Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography - Usain Bolt (2013)
Chapter 6. The Heart of a Champion, a Mind of Granite
As the 2004 season started, I couldn’t give a crap about the Athens Olympics. I wasn’t thinking about going to Greece, the home of the greatest championships on earth, or winning medals like Michael Johnson at the Atlanta Games. In my mind there was a bigger prize at stake. The World Junior Championships were being held in Grosseto, Italy, and I was desperate to defend my 200 metres title.
Oh God, I suffered for it, though. My training sessions didn’t let up and from October through to February I covered every inch of ground on the schedule. There were laps and laps of 500 metres, 600 metres and 700 metres; day after day, week after week. Sure, I was stronger, I had more endurance for real, but the work was inflicting some serious pain on my body, especially around the spine. At times it felt as if a fork had been stuck into my lower back and my hamstrings were being twisted around its teeth like spaghetti.
Another worry was that I hadn’t completed any sprint work, not the short, sharp bursts a 200 metres runner needed to sharpen his form. I’d wanted to burst out of the blocks like a bullet at the World Junior Champs and I needed my corner training to be just perfect, but my sessions were focused on background work rather than speed. When the time came to move into competitive races in early 2004, I hadn’t done any transitional work in the programme, and even with my inexperience I knew we were making a risky move. My body wasn’t being given time to adjust to the intense bursts of speed I would require in the forthcoming meets and I felt stressed that the sudden change might screw me up.
Still, when the CARIFTA Games came around in April, I surprised everybody by breaking the 200 metres world junior record with a time of 19.93 seconds. Wow! When I saw the clock I knew it was a ridiculous time; everyone did. I’d shaved 0.14 seconds off the previous record and everybody around me was hyped: Mom, Pops, Mr Peart and, of course, Coach Coleman. My performance had given them all the evidence they needed to silence my grumbling. I was told the training schedule had been successful. The programme was right and I was wrong, clearly.
Thing is, I actually felt alarmed. I knew my body, and there was no way I should have held the capacity to run a time as crazy as that, not without sprint training. And it was a crazy time; not many people ran a faster 200 metres in 2004 at junior or seniors level, and I was only a 17-year-old kid.* Straightaway, it dropped with me that my new world junior record had nothing to do with the work I’d been doing. I had broken that time on raw talent alone.
That news might have pleased a lot of athletes, but I was unhappy for days after the CARIFTA Games. I knew something wasn’t right with my training programme, that I was in serious pain, but who could I complain to? Whenever I moaned, Mr Peart told me that my increased workload was something a young pro like me would have to live with.
‘Your CARIFTA time proved the training schedule right!’ he’d say, ‘It’s working!’ But I wasn’t buying it.
Sure enough, two weeks later, I injured myself in practice. I remember the incident clearly because just before it happened I was on the side of the track, watching, as some kid dropped to the floor clutching his leg in agony. He had blown a muscle during a 400 metres run and it seemed like the strangest thing to me.
‘What the hell?!’ I thought. ‘I didn’t know people actually got hurt in training.’
Not 10 minutes later, I was in the same messed-up state, falling to the ground and holding my leg. I had torn a hamstring during a fast lap of the track and, man, did it hurt. My muscle twanged and a sharp pain grabbed at the back of my thigh and knee. I was in agony, I could barely walk off the track and as I waved out for help, the anger bubbled up inside. I felt pissed at the schedule, pissed at Mr Peart for telling me I had to suffer the pain, pissed at everybody for not listening to my complaints. I went home and called up my parents straightaway. They were upset, and Dad even tried to apologise, but I was too angry to care.
‘Don’t even try to say you’re sorry,’ I said. ‘I told you something wasn’t right with this work.’
The defence of my World Juniors title was under threat. I was gone, shot, and everything went downhill from there. I was told to spend weeks resting and recuperating, which was a serious drag. Then I had to strengthen the busted muscle in training with different exercises and drills, taking care not to damage my hamstring even more. The rehabilitation took months. All the way, a nagging voice in my head told me that I’d fallen seriously behind. I got grouchy. Some days I feared I might never get my fitness back.
