For more than a decade, Usain Bolt dominated track and field, smashing world records and emphatically embracing the spotlight. The aura and charm of Bolt, now retired from the sport, may never be replaced, but his blazing speed might. Enter 21-year-old phenom Christian Coleman.
As the camera panned across Christian Coleman’s face, he focused on the ground, his hands pressed against his hips and his body rocked back and forth in anticipation. In a packed London Stadium, where the opening ceremonies to the Olympics were held five years prior, Coleman could hear the roar of the crowd increase as the public address announcer said his name. He lifted his head, acknowledged his supporters with a wave, then looked past the lens and shifted his gaze upon the finish line as he exhaled.
At that time, in the seconds before the third semifinal 100 meter heat of the London World Championships on Aug. 5, Coleman had already proven he belonged among the world’s best. He’d run the fastest 100 meter time in the world this year—a 9.82 on June 7 at the NCAA National Championships, a collegiate world record and a number that has not yet been bested in 2017—but here was another chance to bolster his already extensive resume.
When Usain Bolt flashed on the screen, he’d already started walking towards the camera, his eyes wide open and his mouth agape. He posed, signaled with his hands and grabbed his jersey, basking in his final moments of fame before retirement. Another shot introduced a familiar sight: dozens of fans waving signs and Jamaican flags from the stands, chanting Bolt’s name, fully expecting his 6-foot-5 frame to split the finish stripe ahead of his seven competitors en route to another gold medal, capping off his storied sprinting career.
The last 45 times Bolt planted his feet in the starting blocks, he’d been the first to cross the finish line. In London Stadium, Bolt’s final venue of competitive racing, the stage was set for him to leave the sport on top.
The gun echoed through the crowd, and Coleman burst off the blocks, leaving the others behind a noticeable distance. As Bolt fought in lane six to reach the young sprinter in lane four, his head slowly rotated to the left, and he stared Coleman down, taking in the rare sight of a sprinter in front of him. Inches from his final step of the race, Coleman could sense Bolt’s gaze, so he turned back to Bolt. As their right feet stomped on the white line—Coleman’s a hundredth of a second ahead of Bolt’s—Coleman peered into the eyes of a man ending the most decorated career of any sprinter in track history, and Bolt saw a man hoping to begin one.
‘I can’t fail’
Inside a crowded chandelier-lit Buckhead building on a Sunday evening, over the sound of smooth jazz, Albert Grant reflected on the early days with his wife, Jackie. He pointed to a picture of him and Jackie from high school, then shuffled to another room, motioning to photographs of him and his wife before they reached their adolescence.
“We go way back,” Albert said.
Albert doesn’t share a story about how the two, now married 55 years, met, because almost as far back as he can remember, he’s always known Jackie. He has memories of playing hopscotch by the steps outside his house. Before some people think about dating, Albert knew he wanted to marry Jackie. He’d carve “Albert hearts Jackie” into the trees and tell the other boys in the neighborhood to stay away from Jackie. He was relentless in his pursuit of Jackie from a young age, but it wasn’t only love that compelled him to try his very best. It was everything else, too.
Albert’s son, Derrick, would ask his father, “What’s that one thing you can’t do, daddy?”
“I can’t fail,” Albert would reply.
Aversion to failure runs in the family. Just ask Albert’s grandson, Christian Coleman.
Coleman’s childhood love wasn’t a woman, but rather a sport. He found her at five years old, and though there were other sports—most notably football—that tried to pull him away, he remained steadfast in his commitment to track, his confidence growing as he accelerated through high school and college and in 2016, the Rio Olympics.
At 21 years old, Coleman has competed on the world’s largest stage, as evidenced by the Olympic rings tattooed on his left bicep, but at his grandparents’ 55th wedding anniversary party, he was just another member of the family.
Underneath a suit, Christian wore a floral print button-down and a black tie, placed his right hand on his mother Daphne’s shoulder and smiled for the camera. On the other side of Daphne, Christian’s father Seth and two sisters Camryn and Cailyn posed for a family photo. Once Christian’s parents exited the photo, Christian took his mother’s place in a large chair the size of a throne. He folded his arms and gave the cameraman a look, as if to say, “I earned this seat.”
There’s a comfort Christian feels when he’s around family, one that helps him feel at ease when he’s standing on the starting line at a nationally televised track meet.
