Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography - Usain Bolt (2013)
Chapter 5. Living Fast
My winning the Junior Champs was so big that when I got home to Sherwood Content after my gold medal race, I was flown to Montego Bay, where a motorcade was waiting for me.
Now that was big, ridiculously big. The roads that led home to Coxeath were lined with hundreds of people and, as the car passed, they chased after us, forcing their hands into the open window to touch me. All of them were screaming and shouting my name, yelling ‘Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!’ as they raced down the street. It was nearly as crazy as the reception I’d received back in the National Stadium.
I couldn’t believe it. I knew that Jamaicans had a lot of respect for their sports guys, especially in track and field, but a victory parade was something I hadn’t expected. Still, I guess I should have seen it coming. It was pretty clear that I was the dude of the moment. After my 200 win, I’d picked up silver medals in the 4x100 metre relay and 4x400 metre relay, setting national junior records in both with times of 39.15 seconds and 3:04.06 minutes respectively. Everyone was going wild for me.
That’s when I got a quick taste of what fame might be like. For some stupid reason, I’d decided to go for a walk into the seats with Jermaine Gonzales following my last race. Both of us had wanted to watch the girls’ 4x400 metres final, but the place was still ram-packed. Straightaway I knew I’d made a big mistake because as we tried to find a space everybody wanted to talk to me. And I mean everybody. All over the bleachers, people, strangers, were telling me that I was the future of Jamaican sport. I had never signed an autograph before in my life, but within minutes I must have signed dozens and dozens, hundreds maybe. The scraps of paper kept on coming, thick and fast. It took me two hours to get out of the crowd.
On the morning of my return to Trelawny, it was clear to me that I had become one of the most famous people in Jamaica. My face was all over the newspapers; fans were raving about me in bars. Radio and TV stations hyped me up. Luckily, my head stayed screwed on throughout all the craziness. Mom and Pops had taught me so much about respect that during the motorcade I said ‘Hello’ to everybody, just like I had done when I was little, even though it would have been much easier just to wave. People were getting pushy as they tried to shake my hand, but I kept myself humble. As I said, Dad was so serious when it came to manners. If I’d acted big time in public that day, he probably would have cut me off for good.
It was a different story at school, though. I was young, turning 16, and everybody at William Knibb knew who I was. Kids, students I had never even said ‘Hi’ to before, were telling me I was great. People looked up to me, and not just because I was so tall – I had achieved success on the world stage, which made me a big deal. Even the teachers changed their attitude. Some of them weren’t as tough as they had been before my success in the World Junior Championships. If my test scores were bad or I flunked an essay, they went easy on me.
The relaxed attitude didn’t last long, though. There were only so many tests I could fail, and once Pops got to hear about my poor scores he flipped. I was told that if I blew my end-of-year tests, then the principal, Miss Lee, would make me repeat the grade. That would mean a year of extra school fees, which the family didn’t really want to pay for, not if it could be avoided.
It was decided that I should get a tutor to help me out in the evenings and I was introduced to a guy called Norman Peart. Mr Peart was a tax officer working in Montego Bay and a part-time teacher with a solid reputation, who was previously a graduate of William Knibb and Jamaica College. He also had a history in the 800 metres, so he knew a few tricks when it came to balancing school work with track and field training. A timetable was fixed and we agreed Mr Peart would come around a couple of evenings a week. Between us, we planned on getting my crap together.
But there were distractions to deal with. I was the local superstar, and the girls of Trelawny wanted to hang out with a world champ, which was a cool discovery. Up until that point I had been naïve with the opposite sex. I was a country boy, and living in the sticks meant I had to learn the art of dating for myself, which was hard sometimes. There was nobody to teach me how to impress a girl I’d taken a shine to in class, and we didn’t have magazines telling us how to charm women like they did in America or Europe. If I’d lived in a city like Kingston it might have been different, I could have picked up information by watching the people around me. In Coxeath I had to work out The Game on my own.
Before I go on, I want to explain how it is with dating in Jamaica because, believe me, the scene is pretty different to the way it is in Europe, Australia or the States. In the Caribbean, guys play around a lot, and even though the girls don’t like it, that way of life seems to be accepted for some reason, especially among teenagers. It was the same for me, but I wasn’t as bad as some of the people that I knew, mainly because I didn’t understand The Game that well. Certainly not as well as some of the athletes I’d been meeting on the Champs scene.
