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

Chapter 4. Where Mere Mortals Quiver, the Superstar Becomes Excited by the Big Moment

I stepped up again and again. Junior rivals fell like dominoes, and after Keith Spence I hit a winning streak at Jamaica’s regional level – I was hot. But despite my successes, track and field just seemed like a whole load of fun to me, nothing more.

That laid-back way of thinking was the perfect mindset for an athlete: I was relaxed before every race, I felt chilled about my performances; I didn’t get freaked out by tough events where the field was seriously strong. And I definitely didn’t stress about racing, not like some of the other kids did. They got nervous before their starts, they obsessed about smashing their personal bests. I had a champion’s confidence because I was so relaxed.

Following my victory over Spence, I worked harder in training, but not that much harder. Raw talent was still all I needed to win most races, but I upped my game a little. Sure, there were times when I’d skip training, and as soon as my absence was noticed, Coach McNeil would find me. He would cuss and lecture me as my ass was hauled back to school, but once our work had started at the track, I’d run nearly every lap on his training schedule.

Sometimes hard work wasn’t enough, though. Take Champs at the National Stadium in Kingston for example. When I qualified for my first appearance in 2001 at the age of 14, no running session in the world could have prepared me for that, because it was big, seriously big. I arrived at the event for the first time and my mind blew. The National Stadium was wild, a bowl-shaped arena with a track sunk into the ground and ringed by one vast stand which overflowed with people. It was built for serious competition, and I felt like a serious athlete.

Inside, it was just as I’d imagined from seeing it on the TV and reading about it in the newspapers. The fans were rowdy, everyone was going nuts. It was like being in a big South American football ground, where the supporters were ridiculously passionate. Before each race, as the runners stepped on to the lanes, kids from every school screamed at the top of their lungs and it was impossible to hear anything. I walked into that stadium for my first 200 metres heat and I got a rush from the noise. People banged on drums and played trumpets. The energy it brought to the arena gave me tingles. In that moment, Champs seemed like my Superbowl, Champions League final and Olympic Games rolled into one.

I was racing in Class Two, which was an under-16 event.* That meant I was one of the youngest competitors on the start line, and at that age one or two years could sometimes be quite a disadvantage in terms of physical power and technical ability. I didn’t let it faze me, though, I was there for the buzz, though anyone looking at the line-up would have thought I was the oldest in the race – I could see over the heads of every rival in the lanes.

A cool head was important at an event like Champs because stress could be a big thing for a lot of high-school athletes. School pride and prestige meant that there was some serious pressure to do well in the competition. A lot of hype was attached to being the school with the best track and field programme in Jamaica, so everybody upped their game. The standard was high. My A-race was going to be needed if William Knibb were to have chance of winning anything.

The competition worked on a team points system, and individual results were combined to determine an overall score, so my contribution would be vital. But there was individual pressure, too. The teachers at William Knibb kept talking about how Champs had been a springboard for success for some of the great Jamaican stars. Don Quarrie, Herb McKenley and the 100 and 200 metre runner Merlene Ottey had all done well at Champs before going on to the world stage. Then there was the promise of a future beyond school: any junior stars of school-leaving age could expect the offer of an athletics scholarship in America, should they shine in the Kingston National Stadium; the younger kids might find their cards marked for future selection.

I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. My excitement was focused solely on the track, the stadium and the fans. But despite my age and inexperience of handling big crowds, there weren’t any nerves, there was no fear. In the 200, I cruised through my heats, into the final and I was hyped – it felt like just another championship meet to me. Bang! When I got out of the blocks, I tore past nearly all of the field, taking a silver medal with a time of 22.04 seconds. The William Knibb fans in the stands went crazy. The whole crowd seemed to be going crazy. It was wild.

With one race, I was on the map. With my second, I was the focus of the country’s athletics fans. I was due to race Jermaine Gonzales† in the 400 metres final, a powerhouse sprinter. Whenever he ran he became a crazy-assed whirlwind of limbs and braided hair. Jermaine was the defending national champ at that time and I knew the cat had game, but I’d also realised there wasn’t a lot between me and him in terms of times, so I’d need to beat him by using brains rather than pure speed in our next 400 metres race.

In recent months I had developed a tactical edge. Like a football coach, I had started planning strategies before meets. As I battled the top kids in Jamaican athletics, I realised that to win I needed to act smart sometimes, so in competitions I found my rivals’ strengths and weaknesses. I watched them in the heats to understand their styles of running and how they attacked a race. Often my first move in any championships was to work out whether I needed to change my game to deal with a strong opponent. Most of the time I knew I’d be quick enough to win on talent alone, but sometimes I used strategy to get to the line in first place.

