The incredible rise of new sprint king Fred Kerley

·4-min read
The incredible rise of new sprint king Fred Kerley - AP
The incredible rise of new sprint king Fred Kerley - AP

The first cheer was loud, the second even louder and the third deafening. As the name of each American men’s world 100 metres medallist was confirmed one by one on the big screen inside Eugene’s Hayward Field, the crowd descended into rapture to celebrate an historic podium clean sweep on home soil.

A few years after the end of the Usain Bolt era, America is once again male sprinting’s superpower. As winner Fred Kerley said after upgrading his Olympic silver to gold: “We said we was going to do it and we did it. USA baby.”

That Kerley was at the head of the American trio, with a winning time of 9.86 seconds, was no surprise. Even without the withdrawal of Italy’s shock Olympic champion Marcell Jacobs through injury before the semi-finals, Kerley had been the dominant male sprinter this year.

If Bolt was the ultimate showman playing up to the crowd at every opportunity, the man now tasked with carrying the tag of world’s fastest man is his polar opposite, expressionless before races and rarely answering questions with anything other than singular deadpan sentences.

His fuel comes not from any desire to bathe in the limelight, but to prove his ability to succeed after enduring an unimaginably difficult upbringing.

Kerley was two years old when, with his father in jail and his mother taking “wrong turns in life”, he moved with his four siblings to be raised by their aunt Virginia and her children.

“There were 13 of us in one bedroom,” said Kerley, 27. “We were on the pallet. At the end of the day, we all had fun, we enjoyed ourselves and are doing great things right now.

“What motivates me is coming from what I come from and not being in the same predicament. Keep on accomplishing great things. You don’t want to be in the same position as you were when you were younger.”

'If I can do it, they can do it'

Among multiple tattoos all over his body are two that read ‘Aunt’ and ‘Meme’ - his pet name for Virginia - on his biceps.

Originally sprinting solely to make him faster for American football matches, it was only when he broke his collarbone at high school that he decided to focus his attention on athletics.

He was then a 400m runner for most of his senior career, before switching to the shorter sprints in 2021, and lowering his 100m personal best from 10.49sec to 9.84sec in the space of one year that culminated in Olympic silver.

“Every day a bunch of youths look up to me,” he said after this world triumph. “If I can do it, they can do it.”

So swift has his elevation been to the top of the 100m ranks that there had even been some talk that Bolt’s 9.58sec world record could be in danger after Kerley clocked an astonishing 9.79sec in the heats when easing down. Such conjecture proved misplaced with the eventual slower gold medal-winning time, but Kerley was just relieved to cross the line in front.

At no point until the last few strides did he ever lead, trailing compatriot Marvin Bracy for almost the entire race and only prevailing thanks to a pronounced thrust of his chest as he crossed the line.

Bracy clung onto silver by the slimmest of margins, clocking 9.88sec, the same time given to Trayvon Bromell, who won bronze as America completed their first clean sweep of the men’s world 100m podium since Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell in 1991.

Fred Kerley stands in-between silver medallist Marvin Bracy, left, and bronze medallist Trayvon Bromell - AP
Fred Kerley stands in-between silver medallist Marvin Bracy, left, and bronze medallist Trayvon Bromell - AP

Bracy’s silver medal vindicated the 28-year-old’s decision to return to sprinting. Having won world indoor 60m silver in 2014, he quit the sport in a bid to become a professional American football player between 2017 and 2019.

That career change ended when he broke his arm, but his track return was then interrupted by an appendix rupture in 2020.

“To come back this year and get a medal, to just keep fighting, this speaks to my perseverance,” he said.

Britain had no representation in the final after Zharnel Hughes followed Reece Prescod in exiting the competition early when he paid the price for a stumble in his semi-final and failed to recover. His time of 10.13sec was not enough to advance.

“A misstep cost me the race,” said Hughes. “When it happened, I tried to stay relaxed and rely on my top-end speed, and tried to close the field because I am one of the fastest finishers out there. But those guys are stupid fast out of the blocks.

“They got a little bit of the jump ahead of me. Another 5-10 metres I would have caught them. It sucks. Damn it.”