The incredible story of the new king of speed: from a convict father and an absent mother, he was raised by an aunt, he is a specialist in 400m and flew in the 100
EUGENE, United States.- Fred Kerley didn’t know he was the fastest man in the world when he crossed the finish line at Hayward Field on Saturday night. Like many other things in his life, he had to wait and wonder.
A group of runners, three of them from the United States, finished the men’s 100-meter dash at the World Championships in athletics within a fraction of each other, a flash of speed as twilight descended on the stadium. Kerley, dressed in a red and blue suit, crouched down and studied the video board. Only when the number 1 appeared next to his name, with his time of 9.86 seconds, he knew he had won gold. “I got the job done,” said Kerley, a man efficient in both his strides and his words.
Kerley, a former 400 meter specialist For whom none of this – accolades, gold medals, world championships – foreshadowed growing up, had his arms raised when the rest of the results were released, revealing “a medal sweep” for the Americans, with Marvin Bracy- Williams in second and Trayvon Bromell in third, both finishing in 9.88 seconds. Bracy-Williams took on Bromell, his training partner, in an unscripted glee episode. “I don’t know what went through Marvin’s head,” Bromell said. “I know what the emotion is.”
Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs, the reigning Olympic champion, withdrew from the competition ahead of their semi-final tie on Saturday. Jacobs was said to be dealing with a muscle injury. “I am forced to leave it,” Jacobs said on Twitter.
Kerley managed to turn Jacobs’ absence into little more than a footnote.. Kerley, normally an impassive athlete, let his emotions out after his victory. He was thinking of his aunt, Virginia Kerley, who was seeing him at her Texas home and probably “blowing up her phone,” he said. She had raised him from the age of 2, along with several of his siblings. At the time, Fred’s father was in jail and his mother had taken “wrong paths in life,” according to a first-person account she wrote for Spikes magazine in 2019. At one point, Virginia Kerley was 13 children under your roof.
“If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be talking to all of you right now,” Kerley noted. “She really sacrificed her life for me and my brothers and my sisters and my cousins.” And she added, “I appreciate that she put me in a position to win in life.”
Still, Kerley wasn’t a top-tier recruit coming out of Taylor High School, outside Austin, Texas. He landed at Levelland’s South Plains College, where he worked through a hamstring injury as a freshman and placed a modest 11th in the 400 meters at junior college national championships as a sophomore. But he always worked hard and without complaint, said Chris Beene, his former coach at South Plains.
“He was always a great teammate,” admitted Beene, who is now the head coach for girls’ athletics at Anna High School outside Dallas. “I mean, he would be willing to die on the track in the 4×400 for our team.”
With more training, Kerley’s talent emerged. At Texas A&M, he was the NCAA champion in the 400 meters in 2017. Two years later, he was a bronze medalist in the event at the World Championships. His future seemed to be in the 400, but he started eyeing shorter sprints during the pandemic. In a way, Kerley said, he wanted to get back to his roots as a sprinter and long jumper. Or, as he himself said, “go back to my field of play.”
The world of athletics has been surprised by his unconventional decision. Going from 400 to 100 isn’t quite the same as hanging up your hurdle shoes to go hammering, but it’s not an easy transition, either. The 100 requires different skills and a fresh approach to training. There is a reason few athletes have been world class in both disciplines.
But Kerley vindicated his move to winning the silver medal in the 100 meters at the Tokyo Olympics of last summer, and it has only continued to improve. At the U.S. championships last month, he ran in 9.76 seconds in his semi-final, the third-fastest time ever for an American, and then blew out a large field in the final to win. the title in 9.77 seconds less than two hours later. Jamaican Usain Bolt remains the world record holder with 9.58s.
But while many sprinters fill reporters’ notebooks like wrestlers, Kerley tends to keep his thoughts to himself. After winning his first round on Friday, he flew past the reporters without taking questions. Asked by a reporter for the athletics website FloTrack about his plan for Saturday, Kerley glanced over his shoulder and, without breaking stride, said, “What did I tell you last time?” (It was not immediately clear what Kerley had said last time. After some detective work, FloTrack reporters determined that Kerley had said, “You’ll see.”)
This is how he won the 100 meters in the World Cup
Bracy-Williams said that Kerley was more playful and talkative with his friends and peers. “Contrary to popular belief, she’s not the stone face everyone thinks she is,” Bracy-Williams said. “He is a fun guy. But when he comes here, it’s all business.”
Kerley’s competitive streak extends beyond the track. On Thursday, she played cornhole with Bracy-Williams and treated it like an Olympic final. Kerley, it seems, is willing to compete in anything. “Even if it’s about drinking water,” Bracy-Williams explained.
There is one topic that does seem to arouse Kerley’s interest when speaking publicly, and that topic is specific: the people who doubted that he was going to be good in the 100 meters. As for how many of those people actually exist, who’s to say? But Kerley has used them, real or imagined, to feed himself.
As for the future, Kerley said he would run in the 200m this week and would be available for relays in the 4x100m and 4x400m races. (Stay tuned. Or, as he likes to say, “You’ll see.”) But while he knows being the 100-meter world champion will change his life—“The future is bright,” he said—he isn’t about to limit himself or bow to conventional wisdom. “In a couple of months,” he said, “I’ll probably be back to doing the 400″.