A week before Champs, NJ and me had sat in the school library to chat tactics. The pair of us had gone to William Knibb together, and while I’d excelled in the brawn department, NJ had been training his mind – he was an A-grade student. But he also understood the art of track and field, he was a sports nut like me, and while the other kids hunched over their books and scribbled into their pads, NJ dissected Jermaine’s sprinting style. We were whispering like spies planning an undercover attack.

‘I know he’s good over 400,’ said NJ. ‘As good as you, but I think you’re the faster 200 metre runner.’

I nodded. ‘OK … And?’

‘VJ, if you attack the first corner hard, and the first half of the 400 too, it’ll psyche him out, especially if you come out of the blocks at the front of the pack. Your good start might panic Jermaine, knock him off his rhythm and force him into over-stretching. That’s when you can take the race, because he’ll lose his technique and you can cruise home.’

At the next championships I stuck to NJ’s tactics and Pow! when the gun popped I moved away from the start line as hard as I could. I was five metres ahead of Jermaine at the corner and as he pushed himself in a desperate attempt to catch up, I heard him cry out. Like NJ predicted, he had panicked, he’d overstretched and pulled a hamstring. All I had to do was burn down the home stretch to first place.

NJ and I felt like masterminds. We later heard that Jermaine had been carrying an injury, but I knew that my attitude to race tactics had helped me to step up. It was a serious learning curve. Afterwards, people talked me up as a contender, a star for the future, and my results in Champs meant that I was eligible to represent Jamaica in the 2001 CARIFTA Games in Barbados. This was a junior competition organised by the Caribbean Free Trade Association every year and held all over the islands in places such as Trinidad and Tobago and Bermuda.

Talk about changing the game. CARIFTA was a competition where the best of the Caribbean junior athletes got together. It was also my first shot at representing the country. But even though I was pulling on a Jamaica running vest in an international event, I still didn’t think anything spectacular was happening. CARIFTA was just another race to me, and I took silver in the 200 metres and set a personal best of 48.28 seconds in the 400.

It was all adventure. Flying to Barbados was the first time I had left Jamaica and, for a while, it felt like a holiday. Then I got homesick and started to miss Mom. One night, as I tried to sleep, I even began crying because I wanted to go home. Back then, I hated the idea of being away from Jamaica for too long. But the Jamaican Amateur Athletic Association (JAAA, or the Jay-3-As), saw beyond my immaturity and developed a more serious game plan. They had seen some potential in my running style and times, and shortly after Barbados they selected me again, this time to wear Jamaican colours in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Youth Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, and that’s when I damn well nearly freaked out.

‘Hungary? Are you kidding me?’ I thought when I heard the news. ‘Where the hell is that place?’

There was a lot of head scratching going on when I looked at the world map at home. It took me ages to find Hungary, and when I finally saw it somewhere in the middle of Europe, Debrecen looked just about the farthest place away from Jamaica. And man, talk about a journey! First we flew to London and got a bus from one airport to another, then we flew to Hungary and drove out to The Middle of Nowhere. Our trip seemed to go on for ever.

‘Wow, this is something serious,’ I thought, staring out of the coach window at the Hungarian rain and the grey clouds (believe me, this was not liquid sunshine). ‘There’s some pretty big stuff going on if they’re flying me all the way out here.’

My potential as a serious athlete had crossed my mind for the first time, but travelling to Europe was an eye-opening experience in other ways, too. The food was weird, the weather was cold, and I remember the one thing everybody kept going crazy about was the bottled water. It was fizzy! That might sound naïve now, but remember, I was a kid from Jamaica, I had never tasted ‘fizz water’ before, so it confused the hell out of me. I remember my first taste – I was in a supermarket and I gulped it down as all the other kids laughed. But it wasn’t long before the fizz water was coming back up again. There were bubbles everywhere – in my mouth, throat and nose; there were probably bubbles coming out of my ears.

I couldn’t stand the stuff. But after running the 400-metre leg of the sprint medley relay a day or two later (a sprint medley race is like a normal relay, but the four athletes sprint different lengths – 400 metres, 200 metres, 200 metres and 800 metres), that attitude changed. My muscles were tired and my lungs burned. As I picked myself up off the track, someone handed me a bottle of fizz water and I forgot all about the horrible taste. I gulped down two litres of the stuff in record time.