There’s something the training manuals don’t tell an athlete about injuries in track and field: they’re about self-discovery as well as recovery; learning the mind is as important as understanding the body. Pain thresholds, patience and inner strength are things that can’t be found in a running magazine. Instead, a sprinter had to learn those things alone, through experience, and as I healed, I learned a pretty important fact about myself – in times of physical stress, I picked up doubts.
Injury, even just a tight muscle or nagging back pain, asked questions. It said, ‘Yo, Bolt, can your body handle coming off that corner like a slingshot?’ Or, ‘Are you going to survive bursting out of the blocks that hard?’
Full fitness, the kind I’d previously experienced following my success in the World Juniors, had given me a feeling of invincibility. There was a sense that I could win any race I wanted. No athlete in the world intimidated me on the start line, not if I was 100 per cent ready, but my injury had drained that confidence and once I was fit enough to run again, negative thoughts dogged me in every training session.
I tried to put it to one side and focused on getting my fitness back. I worked through the pain and the stress, but there was another killer blow around the corner. Coach told me to forget the World Junior Championships – he figured that I wouldn’t be ready. Talk about a bummer. All year I had been psyched about running in Italy, because defending my title was a huge deal. Winning in Kingston had been such a wonderful experience that I’d wanted to do it again, especially as my CARIFTA time had, at that point, made me faster than every senior on the planet that year.
It wasn’t my first disappointment in track and field. The previous year I’d wiped the floor with all the senior guys in the trials for the 2003 World Championships proper – the real deal – which were being held in Paris. I was the reigning World Youth and World Juniors champ and, despite my inexperience at the age of 16, I was able to match the established runners, too. That had got me to thinking, ‘You know what? Maybe I can start pushing myself at the highest level …’
I wasn’t stupid – I didn’t believe for one second that I was going to win gold medals in my first major professional meet, but I figured that if I could set a personal best, maybe there was a chance I might show up in the final. But when the World Champs came around, I was struck down with conjunctivitis, or ‘pink eye’ as we called it in Jamaica. I was forced to rest up and my training was put on hold. The JAAA then decided I was too inexperienced to compete in my first big event without being conditioned properly and, even though they took me to Paris for the experience of a big competition, I was unable to race. I felt devastated.
Missing out on Grosseto in 2004 seemed worse, though, because I’d wanted to deal with this one kid called Andrew Howe, an Italian 200 metres runner with a seriously big mouth (Howe later specialised in the long jump; he eventually won gold in the 2006 European Championships). That boy had been doing a lot of talking during the build-up to the World Juniors, and he’d said all kinds of crap about how he was going to take me down on his home turf. I wasn’t happy, it was disrespectful, and I knew I could have beaten Howe just by cruising down the track, injury or no injury. Shutting him off in the 200 metres would have been a sweet way to silence all the chatter.
But, damn! My busted hamstring had ended that little contest. As soon as Coach pulled me out of the meet, I turned frosty, and when I saw the headlines from Grosseto once the World Juniors had got under way, my mood grew even darker. Howe had won the 200 in only 20.28 seconds. Though it was his personal best and a time he wouldn’t improve on for the rest of his career, I could have clocked 20.28 seconds in my sleep, given half the chance. But still he bad-mouthed me from the side of the track.
‘I wish Usain had been here,’ he said. ‘I really wanted to beat him face to face …’
‘Oh God,’ I thought, when I saw the quote. ‘The man clocks 20.28 seconds and he’s still talking? Please.’
Howe’s hype act didn’t stop there, though. A few years later, while competing in the long jump during the 2007 World Champs in Osaka, he pulled an equally noisy stunt. It was a tight event that year. With one turn left, the gold medal was between Howe and Irving Saladino of Panama, who would later win his country’s first ever gold medal in the 2008 Olympic Games. Everyone in Osaka knew that Saladino was the man when it came to the long jump, but Howe was jumping first and his final distance pushed him into the lead, breaking the Italian national record in the process. The kid went off. He started screaming, tearing at his top and beating his chest. He ran to the crowd, shouting. Even his mom was going wild with him in the bleachers.
