I said to myself on the way home. ‘It’s not going to happen next time.’

It was another big challenge, I had another major adversary, and it was time to step up. I started training a little bit harder, I worked and worked during the school summer break, and as I got more and more into practice, something special happened. I caught my first glimpse of the Olympics when someone showed me some video footage of the 1996 Atlanta Games.

That clip blew my mind. It was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen, firstly because watching any kind of Olympic sport was a rarity in Jamaica. We just didn’t have the technology or finances to screen top sporting events at the turn of the 21st century. If a Kingston TV company wanted to screen the Games live back in the day, it would have cost them huge amounts of money. There was no satellite or cable TV in Sherwood Content either. To get a clear picture from abroad we needed a pole and dish to pick up a decent reception. It wasn’t like we turned the box on and an ESPN or Sky Sports picture came to life like it does now. Watching TV took some serious effort, so catching any form of track and field was a big deal for me.

That first glimpse was also important because I could see how popular the 100 metres was, and the 200 metres, the 400 metres, even the damn 800 metres, and all over the world too, not just in Jamaica. It was much bigger than the inter-schools and parish champs I’d been involved in. Even the 30,000 strong crowd at Champs looked small in comparison. I could tell that the Olympics was huge everywhere. Up until that moment I hadn’t known just how big sprinting was around the world.

But the most wonderful part of watching those old Games was seeing Michael Johnson for the first time, an athlete running the 200 metres and 400 metres, my events. Even better, he won golds in both and broke the 200 world record with a time of 19.32 seconds. Now that was exciting, but the main thing I noticed as I watched him running around the track to first place was that his back was so upright, his head stared straight down the lane. It was weird to see a guy run like that.

I could not for the life of me work out how he was doing it. Johnson seemed so smooth, he made his races look too easy. Even when he was tiring towards the end of the 400 metres final – the seconds when his muscles were probably burning up – every part of his body was upright. As he crossed the line in first place, I remember thinking: ‘Man, I want to be somebody like Michael Johnson. I want to be an Olympic gold medallist.’ It was the first time the thought had ever crossed my mind.

That was bad news for Keith Spence. The next time I went to training I tried to copy Johnson’s style. I came out of the blocks and pushed my body into the same rigid, upright position, but it hurt my back real bad, so I gave up on that idea pretty quickly. I wasn’t deterred from learning, though, and to improve more I watched videos, old footage, documentaries that told me about the history of the Olympics and the great Jamaican athletes, like the 400 metre runner Herb McKenley and the 400 and 800 metre runner Arthur Wint, who became the country’s first Olympic gold medallist in 1948.

Then a coach showed me a videotape of Don Quarrie, the Jamaican who won the gold medal in the 200 metres at the 1976 Montreal Games. Now, if I’d thought Michael Johnson was smooth when he raced, Don Quarrie made him look like a robot. That man took the corner so gracefully that it was almost an art form to me. Straightaway I had to perfect that aspect of my race, and the next time I practised I started emulating him on the corner.

It was clear from watching those old athletes that I still had to learn a lot about running the 200 metres. There was a lot of technical stuff to get into my head once I’d left the blocks, especially as I was a tall guy. Ideally, a sprinter should run the curve on the track as close to the line as possible, because it’s the most effective way of racing over 200 or 400 metres. The runner travels less distance that way, a bit like Lewis Hamilton cutting off the corner in Formula One racing.

For Quarrie, running tight on the 200 metre curve on a track was easier because he was small. He had a low centre of gravity. That meant he could control his shorter strides with ease. He wasn’t going to move around in his lane too much and lose time. I couldn’t do that, I was too tall. You bet I tried, but as soon as I picked up speed, my longer legs took me wide because I had less control.

In an attempt to get over the problem, I spent hours practising that racing line, and what I quickly realised was that I would have to run the first 50 metres of a 200 metres race in the middle of the lane. Once that was done, just as I’d hit top speed, I could drift closer to the inside line to run the corner more effectively. Then I would be around the turn and firing towards the finishing line like a slingshot, and I could get back into the middle of the lane. Well, that was the theory anyway. It didn’t always work out in practical terms.

All of a sudden, I was psyched by the 200 metres. Losing to Keith Spence had been the inspiration behind that process, and over the following year I began improving on my running technique. But there was also another very important boost to my ability: I had grown again. I was 14 years of age by the time it came to the regional champs a year later and I was six feet two in height. My stride was seriously long, too. When we lined up again in the 200, Keith Spence had nothing on me. He looked as bad as ever, he was ripped. But I was taller, sharper and much, much faster on the corner than before.

Bang! The gun fired. Because of Spence’s muscles he burst out of the blocks real fast, but once I’d taken the corner, he couldn’t keep up. I came off the curve with strength, I had started out in the middle of the lane and maintained a smooth rhythm. As I hit top speed I drifted over. My steps were tight to the line and when I hit the straight, every stride pushed me further and further away from my rival. I peeked over my shoulder. The kid was struggling to keep up.

By the time I’d crossed the line, I was out of sight. ‘Yo, I got him!’

I guess that was the moment of big discovery for me. I had to run the 200 metres in an effective style. But I’d created a mantra that would define my mental attitude towards opponents for the rest of my career. If I beat you in a big meet, you’re not going to beat me again. From that moment, I knew that once I’d taken a tough athlete for the first time, that was it. I had superiority and the confidence to win, again and again. It was a psychological stepping stone, and the realisation that gave me the mindset of a true champ.

I realised that, yeah, a runner could beat me in a one-off meet, a small event, but in a big championships, like my first ever school race at Waldensia, or the regional champs, it wasn’t going to happen – end of story. I had proven it with Ricardo Geddes, and now Keith Spence. I’d pushed on, and winning was now a serious habit.

* My successes were so regular that Miss Lee later arranged for the school sports day to take place when she knew I would be away at international competition – just to give the other a kids a chance.

† Damn, if only I’d listened. Over the last few years I’ve met some of those Spanish girls and a lot of them were seriously beautiful. The only problem was that I couldn’t converse with any of them at the time – in a club, at a party – because I didn’t speak the language. Miss Jackson had been right. I later became so vexed about the situation that I went out and bought the language computer program, Rosetta Stone, just so I could pick up a few phrases. I didn’t take too much away from it, but enough to know that anything sounds romantic in French and Spanish, but German is another story.