Before the World Juniors, my record read like most boys my age – I was inexperienced. By eighth grade I had a serious girlfriend, but that became stressful after I started messing with another girl. Unsurprisingly, I soon got found out. A boy at a school like William Knibb learns pretty quickly that there’s no hiding place, especially when he’s playing with two girlfriends at the same time, from the same playground. I found it impossible – I just couldn’t balance having to look after two dates and I got into a lot of trouble. Believe me, a scorned Jamaican female is a stress.
Things changed after the World Juniors. Suddenly I had an angle. Girls wanted to hang with me because I’d been in every single newspaper in the country and I was the local celebrity. I’d also learned The Game better. I picked up tricks from dudes in the Jamaican track and field team. I could watch the way those guys rolled and the style with which they handled their girlfriends. I soon got more ambitious, I discovered how to date tactically, and rather than seeing two girls from the same school, I would meet with dates from different schools. I think the most I had at any one time was three, and when that happened I thought I was The Man.
I didn’t just misbehave with the girls, I was playing around in other ways, too. One time I even tried ganja, which I know sounds like a pretty messed-up admission coming from an Olympic gold medallist, but straight up it was something I did only once, and I regretted it immediately, even though when I lived out in the country, lots of people smoked the stuff.
I’m not making excuses now, and I’m not condoning it, but that’s just the way it was. If ever I played football in the park with friends, there was always a gang of boys smoking spliff, and one day, as a joint got passed around, I became tempted. I figured, ‘You know what? Give me a hit!’ But as soon as I sucked on the rolled-up cigarette, I hated it. The stuff was horrible and I became tired almost from the second I’d drawn in the first lungful.
The rush hit me hard, I felt dizzy. I thought, ‘Forget this!’ And as I sat there, dazed, I could tell that it wasn’t the road for me to go down. First of all because Pops would have stabbed me in the neck if ever he’d caught me fooling around like Bob Marley, and secondly because I could tell the stuff would make me seriously lazy if I smoked it too much. I was already pretty relaxed, but I could see from the people around me that if I smoked a lot of ganja I would become a waster. Instead, I wanted to be motivated, especially when it came to racing, because racing and winning was so much fun.
As a promising athlete, the JAAA flew me around the globe. Not long after the World Junior Champs, I was invited to collect the IAAF Rising Star Award, an accolade given to the most promising kid in track and field. Talk about a tough geography paper, though. I had to travel to Monte Carlo on my own, which was a disaster because, when I came back, I missed my connecting flight from London. Man, I did not have a clue what to do.
First things first – I went to a lady on the nearest check-in desk and asked for help.
‘Oh no, dear,’ she said, when I asked if I could get on another plane. ‘I’m sorry, we can’t give you a seat just yet …’
‘What the hell is going to happen now?’ I thought. Tears came down. The lady saw my face and became all concerned.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘When this happens, the company puts you up in a hotel for the night and we’ll get you on a flight home first thing tomorrow morning. You’ll be fine.’
I felt relieved, but once I’d checked into my room, I could not sleep. I was so worried about missing my plane the next morning that I decided to sit up all night, my bag perched on my lap, as I desperately tried to stay awake. Half an hour before a shuttle bus was due to take me back to the airport, I was checked out and waiting on a bench outside the hotel lobby, shivering in the rain, staring at my watch. I couldn’t wait to get home.
If that happened today, I’d buy myself another ticket. I’d probably find a party; I might even think, ‘To hell with this! London’s a pretty cool city to hang out in, I’ll stay for a couple of days.’ But that day I was freaked. I was a kid, 16 years old, I had no money, and for a while I thought I was going to be stranded in England for ever with the seriously cold weather and weird food.
The world pretty much felt like a massive scary place at that moment. What I didn’t know as I sat there, freezing my ass off, was that it was about to get even bigger.
Away from the track I was still a handful, I liked fooling around. Coach McNeil was always vexed at my pranks and he would go wild at me whenever I did something stupid. I wasn’t one for deliberately causing trouble, but my biggest problem was that I wanted to make light of every situation and play jokes, I rarely thought about the consequences of my actions. I would usually do whatever came to mind, often in the heat of the moment, and only when a stunt had gone horribly wrong did I think, ‘Yo, I shouldn’t have done that.’
Like when I jumped out of the school van before the CARIFTA trials in 2002. The air conditioning had stopped working, and it was a hot day, so I decided to take a ride to the stadium in a friend’s wheels rather than travelling with the rest of the kids. Problems kicked up because I hadn’t bothered to tell anyone and I’d sneaked out of the back door when no one was looking. Once Coach had noticed that I’d gone, he panicked and called the cops as soon as he could. Wow, that caused a scene. Once my car arrived at the gates of the arena, the police pulled us over and sat me down on the kerb until Mr McNeil came to get me.