I looked at the scene. ‘Seriously? What’s wrong with this guy?’ I thought. ‘Relax, dawg …’
And then the funniest thing happened. With Howe going crazy, Saladino slipped out of his tracksuit and eased on down the track. Whenever he ran towards a jump he never pounded the lane, the Panamanian always cruised, so smooth, before flying into the pit. His final jump in Osaka was no different and the new distance smashed Howe’s gold medal spot by 10 centimetres. The crowd went wild, but Saladino didn’t flinch. He didn’t jump around or pull at his vest. Instead he just dusted a little sand from his shoulder and casually walked away.
It said to Howe, ‘Calm down, now. I’m The Man.’
It was one of the best things I’d seen at a major champs. I’m just annoyed that I wasn’t able to do something similar for myself.
My summer was not big on fun. To hell with the bad back and those tight hamstrings, it was decided that I was going to Athens, whether I liked it or not. And believe me, I wasn’t thrilled. I couldn’t get excited about entering an event when I wasn’t fully fit. The Olympics was supposed to be the pinnacle of a track and field star’s career, but I wasn’t prepared and I was unable to shake off the disappointment of missing the World Juniors. I’d barely competed all season and my lack of fitness was a serious issue.
My first season as a pro athlete had been a non-starter up to that point. I’d missed most of the 2004 European events through injury, and several race appearances which had been arranged at the start of the campaign were cancelled. Going to Greece was a pain in the ass to me.
Coach Coleman got worried, he couldn’t work out why I was suffering so much pain in my back and legs, so it was arranged for me to visit Dr Hans Müller-Wohlfahrt, a German specialist who had previously treated back injuries in the tennis star Boris Becker, and some of the Bayern Munich football team. Apparently Dr Müller-Wohlfahrt was a genius, so a trip to Munich was arranged where he could conduct a full medical check-up.
All the talk was correct. When I arrived in Germany it was clear that The Doc was no ordinary specialist. I was laid out flat on a bed, as his fingers felt along the bumps and grooves of my spine, and he pushed against my hamstrings. When I glanced up, I noticed that his eyes were closed. The man was feeling, sensing my injuries, rather than discussing the pains in my legs and back, or listening out for any yelps of pain. It was an intense scene, and when The Doc first took my foot into his hand and rotated it at the ankle, a nurse said something from across the room. His eyes flicked open. He looked pissed.
‘Shush!’ he shouted, before whispering something in German. I have no idea what he said, but I could sense it wasn’t complimentary. That nurse looked embarrassed.
I was then taken for X-rays, and when the tests were done, Dr Müller-Wohlfahrt held up an image of my spine – and, man, the news was pretty bad.
‘Mr Bolt, you have scoliosis,’ he said.
‘What the hell?!’ I thought. I’d never heard the word before.
‘It is basically a curvature of the spine and it’s quite common,’ he continued, looking deadly serious. ‘For a lot of people this disfunction is treatable with corrective physiotherapy, but I am afraid that yours is a serious case. The curvature of your spine is very severe.’
He explained that it was a condition that varied from patient to patient, and that it would worsen as I got older. A really severe case could restrict a person’s lungs and add pressure to the heart; it might even damage the nerves. In my case, the spine was curved and my right leg was half an inch shorter than my left. The back pain I’d experienced was the primary symptom. It was also the reason for my hamstring injuries and the continual discomfort in my legs. Because my body had overcompensated for the S-shape in my spine during exercise, I’d pulled my muscles every which way. It didn’t help that I was competing in the 200 metres, where leaning into a track’s curve often positioned my longer left leg above my right, especially if I was running in one of the tighter inside lanes where the angle was sharper.
My brain went into overdrive. My first thought was to disbelieve the diagnosis; I told myself that the injuries I had experienced were down to the intense training programme rather than any back condition. Maybe my mind was protecting me from the truth, but I figured that it was far easier to blame the physical schedule I’d been working to, rather than to face up to the realities of a long-term spinal problem
‘Whatever,’ I thought, ‘I was fine before. If I work on another training programme, I’ll be fine again.’