***

I didn’t expect to land in Hungary and win anything. I was 14 and the World Youth Champs was an under-17s event. Again, a lot of people older than me had been invited, so I was only going there to try my best, but unlike Champs my best wasn’t good enough and I ran pretty badly in the 400 metre and medley races. Despite running a personal best of 21.73, I was knocked out of the 200 metre semi-finals, which was unheard of for me.

Debrecen was a bump in the road, though, and I soon began to improve my race results. I later broke the CARIFTA Games records in both the 200 and 400 metres during the 2002 games in Nassau when I was 15, and as I came off the track the crowd started screaming, ‘Lightning Bolt! Lightning Bolt!’ I got chills. Suddenly I had a nickname to go along with my talents. During the same year, I repeated the trick in the Central American and Caribbean Junior Championships. I was so much quicker than everyone else in those events, it was stupid. I was dominating the older boys because I was becoming physically superior to all of them.

The big test, I knew, would arrive when the World Junior Championships came around later that year. Considered by most folks in track and field to be the Olympics for high-school and college kids around the world, this was my big shot at making a serious name for myself. I was physically stronger and mentally sharper than I had been in Debrecen; I had maxed out in the height department and was six foot five inches tall. There weren’t many dudes who could match me for strides in a 200 or 400 metre race.

Luck was also on my side because the prestigious meet was being held in Kingston, home turf, and not some rainy town in Eastern Europe. That meant I wouldn’t have to travel far, freeze my ass off or drink any fizz water. The flip side was huge, though, because as a local boy with talent there was some heat on me to show up and win. The fans were looking to me as their big chance for a home success. Champs had put me on the map and my CARIFTA records made me the number one favourite for gold in the 200 metres. For the first time there was pressure, serious stress.

I suppose some of the hype was justified. I was regularly running 21.0 seconds in my school meets, which was impressive for a kid of my age. But then I got to running 20.60 seconds just as the World Juniors approached and I had a sense that something special might happen, it felt like I was tearing up trees. And that’s when Coach McNeil arrived at the training track with a list of the 20 best junior times in the world that year.

Talk about disappointment – I was in sixth place. Sixth.

The two top guys in the US were running 20.47 seconds, 20.49 seconds; some guy was running 20.52 seconds, another 20.55. At first I saw it as a challenge. ‘What the hell is this?’ I thought. ‘I need to step my s**t up.’

But then the doubts crept in. I didn’t want to run, I didn’t want to compete. Losing to those guys would have been bad enough in a foreign stadium, but the thought of losing in a Jamaica vest before a home crowd freaked me out. In my mind I figured it wasn’t worth the hassle.

‘Nah, I don’t think I need to go,’ I told myself. ‘I’m not as good as I thought I was and I’m definitely not going to medal, so what’s the point?’

I explained my thinking to Coach McNeil. He was disappointed and tried to talk me out of quitting, but I wasn’t backing down.

‘Look, I had my butt kicked in the World Youth Champs,’ I said. ‘Going back to that start line and getting my butt kicked again doesn’t seem like a whole lot of fun to me.’

My confidence and self-belief had faded for the first time, I guess because I hadn’t experienced pressure or national expectation before. It was all new. My previous races had been fun, even when I was representing Jamaica at CARIFTA. But this fresh stress, the stress my rivals had experienced at Champs and high-school meets (but normally washed over me), meant my head couldn’t focus on the race ahead.

Coach kept working on me. He told me that I had to go to training camps every weekend because he wanted to see if I could improve my times. I guess it was the right thing to do, but I hated every second of it. All I could think was, ‘I’m going to get my ass whooped if I go out there against those boys. Forget this.’

Every night I moaned at home. After practice I cussed about the World Juniors, my training schedule, and Coach. Man, I was pissed. One night, after I had grumbled to Mom, I sat on the verandah of our house in Coxeath to watch the world go by and chill. It was a spot I always liked to visit when I was feeling a little vexed. It was quiet, and the view stretched beyond the wild bush and the sugar cane and jelly trees, to the mountains of Cockpit County. It was cool, I could clear my head.

As I relaxed, Mom and my grandmother sat me down beside me. They were bored with my bad attitude routine and I knew they wanted to chat about the World Juniors. I didn’t want to hear it, but I couldn’t wriggle away from them because they had positioned themselves either side of me on the chair. I was trapped.

‘Mom, don’t …’

‘Why don’t you give it your all?’ she said, putting her arm around me. ‘Go out there and just try. You’ve got nothing to worry about.’

I could feel a lump tightening in my throat. The emotion and the stress was too much. I began to cry.

‘But, Mom, I can’t.’

‘Don’t get upset about it, VJ. Do your best. Whatever you do, we’ll accept it. We’ll be proud.’