“That gives you confidence knowing that regardless of if you go out there and win or if you fail, you’re still going to have that love and support behind you,” Christian said.
When Christian ran in London, few in his inner circle expected him to fail. Patrick Bridges, who is one of Seth’s best friends and has been like an uncle to Christian all his life, said he knew Christian would beat Bolt long before the race started. Christian isn’t the type of guy, Bridges said, to be satisfied with just making it to an event. He wants to win.
In the spring of Christian’s freshman year at the University of Tennessee, Bridges sent his “nephew” a text after his first medal at the Southeastern Conference Indoor Championships.
“Congrats young fella,” the text read. “Mighty impressive sir!!!”
Fifteen minutes later, Christian responded, “Thank you. Not that big of a deal.”
Those watching Christian admit to feeling more nervous than he does before a race. Tennessee sprints coach Tim Hall, who traveled to London to watch Christian, exited the stadium before Christian’s 100 meter finals leg, where the young sprinter finished second to fellow Volunteer product Justin Gatlin. Hall said throughout his career, he’s had bad luck when he watches one of his runners in person at an event of that magnitude, so he viewed the outcome nearby.
“I was on edge. I was hoping we had done all the things until this point to make sure that he’s able to execute,” Hall said.
After the gun went off, however, Hall felt comfortable, as he gazed at a Jumbotron on the warm-up track to watch Christian master everything they had trained together (Christian clocked in at 9.94, two hundredths of a second behind Gatlin).
Albert said he believes Christian took it easy on Gatlin, that his grandson didn’t want to show off too much because he’s still young. Seth made clear the next day that Christian was clearly giving it his all in the 100 meter final, but Albert’s bold claim is still an example of the unwavering belief Christian’s family has in him that he’s not only destined to be among the greatest sprinters of all time; rather, there’s no doubt he is going to be the greatest sprinter of all time.
In a video devoted to Albert and Jackie’s 55 years of marriage, their children and grandchildren offered their kind words, but there was one face missing. As the video came to a close, Christian watched himself appear on the screen, and the anniversary partygoers cheered. Since the video was shot while Christian was in London, he had to deliver his message to his grandparents abroad. Despite the distance, his words were just as powerful.
“I truly believe I am where I am today because you guys hold me to a higher standard and gave me a reason to want to work hard and want to be the best at every single thing that I do.”
‘What just happened?’
Stunned. That’s how Seth describes the crowd’s reaction as he watched his son outrun Bolt in the 100 meter semifinals, delivering the Jamaican his first loss since 2013.
“Everybody was looking around like what just happened,” Seth said.
Few outside of Christian’s family and Christian himself saw the result coming. Almost the entire crowd, save for a small patch of about 300 Christian fans, located near the 60 meter mark, fell silent at the realization that Bolt didn’t win.
Albert, who was unable to make the trip to London, jumped off the couch and screamed.
At his home, Bill Dooley, the principal of Our Lady Of Mercy Catholic School, where Christian attended high school, felt immediate excitement and pride. Dooley had started his first day at the school the previous week, and he said he admitted he was a bit starstruck when Christian returned to the school to visit only 16 days following his triumph in London. The school’s athletic director, Bill Schmitz, saw his former wide receiver and defensive back knock off a man eight inches taller than him in just under 10 seconds and quickly took to social media to witness the reaction.
Bridges started recording the broadcast of the race for his Instagram story. He knew what the outcome would be. It was just a matter of capturing the moment on his phone.
The final act of the 100 meter sprint, of Christian outlasting Bolt by a hundredth of a second and locking eyes, is nothing more, Christian said, than the two runners making sure they finished in the top two to qualify for the finals. Beating Bolt, a childhood idol of Christian’s, was special, but not unexpected. Christian’s family believed he could do it. If they believed, why wouldn’t he?
“That wasn’t the first moment that I realized I could be in contention to win,” Christian said.
It also wasn’t the first time Christian would defeat Bolt that day.
‘A surreal experience’
In a London Stadium press room on the first Saturday of August, reporters traded questions and answers with Gatlin, Bolt and Coleman, although the youngest of the trio hardly needed to open his mouth. Sandwiched between arguably the sports’ most popular and most controversial figure in the standings, Coleman was almost an afterthought for the media despite his second place finish in the 100 meters, crossing the line a hundredth of a second ahead of Bolt for the second consecutive race.