I shrugged it off. Stressing wasn’t going to help. Besides, The Doc had work to do, especially if I wanted to get back to the track in quick time. Physiotherapy was prescribed to help ease the muscular pain. But another part of his treatment involved homeopathic medicines. I’d heard through other athletes that calves’ blood injections were a common prescription for his patients, and that sounded freaky to me. Still, everything that was used on my back was carefully administered within all the legal guidelines – nothing sketchy was injected – and Dr Müller-Wohlfahrt’s syringes took away the pressure and pain from my spine.
Despite the unsettling diagnosis, everyone was still keen that I should appear at the Athens Games. The fact that I was the fastest man over 200 metres that year (and top of the world rankings) meant I wouldn’t need to go through the Olympic national trials. The top two 200 sprinters from the event always qualified automatically for the Jamaican team. Another place was up for grabs, and because I was still ranked higher than the guy who had finished third in trials, I took it even though I was injured. Once it was clear I’d be joining the 100 metres sprinter Asafa Powell and the rest of the Jamaican national team, the pressure of my injuries hit me like a ton of bricks. Everybody was hyping me up as a sensation; they didn’t seem to worry that I was injured. The fans were looking at me to be a star, especially after my success in the 2002 World Junior Championships. In the media, people were saying, ‘Oh Usain’s beaten senior athletes with his CARIFTA times and he’s such a success at youth level. He’s bound to do great.’
But that’s when I got worried. I thought, ‘I’m not in shape. How am I going to perform to my A-game?’
It messed with my head. The Jamaican people were crazy for track and field and I wanted to give them something to go wild about. I didn’t want to let them down. There were more doubts, more questions, just like there had been before Kingston. But this time I wasn’t scared by the expectations or the crowds. I was worried about the way my body might react under competitive strain.
By the time the Jamaican team arrived in Greece I’d recovered enough from the injuries for my optimism to grow slightly, thanks to physiotherapy and The Doc’s work, but I still wasn’t 100 per cent fit. And while I didn’t think for one minute that I would go home with a medal, I figured I might have an outside chance of making the final. That would have been a serious achievement, because several top names were competing in the 200 metres that year. The Americans Shawn Crawford, Justin Gatlin and Bernard Williams were there, as was the 1992 and 1996 Olympic silver medallist, Frankie Fredericks of Namibia. Just competing against those guys in an Olympic final would have been huge.
As I worked on my strength and technique in Athens, my fitness levels felt rocky. Every time I began to get stronger, a new, minor injury pulled me back. On the training track a few days before my first race, another sprinter stepped across my lane and as I shifted fast to avoid a painful collision, my ankle twisted. The sudden movement was enough to tweak an Achilles tendon and I was off course yet again. There was no way I could race at 100 per cent in the heats,† and it was touch and go whether I’d be able compete at all. Only on the night before the first race was it decided that I could handle the strain.
But on the day of the first heats everything fell apart. The sun was beating down in the Olympic Stadium and it was hot, seriously hot, which says a lot coming from a Jamaican. I wilted. The bleachers were half empty and the crowd was flat – there was nothing to give me a psychological boost like the one I’d experienced in the World Junior Championships. I settled myself on the start line with the aim of finishing in first or second place, but when the gun went Bang!, I came out slow.
‘Oh God,’ I thought, as my first few strides landed. ‘This is going to be hard.’
My legs were heavy, and every step felt lousy. I had no energy and my strength had gone to God knows where. I came off the corner still in touch with the group, but the front guys had edged away slightly, they had more power. I hustled, swinging my legs in a desperate attempt to stay with the leading pack, but my speed had fallen away. I was drained.
I approached the line in fourth place, which would have been enough to get me into the next round.
‘Yo, you can regroup from there,’ I thought.
But the guy alongside me was on my tail, running me close. He wanted that fourth spot much more than I did. His heavy breathing, the sound of his spikes cutting the track, it was all I could hear; when I glanced across I could see the man’s jaw was clamped tight and the veins in his neck looked set to burst. It dropped with me that on any normal day, if I was fully fit, I’d have been out of sight. And that’s when the doubts kicked in again.
