“Things were never given to him,” said his agent Ricky Simms. “They had to go take things because that’s the way it was when there were so many mouths to feed. He’s wanted this for a long time. He really wants it quite badly, to be the best and to be one of the Greatest ever.”
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Kerley Cemented all-time status Saturday night at Hayward Field. In a 100-meter final drenched in red, white and blue at the world track and field championships, Kerley seized the title of fastest man in the world by inches over countrymen Marvin Bracy-Williams and Trayvon Brommel. Kerley finished in 9.86 seconds, 0.02 seconds ahead of both Bronze medalist Bromell and second-place Bracy-Williams, who led until the last five meters. Kerley’s lean gave him the crowning achievement of an ascendant career and the Americans a podium sweep.
For US men’s sprinting, it meant Redemption after a letdown at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, where Bromell failed to make the semifinals as the favorite, the 4×100 relay team dropped the Baton in prelims and no individual gold medals were won. For Kerley, a taciturn 27-year-old of bulging muscles and few words, it meant the latest apex of a singular career still in ascent.
“The world’s fastest man,” Kerley said Saturday night. “It means a lot.”
At the outset of 2021, Kerley expected to contend for an Olympic gold medal in the 400 meters, the event at which he had once reached No. 1 in the world and remains the eighth-fastest ever. They switched early last year, to much derision within the sport, to 100 meters. They won the Olympic silver medal, and this year they separated themselves from the rest of the world.
“I believe in myself, first and foremost,” Kerley said. “I put the work in to be great. I don’t come to run to be second best.”
Kerley reached the top of his sports years after a turbulent childhood. He was born Fred Coleman. Virginia Kerley adopted him and his siblings after his father went to jail and his mother “took wrong turns in life,” Kerley once wrote in Spikes magazine. Virginia Kerley, now 66, watched her Nephew become the fastest man in the world from home in San Antonio.
“I think about her every day,” Kerley said. “She sacrificed her life for me and my Brothers and Sisters and my cousins. It feels amazing to accomplish something. Not too many people in my position did what I got to do.”
There have been faster sprinters than Kerley. There have never been anyone quite like him. Other runners have swapped distances in search of success or any easier path to a medal. None, perhaps, have risen to the top of the world in one distance, then done the same in another that places such different demands on a sprinter.
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“What he’s trying to do is unprecedented, at least in recent history,” said Olympic medalist Ato Boldon, now an NBC analyst.
Kerley is one of three men, along with South African Wayde van Niekerk and American Michael Norman, who have run 400 meters in less than 44 seconds, 200 meters in less than 20 seconds and 100 meters in less than 10 seconds. Add up their best performances in each race using World Athletics’ scoring system, and Kerley’s score is the best.
It took time for Simms, a prominent agent who represented Usain Bolt, to understand how Kerley operates. Most sprinters radically shift their training when they move between the 100, 200 and 400. Kerley believes he could run his best 400 right now. He proclaimed Saturday night that, if asked, he would run in both the 4×100 and the 4×400 Relays at these championships, an unheard of double.
“Hopefully, I can do both,” Kerley said.
“They’ve convinced me now, if you gave him a chance to run the 4×400 in this meet, I think he’d run a 43 split,” Simms said. How big of a statement is that? When the US 4×400 relay team won gold in Tokyo and posted the fastest time in 13 years, only one runner, Rai Benjamin, broke 44 seconds.
“He’s definitely the best there has ever been with the range,” Simms said. “Michael Johnson could run 100, 200 and 400, but almost at different times. They would prepare for the Shorter one and do it. Fred’s ability to do all three simultaneously, that’s something that is quite unique.”
Kerley has always insisted he simply followed the instructions of his coach, Alleyne Francique, when he switched to 100 meters early in 2021. That’s not what really happened, though. An injury decided for him.
Kerley ran two 400-meter races at the start of 2021, and afterwards his ankle was “swollen like a balloon,” Simms said. Kerley could run straight without pain, but turns demolished his ankle. Simms entered Kerley in the 100, 200 and 400 at the US Olympic trials.
On the day Athletes needed to declare their events, Kerley texted Simms a picture of a bloated ankle and told him he couldn’t make it through three 400-meter rounds. They decided Kerley would focus on the 100 and 200, a decision that prompted disdain among track experts. Why sacrifice a potential gold medal in the 400, their thinking went, to Chase Glory in a race in which they had little experience?
“They knew he could be good,” Simms said. “He always fancied the short sprints, because that’s where he came from. But this almost forced him to go down this path because of that injury.”
Kerley made the team, showed up even faster at the Olympics and won a silver medal, losing to surprise gold medalist Marcell Jacobs of Italy by .04 seconds. He had become the second-fastest at 100 meters despite only a few months of training tailored to the event. He separated himself this year, running 9.76 seconds — seventh-fastest all-time — at the US Championships and 9.79 in Friday night’s opening round.
By the time he settled into the blocks in Lane 4 on Saturday night, Kerley had made himself the overwhelming favorite. Four Americans qualified for the eight-man final, with reigning world champion Christian Coleman finishing sixth.