For a majority of the race, it appeared as though Coleman would run away with the gold medal, becoming the storyline of the day and spoiling Bolt’s final 100 meter sprint all by himself. Then, Gatlin appeared from the cluster, making his signature come-from-behind move in lane eight, beyond the periphery of Coleman in lane five and Bolt in lane four, to win in 9.92 seconds.
Assuming Bolt is truly done, Coleman will forever be the only professional sprinter to hold a winning record against him in the 100 meters. But even as Coleman accomplished a feat many thought impossible, the image that stands out the most from that day is Gatlin bowing to Bolt, on both knees, arms extended, head down. The two longtime rivals shared a heartfelt embrace post-race at the first turn, and afterwards Coleman and Gatlin hugged, a 35-year-old University of Tennessee alum taking advantage of every year that remains in his life in the sport and the 21-year-old soon-to-be Tennessee senior cementing his spot among the world’s best before he receives his diploma.
When Coleman started his victory lap, Tennessee director of track and field Beth Alford-Sullivan, who could see from her vantage point in the stadium as soon as the race ended that Gatlin’s late surge was successful, greeted her most accomplished athlete this year.
“I was able to get down and see [Christian] face to face with the American flag draped around him,” Alford-Sullivan said. “It was quite a moment.”
Throughout her career, in 15 years at Penn State and four seasons at Tennessee, Alford-Sullivan has coached 12 Olympians, including Coleman. She also coached Team U.S.A. in the 2004 Athens Olympics. The highest any of her athletes have placed is silver, when former Penn State shot-putter Joe Kovacs threw 21.78 meters in Rio.
Despite the dozen Olympians Alford-Sullivan has mentored, she’s still waiting on a gold medalist. Tokyo is three years away, and there’s already no doubt whether Alford-Sullivan believes Coleman will earn a gold medal in 2020.
“I do,” Alford-Sullivan said. “Absolutely.”
Coleman was only asked one question at the press conference following his silver medal at the London World Championships: whether the whole experience felt surreal.
“It’s definitely a surreal experience,” Coleman said. “This season for me has been surreal.”
The list of athletic achievements, from the start of his junior year at Tennessee until now, is immense. He’s the winner of the 60 and 200 meter NCAA Indoor Championships and 100 and 200 meter outdoor titles, the recipient of the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country National Indoor Runner of the Year and National Outdoor Runner of Year, and a finalist for the Bowerman Award—an equivalent of college football’s Heisman Trophy. The winner of the Bowerman Award will be announced in December.
The amount of accomplishments Coleman has accumulated can be overwhelming. So can a visit to his old high school, where he’s become a celebrity seemingly overnight.
Back to school
On Aug. 21, Coleman walked back to his past to get a glimpse of what his future is going to look like. At Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School, Coleman was surrounded by a student body of roughly 300 students, asking him to sign phone cases, Nike shoes, body parts and dollar bills. The soft-spoken Coleman stood behind a podium during two separate lunch periods, reminiscing on his days playing football and running track at Mercy, acknowledging that now that he’s a pro, he needs to improve his diet and explaining to the students how he’s risen to the level of world-class sprinter in a relatively short period of time.
“Just to be on the same line with him, that was a great feeling,” Coleman said of Bolt, a popular topic of discussion that Monday afternoon. “To come across the line in front of him, that was an even better feeling.”
Coleman’s record-setting didn’t begin in college. During his final year of high school, he set Georgia class-A state records in three events: the 100 meter (10.38), the 200 meter (21.10), and the 4×100 relay (41.88).
“He’s long past those times,” Mercy athletic director Bill Schmitz said with a laugh. The school has created an honor in his name, the Christian Coleman Champions Award. In football, Coleman was an All-County, All-Region, and All-State defensive back and wide receiver.
“He was a fantastic football player,” Schmitz said.
If not for his record-breaking speed, Coleman might still be playing football. During his senior year, Coleman held a signing at the school, where he penned a letter of commitment to join the Valparaiso Crusaders, a Division-I FCS school in Indiana. About a week later, the offer from Tennessee arrived, and Coleman’s decision changed shortly thereafter. He admitted to the students during his return that he misses football, but just because he chose track it doesn’t mean he’s avoided all football-related activities.