‘I shouldn’t even be here …’
‘My damn injuries …’
‘The training programme has been too hard, I’m not 100 per cent …’
Qualifying didn’t make sense to me any more. Seriously, what was the point? In those split seconds I’d worked out that my strength was busted weak and, even with a day’s rest, I’d probably finish dead last in the next round. To hell with that, I only ever competed to win, and realising that I didn’t have a chance of getting to the final deflated me. I wanted out. Athens had been a stress anyway, so I made the decision to give my place away to the athlete alongside me.
‘A’ight, brother, take it,’ I thought. ‘It’s yours.’
As I crossed the line in fifth, there was a sense of relief. My time in Athens was done, and I figured the pressure would ease up once I’d exited the champs. But I should have known Jamaican fans better. When word got back home about my failure to qualify, not to mention the injuries I’d been fighting throughout the season, everybody went off. Negative headlines appeared in the national press. The public wanted to know why I’d gone to Athens if I hadn’t been fully fit; the fans couldn’t understand why I’d been a shadow of the junior world record-breaking sprinter from the CARIFTA Games.
Once I returned to Kingston a couple of weeks later, all sorts of theories were bounced around. I was called a ‘baby’ – they pointed to my no-show at the Paris World Champs with pink eye as a sign that I couldn’t handle the pressure of a big event, and Athens was further evidence. Even the crucifix I’d been wearing during my heat in the Olympic Stadium was blamed. It had been a present from Mom,‡ but the cross was too big and it bumped up and down on my chest as I sprinted, so I always gripped it in my teeth. A story ran in one paper criticising the chain.
If the fans and media weren’t talking about my injury problems, or the crucifix around my neck, then they were criticising my lifestyle. They said I was lazy, and they moaned that I was a party person. The press had seen me going into KFC or Burger King in Kingston and it had annoyed them. If I was spotted going out maybe once or twice to the Quad, a reporter would write that I’d been there all week. I knew there were other athletes going out too, but nobody wrote about those dudes; it was ignored. I could go the same party with another athlete and even though we were photographed together, just chilling, I’d get cussed by the Jamaica media but nobody would say a word against him. It was crazy.
I guess the fans and media were right in a way: I loved to eat junk food and I liked to party every now and then. Often I would train all week, then at the weekend I’d have only one meal during a 48-hour period. It would start with a club on the Friday night, all night, where there would be dancing, Whining, some conversations. Then, having woken around noon the following day, I’d play video games for hours and hours, usually until my stomach grumbled in the evening. That’s when I’d drive into New Kingston with my brother Sadiki and we’d buy a bucket of chicken, or some burgers. The majority of weekends I ate one fast-food meal during a 48-hour blur of dancing and gaming. I don’t know how I survived.
The truth was, by the end of the 2004 season, I’d just turned 18; I was immature and going through a learning curve, not that anyone else was taking my growing pains into account. The Jamaican fans hadn’t figured me out; they didn’t understand how I liked to work and play. To them I was a failing star, another gifted athlete squandering his talent. They could think whatever they liked, though. I knew I was fine. My biggest problem was that the training was taking a heavy toll, both physically and mentally.
Athens forced me into a decision. It was time to get Coach Glen Mills onboard. I’d been worn down by the work Coach Coleman liked to do. Sure, he was a great hurdles coach and he’d been successful with plenty of other athletes, but the methods he used weren’t suited to how I was as an athlete, or a person. No matter how hard he tried, we didn’t click – that wasn’t his fault, it’s just the way it goes in track and field sometimes.
I guess one of the key things a lot of people don’t understand about athletics is that the relationship between a trainer and his athlete is as big as the one between a football manager and his team. And just as someone like Sir Alex Ferguson learns his players and their moods, an athletics coach has to build an understanding with every individual in the training camp. Some sprinters might respond to training hard, others can only train easy, but it’s no good trying to push both groups through the same programme. The athletes who can’t train tough are going to burn out quickly; they break down faster than a physically sturdier athlete, and that’s exactly what had happened to me. Mr Coleman hadn’t analysed how I was as a sprinter. He didn’t know what made me tick. He pushed me through the same programme as his other athletes and it had hurt bad.