I’d also do anything to get out of running the 400 metres because I hated it so much. It was the training; I hadn’t come to terms with all the hard work, and the background sessions were too tough. I couldn’t face doing it any more, and when I competed in the 2003 World Youth Championships in Sherbrooke, Canada, I wanted to quit the distance. During the 400 metre heats I faked injury in a desperate attempt to miss the semi-final, pulling up as I crossed the finishing line. To make my act seem realistic I clutched the back of my leg as if I’d been shot, but it was no good. The coaches had seen through my stunt and I was later told that the rules stated I had to run the semi-final, whether I liked it or not. If I didn’t run, they would then disqualify me from the 200 metres event, too. I came first in the shorter distance, breaking the championship record.
Despite my fooling around, I took more golds in the CARIFTA GAMES and I won the 200 metres at the Pan American Junior Championships. When I broke the 200 and 400 metres record in Champs, I was flashing on everybody’s radar. Fans were talking me up as the successor to Michael Johnson – and it made sense. At 16, I was making times that he hadn’t touched until the age of 20; one Jamaican politician even called me ‘the most phenomenal sprinter ever produced by the island’. It was pretty clear that I wouldn’t have to worry too hard about my college choices after William Knibb, because quite a few American coaches were coming at me with the promise of a sports scholarship. I realised that, if I wanted, I could have my pick of any US college I wanted.
Mr Peart had managed to get my schoolwork back on track with his lessons, and he became a mentor, though his classes were tough. Well, they had to be, because I was so far behind at William Knibb. Twice a week after school we’d study together, but his hard work paid off and I scored well in five subjects, which was the minimum qualification for college and a sports scholarship.
The way the American college entry system worked was a gift for Jamaican athletes with the right grades. The top stars in junior track and field were approached by universities in the States with the promise of a free or subsidised education based on their ability to compete in track and field. US facilities were as competitive as Jamaican high schools when it came to sport. They wanted to be represented by the world’s best up-and-coming athletes, and because Jamaica didn’t have a similar system, or as a wide choice when it came to higher education, a lot of Caribbean athletes jumped at the chance of moving abroad.
Not me, though. I wanted to stay at home, for the simple reason that I was a mommy’s boy. I couldn’t stand the thought of being away from home too long, even though I’d just turned 17. Mr Peart had first suggested the idea of moving abroad after Champs in 2003 when several US colleges had taken a shine to me and offers came in from all over. He felt going to the States might be a good move, but I knew it wasn’t a sensible career option.
‘Nah, I don’t want to go to the States,’ I said.
Mr Peart didn’t get it – he wanted to know why.
‘Well, first of all, it’s too cold there,’ I said. ‘You can get snow and stuff, so forget that. And secondly, if I move to America I’m not going to be able to see Mom.’
Mr Peart stressed that there were a lot of good coaches in the States and that some of the best training facilities in the world could be found there. They would turn me into a global star, he reckoned. But I had issues with that too, because I’d heard the way athletes were treated in America was intense, rough.
Apparently, in those days, when an athlete got a scholarship to one of the big US colleges, they had to do everything the coaches said, because without them they wouldn’t be getting an education in the first place. There was pressure to keep the colleges happy and a lot of the time the sports staff wanted their athletes to work hard. Scholarship kids often ran every weekend because there were championships all the time. Meanwhile, because the Jamaicans were the best youth sprinters around and the colleges wanted to win prizes, they put some heavy pressure on those guys to achieve. I’d heard stories of Jamaican athletes running 100 metres, 200 metres, 400 metres, 4x100 metres, 4x400 metres and medleys every weekend.
I’d worked out that if I went to America I would have to run the same demanding schedule during both the indoor and outdoor seasons. That seemed crazy to me. My body couldn’t keep up with a campaign like that. I could see myself breaking down and I might not be able to recover. I didn’t want to be another failed contender, one of many top college Jamaican athletes that had left for America at the top of their game, only to return to the Caribbean as broken failures. That was not an option for me.
‘See, here’s the thing, Mr Peart,’ I said. ‘I know that if I go to the States, people might never hear of me again, they might burn me out over there. I want to stay in Jamaica.’
Mr Peart was cool, he saw my point of view. The Jamaican Amateur Athletic Association were keen for me to stay too; they shared my view that a gruelling American competitive schedule might hinder my development. So in 2003 I was enrolled at the Kingston High Performance Centre, an IAAF and JAAA training facility in the city with full-time coaches paid to develop promising athletes.