Kerley bolted from the blocks, but the field stayed with him. On the outside in Lane 8, Brommel inched ahead of the pack. Bracy-Williams, running to Kerley’s left in lane 3, seized a small lead. At the finish line, Kerley lunged and stretched his neck. The trio knew they had produced a sweep. They weren’t sure of the order. Kerley jogged to the top of the track and stared at the board.
“I didn’t know until I looked at the clock,” Kerley said. “It said Fred Kerley, No. 1.”
When Bracy-Williams’s and Brommel’s names flashed next, Bracy-Williams tackled Bromell, his training partner.
“I don’t know what went through Marvin’s head,” Bromell said.
“Man, I’ve been in the trenches with that guy since Day 1,” Bracy-Williams said. “To see him come back and fight like hell to get a medal in that fashion, how can you not?”
Bromell, 27, won a Bronze medal at the 2015 world championships and made the 100-meter final at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. In that race, he injured his Achilles tendon and left the track in a wheelchair. He would undergo two Achilles’ surgeries and fade to the fringes of the sport. In 2018, he wrote a retirement letter and almost signed it. He found religion and therapy and suddenly reemerged back at the top of the sport, winning the US Olympic Trials last summer — only to fall flat in Tokyo, not even escaping the preliminary round, then bungling a relay handoff.
“Man, it was hard,” Bromell said. “I’ve always had the talent. They’ve seen that over the years. I work hard. It’s no days off. So when I didn’t show up in Tokyo, it wasn’t that I wasn’t ready. But I wasn’t ready mentally. To be around guys like Marvin and Fred, to see how they stay poised and react in these championships, now I know what it takes to have that Championship mentality.”
Bracy-Williams, too, had to fight his way back. The 28-year-old left track and field in 2016 to pursue a football career. He broke his arm in 2019 and decided that was enough football. When he returned to track in 2020, he ran 100 meters in 10.33 seconds, not fit for a semifinal at an elite track meet, let alone the medal stand. In a semifinal at the US Olympic trials, he suffered an injury and limped across the line.
“To come back and do this, man, it just means everything,” Bracy-Williams said.
Nobody in the world was faster than him Saturday except Kerley. Kerley runs with immense power and ruthless intensity. The fastest sprinters typically treat preliminary rounds as calisthenics, content to build a lead and cruise to the finish in about 10 seconds. Kerley barrels through the tape as if trying to stomp on his opponents’ soul. He won his first-round heat Friday night in a time no man had beaten this year and only 10, himself included, had ever surpassed.
“The guy is running out of his mind right now,” Bracy-Williams said. “We always expect fireworks from him, especially early on. He’s a guy that likes to come out, make a statement early.”
Canadian sprinter Andre deGrasse said Kerley’s strength from running 400 meters enables him to maintain top-end speed longer than his rivals. Boldon said Kerley’s experience in the 400 explains how he can obliterate preliminary rounds and have enough energy left to win finals. “He’s a quarter-miler,” Boldon said. “Do you know what kind of pain they go through?”
Standing 6-foot-3 with bulging muscles, Kerley towers over his competitors. In some races, he looks like a kid sprinting in the wrong age group. His Strides appear as if they could crack the track into pieces.
“Kerley looks like he could be an NFL player that stepped into the 100,” Boldon said. “He does look different than everybody else, but that difference is his advantage. When you get a big wheel turning, as we saw with Bolt, it can be devastating.”
“One thing I know about the guy, he’s a competitor,” Bracy-Williams said. “They fear none. He focuses in on himself, and that’s what this sport is about.”
Bracy-Williams found out before the world championships even started. He and Kerley played cornhole Thursday night, the eve of the event. “He’s serious about everything we compete in, even if it’s drinking water,” Bracy-Williams said. “You got to come with it.” Bracy-Williams insists he beat Kerley, two out of three.
The title of world’s fastest man confers Celebrity on the man who holds it. Kerley appears to be wholly uninterested in anything the sport offers outside a narrow strip of vulcanized rubber. He answers questions with a few sentences composed of a few words. After his blazing first-round sprint, Kerley strode past Reporters with his head held high and silently flashed a thumbs up at Reporters who approached him. Simms believes Kerley will grow into his more prominent status. Saturday night, he told an on-track interviewer after one question, “I’m going to take a walk.” They then approached the stands and high-fived fans.
“He’s the coolest customer you’re ever likely to meet,” Simms said. “He’s still building his confidence in the media. When he’s around people he knows, he’s a joker. He’s got a lot of talk. If we’re at a Diamond League meet and we’re all sitting around the table, there’s a lot of laughs coming from something Fred has said.”
The world will get to know Kerley. Saturday night, under a piercing blue sky and a setting sun, Kerley jogged around the Hayward Field track with an American flag stretched across his back. He had come so far from where he started, and he wasn’t finished yet.
“I know today opened up many doors for me,” Kerley said. “I’m grateful for that. And the future is bright for me.”