That’s where the great coaches stood apart. They knew how to be a friend and a mentor to their athletes, as well as a guide. They listened. They led their athletes through all sorts of tricky situations on and off the track, like injuries, personal issues and stress. In my mind, Coach Mills was one of those guys. During the Olympics I had watched him closely as he trained his sprinters. I could see that he was always working to an athlete’s individual needs and personality, which was exactly the working relationship I’d wanted.
I also realised that because Coach Coleman’s programme had worked for him so often in the past, he wasn’t going to change it no matter how much I talked to him about the pain in my back and hamstrings. The results, in Athens, had been disastrous. After thinking on the matter, I spoke to Mr Peart about my leaving Coach Coleman. It was a tricky situation, but I hadn’t hired him, and it wasn’t my job to break the news, so I don’t know how he took it – I never asked. But whenever I saw him at the High Performance Centre afterwards the atmosphere was a little icy. Shortly afterwards, Coach Mills agreed to come onboard.
Talk about a change of scene! Almost immediately my game changed. Coach came around to the house in Kingston to find out a bit more about my mentality and focus. He wanted to know how I’d worked in high school and what the story was with my previous training programme. Immediately there was dialogue and I liked his style. He was friendly, smart and open. Coach listened, and when we spoke, he explained everything to me in his slow, drawn-out way of conversing; he used unusual phrases to get his point across. For example, my brain was called ‘headquarters’ (‘You’ve got to get what I’m saying into headquarters, Bolt’), and it was clear there was a master plan for my career. Coach Mills wanted me to understand every last word.
‘Bolt, the talent you have is big,’ he said. ‘But we have to work slowly, so you can be ready in three years’ time …’
That was the first of a few shocks to come.
‘Yo, hold up, Coach. Three years?’ I said. ‘That takes me up to 2007, 2008! What are you talking about?’
I felt impatient, I wanted to get working. I’d already messed up one Olympics through injury, not to mention a World Champs through illness. I needed to get back into the action straightaway. But Coach was adamant, and he explained we had to be patient so I could be perfectly prepared for the next Olympic season. If we rushed his programme, or cut any corners, I might fall back again through a serious muscle strain.
Coach’s hunch was that my body had broken down because I’d been pushing it too hard. The scoliosis was a challenge we could overcome, but the hamstring tears and other niggling injuries still troubled him. That’s when the man stepped up. He promised to take care of my situation and gathered together the medical notes from Doctor Müller-Wohlfahrt. Coach told me that the diagnosis was just the beginning. He was eager to find the solution too, and he promised to research every report written on scoliosis. Before we got back to training a few weeks later, he even consulted different experts for their advice on the best forms of treatment. He learned about various physiotherapy methods that might strengthen my spine. The man worked hard.
‘You’re going to have to live with this condition, Bolt,’ he told me after his exhaustive project had been completed. ‘The muscles in your back and abs are weak, and that affects your hip. When you run with the curvature in your spine, the hip pulls on the hamstrings, causing them to strain or tear. But if we strengthen your back and abdominal muscles with exercise, they should help you to withstand any disfunction.’
I was getting used to doing gym work as a sprinter. Part of my training with Coach Coleman had involved weights to strengthen the core muscles – the lower back, the abs, the hamstrings, plus the quads. My calves and ankle joints were worked on, too. Those were seriously important tools in my search for explosive power during a 200 metre race. Coach Mills told me that my gym work would remain a vital part of our training programme, but he’d also devised an additional programme that focused on my back and abs. He realised I would have to complete a ridiculous amount of exercises every day for at least an hour if I was to stay fit enough to win championship races.
Sit-ups, different core exercises, stretches. Man, when I first saw his programme written down on a piece of paper, I felt dizzy. It looked intense. I could tell each one was designed to increase the power in my core strength, and muscles were being built so they could support the spine, but I still grumbled. Straightaway I hated the extra work. The exercises were done at home and because Coach knew I had a reputation for being a little lazy, he started monitoring my progress close up. Every night he would watch as I stretched and strained. Most times it pissed me off. I was already tired from training at the track, desperate to crash out or play video games, but Coach ensured I followed every move on his damn plan.