It was a pretty cool place. The IAAF had set up the centre, and others like it around the planet, because it was keen on improving the quality of track and field worldwide. The aim was to raise the standards in sprints and hurdles, distance events, throws and jumps in countries such as Jamaica. The centre in Kingston, which was based at the University of Technology, focused mainly on sprints and hurdles. It was an ideal base for a Jamaican athlete like me who wanted to stay closer to home.
Because of my track record the High Performance Centre was happy to take me on, but I then had to find somewhere to live in Kingston. After a few meetings, Mr Peart was able to transfer his work to a tax office in the city, and it was agreed I could move into digs with him, so my Mom and Dad could rest easy about my welfare. From there we decided he should also manage my career. I was officially a pro athlete.
Wow, talk about a change of scene. When I got to Kingston my world transformed overnight. It was awesome. I was a country teenager living in the big city and suddenly I could party every evening if I wanted to. And man, did I want to! I was away from Pops for the first time and, despite my new vocation, track and field took a back seat to fooling around. It was a huge change of scene.
In Sherwood Content I didn’t get to party because Dad would never allow it; he was always telling me to stay in the house. If ever he did allow me a night out, he always held me to a stupid curfew, like 10 p.m. In Kingston there were a whole load of temptations – clubs, parties, fast-food joints like KFC and Burger King, and at first Mr Peart tried to keep me indoors. But he didn’t have the same iron rule as Pops, so I would always go out and play until the early hours. In Kingston I was off the leash.
Dancing was my thing. There were two clubs in town, the Asylum and the Quad. The Asylum was more like a downtown place, so there was much more talking and conversing. It was the biggest club in the city and there was always a crowd waiting to get in. The Quad was more uptown, it had four floors and each level played different music, from bouncing hip hop to reggae, and that meant it was all about the dancing. I was always at the Quad. After a few months, I didn’t even pay to get in because the guys on the door got to know me pretty well, I was in the line that much. It also helped that a lot of people still recognised me from my success in the 2002 World Juniors. Sometimes the bouncers used to allow me into the club through a fire escape round the back. I would go up the stairs, knock on the door and someone would always let me in for free.
I loved it in the Quad because it was the place in Kingston to get it on. On the dance floor I used to move and sweat, I’d rip my shirt up and get carried away; there were dance battles. People used to do the hip hop move ‘90s Rock’ and a dance called ‘Nuh Linga’, where the best movers would clash to see who had the sharpest styles. But the dance I really loved the most was ‘Whining’, a move which basically involved a guy and a lady dancing real tight. Believe me, it was full on.
See, in Jamaica we don’t dance like Europeans, we dance close. Together. We grind on each other. What happens is that a guy grabs a girl from behind and pulls her in, the pair of them moving to the music. In a hot club it gets sweaty, but when a guy dances with a girl he likes, it’s fun as hell.
That was only half the story, though, because when carnival season came around in March my mind was blown. That time was just ridiculous to me – still is. The parties were crazy and there was full-on Whining everywhere I looked, but what set carnival parties apart from normal club nights was the paint. As people danced, they threw buckets of the stuff around until the whole club was covered in different colours. The first time I saw it in Kingston, I couldn’t believe it. People were partying full on, Whining, drinking, dancing, rubbing paint all over one another. It was pretty much sex, actually.
How the hell was I supposed to concentrate on my track and field career with all of that going on?
I didn’t drink – maybe a Guinness or two when I went out, but popping bottles and getting drunk definitely wasn’t for me. Still, when it came to training I was always tired. Partly because I was out at the Quad quite a lot, often for as long as the DJ played cuts, but also because I was working with a new coach called Fitz Coleman, the head trainer at Kingston’s High Performance Centre.
Coach Coleman had a strong reputation. He was a respected trainer for the Jamaican Olympic track team, and his previous athletic successes included Richard Bucknor, who had competed in the 1992 Olympic Games in the 110 metres hurdles, and Gregory Haughton, a 4x400 metres bronze medallist in the 1996 Olympic Games. With the 2004 Olympics coming around the following year, it was figured he would be a pretty good match for my talents. But as soon as we began working together at the High Performance Centre in October 2003, my body went into shock. I had never known a training programme like it, and because my work ethic at William Knibb had been so relaxed, I struggled to keep up. I hadn’t built up any strength, not enough to cope with a serious athletic regime, anyway.
A pro athlete’s training always starts with a hard background programme, and as we prepared for the beginning of the 2004 season, I discovered that a sprinter’s life was tough – really tough. At high school I was able to get away with a lot in training. I could slack off sometimes, or skip the occasional session and still win championships because my raw talent was so great. Most of the time, I was only ever running four or five reps of 300 metres in training. At pro level, I found there would be no room for laziness.