I wiped my tears away – I had to toughen up.

‘Oh man, this is what it’s like with parents,’ I thought. ‘If Mom tells me that I’ve got to do something, well, I’m gonna pretty much have to do it now. There’s no way I can let her down.’

The following day, when I saw Coach McNeil at training I told him the news.

‘Coach, I’ve changed my mind about the World Juniors …’

He smiled, the man looked pleased, and Coach McNeil had some news for me, too. He was waving a clipboard around excitedly.

‘Usain, the guys running those fast times this year aren’t coming,’ he said. ‘They were too old for your under-20s category, so you won’t be racing against them.’

Apparently the serious American 200 metre talent had been replaced by younger athletes with much slower times than my 20.60 seconds personal best. My mood brightened. It felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

‘Hmm, that’s some pretty nice news,’ I thought. ‘Let’s do this!’

When I think about that conversation now, it was another defining time for me. I’d thought about quitting the World Juniors weeks earlier because I’d been disheartened; my 200 metres times weren’t as mind-blowing as I thought and I figured I was going to lose. But once I’d made the move to compete, once I’d realised there was a shot at winning, my attitude changed. I got excited, and as the weeks passed I became more and more hyped.

At training I ran harder, I quit skipping sessions and avoided Floyd’s place for a little while, but the only doubts in my mind were the fans. I didn’t want to let them down, I didn’t want to be a disappointment to them because the World Junior Championships was so much bigger than Champs. It was an international event and my race was due to be shown on TV around the world. I knew I could shoulder the weight of my school’s expectations, but a whole country? That was some heavy stress right there, and it got to me a little bit.

‘Yo, what’s going to happen to me if I blow it?’ I thought during one sleepless night.

No one could blame me for slightly losing my mind – I was a 15-year-old racing in the under-20s category and I would be battling against athletes three or four years older than me. But when I arrived on the track for my first heats, the competition was everything I expected and much more. Forget Champs – from the first event, the stands at the National Stadium overflowed with people. The noise rattled my eardrums as everyone got behind the home athletes, which only added to the strain I was feeling.

Despite my nerves, I cruised through the qualifying heats and semi-finals. I was feeling good about myself. When the time of the final arrived, it was a warm Kingston evening. The air was hot and dry, but I felt pretty chilled. I thought back to Mom and her chat on our Coxeath verandah. Maybe she’d been right, after all? Maybe there was nothing to worry about.

I got changed into my kit. The fastest Jamaican junior I knew, a girl called Anneisha McLaughlin, was racing in the 200 metres final and I decided to walk out on to the track to catch her and some of the other events. I wanted to soak up the atmosphere.

Well, that was a big mistake. As I walked down the tunnel and into the arena I could see the crowd. They were shouting and screaming, waving Jamaican flags and banging drums. At first I figured Anneisha had started her race, so I quickened my step, but once I got to the edge of the track I realised there was no event taking place. I was the only athlete out there.

‘What the hell is this?’ I thought.

Then I heard a chant rolling around the stadium – it was coming from the one stand and moving around like a tidal wave.

‘Bolt! Bolt! Lightning Bolt!’

The fans were singing my name. It was ringing across the track, the noise was crashing around me. And that’s when it hit me: I was the only Jamaican running in the men’s 200 metres final that night; the people who were going wild out there in the National Stadium, they were going wild for me.

‘Bolt! Bolt! Lightning Bolt!’

Well, I was pretty much messed up after that. As it got to the time of the 200 race, my legs went weak, my heart was pounding out of my chest. I didn’t think I’d be able to walk, let alone run. Straightaway, I sat down in my lane as everything went on around me in super slow motion. The other runners stepped out on to the track, they were warming up and stretching; all of them looked super calm, but I could only stare at the fans waving and screaming in the bleachers. Somebody shouted out that Anneisha had finished second in her final, and that heaped even more pressure on me. I was now the only home boy with a chance of getting gold in the World Juniors. My brain went into meltdown.

‘What the hell is this?’ I thought. ‘People are going mad.’

I was scared. ‘What did I do to myself to put me here? I knew this was a bad idea.’ I had never felt that much pressure in my entire life.

‘I’m a 15-year-old, the kids running here are 18, 19. I don’t need this …’

Still, something told me I had to get to work. For starters, my spikes had to go on, but even undoing the laces felt like a major challenge. I tried to get into the first one, but for some reason it didn’t fit. I pulled and pulled at the heel, desperately trying to work my toes further into the shoe. No give. I jammed my fingers in there and loosened the tongue. Still no give. It was only when I looked down at my feet, after two minutes or so of fiddling, that I realised I’d stuck my left foot into my right spike. That’s how nervous I was.