Two weeks after Coleman turned pro this past summer, he ran the fastest 40-yard dash ever recorded in 4.12 seconds. The dash is used at the NFL Combine in February each year to test the fastest NFL Draft prospects. University of Washington product and current Cincinnati Bengals wideout John Ross broke the record earlier this year, hustling to a 4.22, besting running back Chris Johnson’s time of 4.24 that had stood since 2008. It only took a couple months for Coleman to break Ross’ record by a whole tenth of a second.
It’s one of many examples of Coleman’s sheer athleticism, but it takes much more than just genetics to run 40 meters in 4.12, or 60 meters in 6.45, or 100 meters in 9.82, or 200 meters in 19.85. It takes the right mindset. Coleman’s high school track coach, Mark Tolcher, who has since moved on to coach at Blessed Trinity, tried to explain Coleman’s winning formula.
“He was able to relax and enjoy himself until it was absolutely time for him to get in the blocks,” Tolcher said. “He knows how to balance the fun with the competitiveness.”
On June 16, Coleman officially became a professional track and field athlete, signing a seven-figure contract with Nike and forgoing his final year at Tennessee. Coleman’s high school classmates knew it would happen all along, and the proof is in print. In Coleman’s high senior yearbook, he was voted most likely to receive a Nike endorsement.
Coleman’s former teachers and coaches remember him not only for his athletic prowess, but also for his humble confidence. When he opened his mouth to speak, everyone around him listened.
“He wasn’t a showboater,” Schmitz said. “He went out there and worked harder than everybody else, and I think that’s why he’s gotten the success he has.”
Coleman’s work ethic translated to the classroom, where many teachers still remember the grades he earned in their class. His Algebra 2 teacher, Ana De Mello, told her former student, who she taught junior year, to not let his fame get to his head. Although De Mello has always been impressed by Coleman’s speed and his dance moves—De Mello was the talent show coordinator the year Coleman and a group of friends choreographed a dance to “I’ve Got Sunshine”—it’s Coleman’s humility that gave De Mello the indication Coleman was destined for greatness.
‘I would not bet against him’
Tolcher maintains that Coleman would’ve already won an Olympic medal if he’d been kept in the 4×100 meter relay team for the finals in Rio. The United States team thought it had won bronze, but was disqualified after Mike Rodgers handed the baton to Gatlin too early during the changeover between the first and second leg. Coleman had run the second leg of the relay in place of Gatlin in the qualifying leg.
Coleman may not yet have an Olympic medal, but he’s smashed multiple world records. Now the question is whether he’ll reach Bolt’s untouched 100 meter time.
“If Christian thinks he can do it, I would not bet against him,” Tolcher said.
When Bolt was 21 years old, in 2008, he broke the world record in the 100 meters with a time of 9.69, famously stretching his hands out and looking around him as he flew through the finish line in Beijing. A year later, just shy of his 23rd birthday, Bolt once again toppled the world record, this time at the Berlin World Championships, sprinting to a 9.58.
Due to Bolt’s dominance, Gatlin has been limited in the amount of medals he’s been able to collect throughout his career. Bolt is now retired and Gatlin hopes to still be running when the next summer Olympics arrive. But just because Bolt won’t be lacing up his cleats anymore, that doesn’t mean, as Gatlin explained in the post-race London press conference, that he’ll be without competition.
“You would think the headache is gone, but now you’ve got Christian Coleman in the mix, so the rivalry will continue and the excitement will still continue in the sport,” Gatlin said.
Bolt, who lost just as gracefully as he had won, said of the young man who finished ahead of him in his final two 100 meter races, “He’s got a great future ahead of him.”
When a reporter asked if the slower 100 meter times in recent years were a result of a stronger stance against doping, Bolt was bewildered. “W-w-what?” Bolt replied.
Gatlin, who was booed mercilessly in London, presumably because of his past with doping, also responded with disgust. He served multiple doping bans in the 2000s, but has been running for seven years since. Both Bolt and Gatlin answered this question, in part, by defending Coleman, who was silent through the heated exchange.
“This guy had a hard season,” Gatlin said of Coleman. “He literally almost ran a whole year. For him to be able to come up here and get on the podium and grab a medal, that had nothing to do with it. That was fortitude, that was heart, and that was a lot of guts.”
“For you to say something to all three of us like that,” Bolt said, “I take that as disrespectful.”
After the two made their peace, the attention shifted to Coleman, who plans to stay away from controversy and negativity by—as De Mello advised him—being the quiet, humble kid he’s always been.