That wasn’t all, though. I made more visits to The Doc and received injections to relieve the pressure on my back. Closer to home, we brought in a masseur who worked on me before and after every race and every training session. I moved over to Coach’s club, the Racers Track Club, at the University of the West Indies, just outside Kingston. Before any running took place, my back and core muscles were manipulated and stretched on a massage table during a physiotherapy workout. My legs were pulled; my hamstrings, glutes and calves were flexed. Every muscle was warmed to stop them from popping under pressure.
It was a whole new life for me, but Coach walked with me every step of the way. Because he understood my personality, he knew I needed love and communication. Whenever I felt stressed, whenever I looked down about my injuries, he would talk the problem through with me. There were times when I appeared vexed on the track. I’d go quiet. The following morning Coach would come around to the house for a chat.
‘Bolt, what’s wrong?’ he’d ask.
I’d shrug my shoulders at first. ‘Nuttin’, Coach.’
‘Come on, Usain, what’s going on?’
After some pushing, I’d always explain the situation, whether it was about the training, or a nagging pain, or how I was so tired, and he would always deliver a sensible answer, usually while laying down the winning hand in a game of dominoes. Often his answers involved me having to work harder – a lot harder.
I guess at times he was like a parent. Sometimes a dad has to get a point across to his son. He says the same thing over and over to ram a situation home, and when it starts, the kid often thinks, ‘Oh God, shut up now.’ Well, Coach was that dad, I was that kid. As a young man I still didn’t understand the talent I had because I couldn’t see it from a distance, even though I’d broken junior world records and competed at the Olympics. But Coach had the clarity. He knew I needed to put in so much more if I wanted to step up.
He encouraged me to embrace training; he wanted me to find a hunger for success in our first year together. Every time he heard I’d been out partying in Kingston, he outlined why it was so important for me to work harder. It must have been frustrating for him to see me fooling around, but Coach never cussed or shouted. We never argued. Instead he explained what he’d gone through to become a coach. He told me about the work he’d completed, or the athletes that had succeeded in his care. I always listened, because I knew he had a lot of knowledge, and we probably had more meetings than Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson put together in those early days. Looking back, it was the beginning of a wonderful partnership.
In 2005 I started to heat up. In June I won in both the Grand Prix meet in New York and the Jamaican Championships in Kingston; a month later I came first in the Central American and Caribbean Championships in Nassau. I even raced a 19.99 seconds 200 metres in London. My times had pushed me way up in the rankings and I was once more considered to be one of the hottest young talents on the scene. There was a sense that I was about to fulfil my potential and challenge the big names.
The initial idea was to cruise through the 2005 season by competing in a few easy events as I worked my way to full fitness. The results were better than expected. Mentally I had changed too, and when the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki came around in August, I felt tough. It was the moment Coach first spotted a killer instinct in me. He says I became a champion with a mind of granite in the 200 metres final that year.
As I flew across Europe to Finland, I knew I was stronger. I thought a lot about Coach’s initial work and how it had worked, both on and off the track; how from October to the summer months his training programme had toughened me up physically. My stomach looked chiselled, my legs were full of power, and veins mapped the curves of my thighs and calves. But psychologically I was stronger, too. Without the unnecessary physical stress of an intense background training programme there were no muscle strains. Without strains, there were no doubts, no questions.
Technical changes had also been made, and Coach had shortened my running strides. Apparently I’d been over-extending my legs, which caused me to lose control, and therefore speed, as I ran. But despite my improvements, the pair of us were still finding our way. At that time there was a delicate balance to be struck between working up my natural talent and dealing with the scoliosis. My stamina training programme had been reduced and I think the longest rep I did at the Racers Track Club was a 500 metre run. Even then I would only do one long sprint per session. As I rested on the sidelines at the training track, Coach listened to my feedback. He was like a mechanic putting his ear to the engine of a sports car. With each unusual grunt or complaint from me he would fine-tune his maintenance.