Stress does funny things to people, and I was falling apart. I tried to get up, to stand, to jog, but I was too weak from the nerves, so I sat down again. Everyone else was doing their strides, going through their final routines, but I was wishing for an escape route – something, anything to get me out of there.

It was so weird. Once I’d been called to the blocks I managed to calm myself for a second or two, but then an announcer called out my name over a loudspeaker and the whole place burst into life again. It felt like the roof of the stadium was about to come off with the noise.

‘Oh God …’ I thought. ‘What is this?’

‘On your marks!’

I settled into the blocks and started to sweat, big-style.

I was officially upset.

‘Get set!’

Don’t mess this up …

Bang!

I froze, I was unable to move and I looked plain stupid. I was stuck to the blocks, as if my spikes and hands had been superglued to the track. It took what felt like a second or two before I reacted to the gun, and by then everybody else had fired off down the lanes. I was dead last because my start had been so slow – but not for long.

When I came out, everything changed. I began to move – and fast. I could see the other runners getting closer and closer as I made the corner, smooth like Don Quarrie, and then I hit top speed. After that, I can’t really explain what happened over the next few seconds because I don’t honestly know. All I can say is that it felt as if somebody, or something, was pushing me down the track. There was a guiding force behind me; it was as if a pair of rocket boosters had been strapped to my spikes. Even with my weird style of running, head back, knees up, I passed everybody until there wasn’t an athlete in sight, only the finishing line. Then it dawned on me: I was the World Junior 200 metres champ.

And it was insane.

Everyone lost their minds. There were people in the crowd screaming, jumping up and down and waving banners. Somebody handed me a Jamaican flag. I wrapped it around my shoulders, because that’s what I’d seen Michael Johnson do when he had won gold medals during the Olympic Games for the USA, and then I did something that would change the way I looked at track and field for ever. I ran towards the bleachers and saluted the fans like a soldier paying respect to his captain. It was my first move to a crowd in any race and the look on everyone’s faces as I did it told me it wouldn’t be the last. The energy that bounced back off the Jamaican people was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

‘You know what?’ I thought. ‘Being a World Junior champ feels kinda nice!’

As the celebrations went on around me, I thought about what had happened to me out there, Mom’s chat on the verandah, my spikes on the wrong foot. For a second, I had lost it, my mind had gone, my race had stuttered, but I’d still won. How the hell had that happened? How I had walked out in front of an international crowd and dealt with the pressure? Damn, it all seemed pretty crazy to me.

I had landed as a track and field star. I had found mental strength when most athletes would have freaked. I had shut the jitters out and carried the burden of a nation’s hopes on my shoulders. Even better, I’d come through a champ. I knew that nothing was going to faze me after that. Pre-race nerves were done with; no pressure was going to mess with my mind. How could there be anything more stressful than the start line at the World Juniors in front of a crazy home crowd?

The penny dropped with me about how important confidence was to a sprinter, especially in a short event like the 200 metres where supreme mental strength was often the key difference between myself and some of the other racers in my meets. I knew I couldn’t let a negative thought cloud my judgement ever again, because mental strength was a tool in every race, it was as important as a fast start or a powerful drive phase. There was no opportunity for doubt because the contest was over in the blink of an eye. Distraction for one hundredth of a second might be enough to lose a race.

It was my first step to becoming an Olympic legend. As I walked around the National Stadium track I realised I was an athlete that lived for the moment, like the real superstars lived for the moment – The Big Moment. Whereas ordinary guys worried and quivered when they arrived on the Olympic or World Champs stage, the superstars, the Michael Johnsons and Maurice Greenes of this world, were excited by the pressures and the stresses. They moved up a notch, both physically and mentally. At The Big Moment, their performances rocked bells.

I figured I was capable of channelling that same mental power. The World Juniors had been my first Big Moment and I hadn’t collapsed under the weight of Jamaica’s expectation. During my celebratory salute to the fans, I was already mentally transformed. I was a world champ, I’d become the Lightning Bolt to the planet. It was my greatest ever race. Probably always will be.

* Class One was the under-19s event, Class Two was under-16s, Class Three was under-14s; I could have raced in the third class but I would have won too easily, so Coach McNeil placed me in the group above.

† Jermaine would later go on to win bronze in the 400 metres at the World Junior T&F Championships, set a Jamaican national senior 400 metre record and finish fourth in the 400 metres at the 2011 World Championships.