“They pretty much said it all,” Coleman said.
‘Can’t Catch Me’
When Coleman was in fifth grade, he ran for class president. He didn’t campaign at all, but he won.
Since Coleman’s childhood, he’s been winning the respect of others without by being too vocal. Rather, he’s been deliberate in the message he wants to get across, saying only what he believes needs to be said.
“When you’re quiet, when you actually do say something, it holds more weight,” Coleman said.
Coleman is supremely confident in his abilities, but doesn’t express it by putting others down or placing himself on a pedestal. He does so in subtle ways.
During Coleman’s sophomore year in high school, at Our Lady of Mercy, he attended a Georgia Tech Invitational in street clothes. Coleman, then primarily a long jumper, was injured so he didn’t compete and instead stayed with Tolcher.
As Coleman watched the top sprinters compete, he told Tolcher, who didn’t know too much about Coleman at the time, “I’m going to be faster than all those guys one day.” Tolcher was encouraged by the optimism of the underclassman, but had no reason to believe Coleman’s prediction would come true.
Tolcher said he wasn’t in front of the television when Coleman ran past Bolt at the London World Championships, but after getting calls and speaking to his former standout long jumper and sprinter shortly thereafter, he wasn’t surprised.
“That kid has thought he’s on that level since he was a junior or senior,” Tolcher said.
Albert recalled a time about a year ago when he saw Coleman wearing an old T-shirt with the words “Can’t Catch Me” on the back. He asked his grandson why he was wearing the shirt.
“I’m going to be the fastest man in the world one day,” Albert remembers Coleman saying. “My goal is to break Bolt’s record.”
The day before Coleman ran the 100 meters in London, he didn’t have much to say during an on-camera interview, except that he believed he was capable of beating Bolt the following day. As he’d done so many times before, he followed up on his promise.
Though Coleman’s rise to the top of the sport has been swift, he’s not alone among world-class sprinters in their lower-to-mid 20s hoping to carry the torch Bolt left behind when he retired.
Andre De Grasse, a 22-year-old Canadian, collected three Olympic medals in Rio de Janeiro, winning silver in the 200 meters and bronze in the 4×100 and 100 meters. He finished behind Bolt and Gatlin in the 100 meter finals with a 9.91, almost a tenth of a second behind Coleman’s best (De Grasse didn’t compete in London due to a hamstring injury sustained days before the event).
There’s British sprinters Chijindu Utah and Nathaneel Mitchell-Blake, both 23 years old. They were a part of the 4×100 team that outran Team U.S.A. at the London World Championships, as Mitchell-Blake barely outpaced Coleman in the anchor position for the gold medal.
Finally, South African Wayde van Niekerk, 25, bested a 17-year-old world record in the 400 meters (43.03), when he claimed Olympic gold in Rio. Though he specializes in the 400 meters, van Niekerk is no slouch in short distances, with personal bests of 19.84 in the 200 meters and 9.94 in the 100 meters.
As with any athlete who plans to command a Bolt-like grasp on his sport, there are obstacles standing in Coleman’s way. The next wave of young talent, in addition to Gatlin and other older runners who are in a race to prove they’re not past their prime, will make it challenging for Coleman to earn a gold medal in Tokyo in roughly three years time.
But Coleman is not thinking about his next trip abroad yet. His focus now is at Tennessee, where he’s wrapping up the final year of a sports management degree while training with his old team, though he’s no longer on the roster. He’s straddling stardom and normalcy, a 21-year-old college student and a budding world sensation, the potential next fastest man in the world walking through a college campus.
Every time Coleman steps on a track, he’s dangerously close to becoming even more famous, less able to blend in and more likely to stick out, despite his unintimidating 5-foot-9 frame. The reserved runner who’s been plucked away from college track and field and thrust into Nike’s starting lineup will enjoy his ride to the top, but he’ll save the theatrics for another athlete. He’ll cross the line with speed, if not swagger.
In London, before Coleman charged off the blocks, leaving Gatlin, Bolt and the rest in his wake for a majority of the 100 meter stretch, one quick on-camera interview awaited. The interviewer implored Coleman to strike a pose, trying to prepare him for his inevitable future victory celebration.
“I don’t really have a pose,” Coleman said, shrugging his shoulders. “I just stay me.”