Our tweaks had been enough to improve my performances. I was feeling pretty confident that I could medal in Helsinki, and the media had hyped me up as a contender once more, which felt pretty good. But it was agreed that, even if I didn’t medal, Finland would be a chance to extend my learning curve. That was a smart move. For starters it was another new environment to compete in: the weather was seriously cold and wet, which was something I’d have to suffer as I raced more and more in northern Europe.
When the competition started, I enjoyed a chilled cruise through the qualifying races. My body was strong, and my strides were consistent.
Heats: first place, 20.80 seconds
Quarter-finals: second place, 20.87 seconds
Semi-finals: fourth place, 20.68 seconds
My poor showing in the semi meant that when I settled down into the start position for the final, I was at a disadvantage. I had been drawn in lane one, which was a major bummer for a tall sprinter because it put more pressure on my body as I leaned into the corner.§ But I still had the belief that I might show up at a major champs for the first time.
‘Come on, Bolt, forget Athens,’ I thought. ‘Let’s do this!’
But I was in for a shock because what happened next was a valuable lesson in concentration. Like Coach had said, Helsinki was a seriously cold place and that night the rain was hammering down. I was young, a relatively inexperienced sprinter from Jamaica shivering in wet kit, but my situation wasn’t helped by what happened next.
At first, John Capel, the American sprinter alongside me, wouldn’t get to his starting position. Instead he dropped down to the track and raised his hand, which forced a pause; every time we were called to our marks, the start would be delayed. Next he lightly rested his spikes on the pressure sensors located in the blocks. The technology was designed to register a false start and each athlete had to place his foot firmly on the pads, so this held up the race. The judges told him to quit. The longer we stood in the rain, the colder I felt.
I got upset. ‘Why do you keep doing this?’ I thought. ‘Man, why don’t you just start?’
I didn’t know what the hell was going on. My Jamaican ass was dying in the rain and with each delay I felt a little cooler, but I had enough focus to get away with the gun and Crack! I was off and ahead of the pack as we made the turn, which was unheard of for a runner in lane one. When I came off the corner I was joined by the four Americans, Capel, Justin Gatlin, Wallace Spearmon and Tyson Gay. My legs and back felt strong, the power that had been missing in Athens was back. But when I tried to make up an extra stride, s**t suddenly got very tricky. I overstretched and pushed too hard. Something grabbed at the back of my leg, my hamstring cramped. The delay had frozen my muscles tight, and now they were popping like rubber bands.
‘Woah, now!’ I thought. Time to slow down.
I gritted my teeth and jogged through the line in last place. It was a lame time of 26.27 seconds, but to hell with limping off, I wasn’t going to back down. I had to finish, and that’s when the strangest thing happened. As I came off the track, Coach looked happy; his face had broken into a huge grin.
‘What the hell?’ I thought. ‘Why so pleased?’
He put an arm around my shoulder. ‘Bolt, I saw a different person out there on the track,’ he said. ‘You were running in lane one and a lot of athletes would have quit before they’d even got onto the track, but you switched into a different competitor, a different animal. You discovered the heart of a champion.’
The fact that I’d raised my game in a major final displayed a determination that he hadn’t witnessed in me before. I’d shown a tough inner resolve, maybe one he hadn’t expected to find – I don’t know. But Coach took it as a sign, a flash of world-class potential. Even though I didn’t realise it, Helsinki was his first clue that something big might be happening to the pair of us. I thought he was just plain crazy. In my mind, there was nothing good about finishing last – ever.
* Remember, it was an Olympic year, and in Athens only the gold medallist, Shawn Crawford, topped my time in the final with a race of 19.79 seconds. I was leading the Olympic rankings after my first race of the season.
† To stand a chance of winning an Olympic gold medal, an athlete has to go through four races: round one, round two, the semi-finals and the final.
‡ You know how families are. If I hadn’t worn it, Mom would have called me and said, ‘VJ, why aren’t you wearing the chain now?’ Like I said, I was a mommy’s boy. I did what I could to keep her happy.
§ Running on the inside lane was always harder for me because of my height – I had to lean into the turn a lot more, whereas it wasn’t such a problem for shorter athletes because their low centre of gravity took them around more easily. Although everyone prefers the middle or outer lanes.