A plan was laid out for the season, and it was decided I would focus on the 200 metres because it was my strongest discipline. But the training seemed more like a 400 metres programme to me, and Coach Coleman had me running 700, 600 and 500-metre runs all the time. The longer runs were a painful surprise and my body just died. My muscles ached, particularly my back and hamstrings, which seemed close to straining most of the time, and I hated waking up in the morning because that’s when I reacted to the work the most. I was in agony; everything felt wrong.
Straightaway, I was complaining. ‘Yo, I can’t do this training, Coach,’ I moaned. ‘It’s ridiculous. I’m not used to this style.’
But Coach Coleman pressed ahead. He was a serious guy, quiet and calm, but a man who demanded respect at all times. He was very much the boss, and while he never screamed or shouted at his athletes, there was no room for discussion. Because his programme had worked so many times in the past, he believed it would work with me. Out of desperation I suggested that maybe he should converse with some of my old coaches from William Knibb, just to find out how I worked best. No chance. Coach Coleman believed in his system, and no amount of complaining from me was going to change that.
Damn, it hurt. I explained how it was to Mom and Dad; I explained to Mr Peart that I was a square peg being forced into a round hole, but none of them would listen to me – they thought I was slacking. I was told that my workload had increased because I was a professional, and that I had to train harder if I wanted to succeed. I sucked it up.
‘A’ight, but if I get injured, it’s on you,’ I said. ‘I’ve told you I can’t do this. It’s putting too much hurt on my body.’
Pops was not having it.
‘Bolt, just do it!’ he said.
I knew the programme was taking its toll on me. I had been running fine before and the pain in my back and hamstrings had only started under the new routine. The training was putting my body under serious pressure. I could also tell that the other kids in the Centre were getting a better deal with their coaches. They seemed to be happier, to be having fun, maybe because they had worked harder in high school and the work came easily to them. I might have been running fast times but I was envious because I wanted to have fun, too.
One guy stood out to me. Coach Glen Mills was a trainer I’d liked the look of. I’d seen him around the Jamaican junior team working the other sprinters and he seemed to really know what he was doing – and to listen to the athletes he was working with. But, then, everyone knew that Coach Mills was the best in the business. He had trained the Saint Kitts and Nevis sprinter Kim Collins to a 100 metres World Championship gold medal in 2003 and all the High Performance Centre athletes had heard the stories about his background.
For starters, Coach Mills had never built a track and field career of his own. When he was a kid at Camperdown High School in Kingston during the 1960s, he didn’t have the talent to be a sprinter himself, but the passion for the sport was there, so he started working with his athlete friends at school. His skills were developed and he was earmarked as a trainer with potential. As he improved his style, a full-time position was made available to him at the school, and Coach Mills’s first success came when he helped Raymond Stewart to the silver medal in the 4x100 metres in the 1984 Olympics.
Camperdown’s athletics programme was soon nicknamed ‘The Sprint Factory’, and because the man was seriously dedicated, he picked up training techniques from Herb McKenley. There were enrolments on specialist courses in places as far away as Mexico and the UK as Coach Mills became obsessed with how fast a man could run. In fact, his work was so highly regarded that the JAAA later asked him to work with the national team for the CARIFTA Games. It wasn’t long before he was made a national coach and had started his own sprint track and field facility, the Racers Track Club, which trained out of the University of the West Indies, in Kingston.
When I first saw Coach Mills, he definitely didn’t have a sprinter’s look. His belly was round and he never wore a tracksuit; instead he dressed in smart pants and a shirt as he watched over his athletes. He was a bear of a man, with a bald head, greying streaks of hair in his beard and narrow eyes that seemed to stare into an athlete’s soul. I could tell straightaway that he had the brains to read his racers, plus a passion to push them hard. Just by watching him with the other sprinters, I knew that he was a guy who could get the best out of me. When his kids talked, Coach Mills listened.
One day at the gym, I was standing with some friends, complaining about my training schedule when Coach Mills came nearby. He was working with another athlete.
‘It is not happening with my programme,’ I said. ‘I don’t think it’s working, I don’t want to train that way any more.’
Coach Mills was moving my way.
‘Yo, I want to work in a programme like yours,’ I said, pointing at him. I was being cocky.
He looked me up and down and pulled a face like I was crazy, out of my mind. Then he walked away without saying a word. It was an expression I’d come to see quite a lot over the years.