USA sprinter Fred Kerley: “I want to be the fastest man alive”

Fred Kerley began his Olympic career by winning a silver medal in the 100m here in Japan -- and he spoke exclusively to Tokyo 2020 on the eve of the Games about his hopes of becoming the fastest man on earth in the 100, 200 and 400m sprint events and what it feels like out on the track. 

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Fred Kerley dares to dream big.

“It’s absolutely my desire to be the fastest man alive,” the American sprinter, who picked up a silver medal in the 100m event here in Japan, told Tokyo 2020. “I want to be the fastest in the one [100m], the two [200m] and the four [400m].”

And it’s not just the bluster of a 26-year-old with speed and confidence to burn. At this June’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon he withdrew in his best distance (the 400m) citing a slight ankle injury that could have hampered him in the turn. But his 19.90 time in the straightaway 200m saw him join elite company in the so-called Sub-10s, 20s and 44s Club.

He’s now on a list of only three men who’ve run a sub-10 second race in the 100m, a sub-20-second race in the 200m and a sub-44 second race in the 400m. The other two are Rio 2016 400m gold-medal winner Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa and 23-year-old fellow American Michael Norman, the world record holder for the indoor 400m.

READ | Van Niekerk: “I’m Going to Leave it All on the Track”

It’s fine company that Kerley’s keeping as he aims to top all three sprint distances next year in a bid to break records at the World Athletics Championships in 2022 to be staged at Hayward Field in Oregon.

“What’s better than breaking records on home soil?” he asked rhetorically.

Two new distances at U.S. Trials

“We decided, like the day before we had to say so, that we were going to go [at the U.S. Olympic Trials, also at Hayward Field] for it [the 100m and the 200m],” said Kerley, born and raised in central Texas, and with a slow drawl in his speech that gives away his birthplace like a thumbtack stuck in a map. “I didn’t really train for the hundred at all this year – I just hopped in there and did my best.”

Kerley’s best was pretty good too.

Nursing that iffy ankle, the straightaway 100m ended up being his best run of the meet. Kerley's personal best of 9.86 booked him a place in the 100m event in Tokyo despite entering the race on a lark and being considered a heavier favourite in the 200m (where he finished fourth).

Kerley followed up a sizzling 9.97 time in the heats here in Tokyo with a slightly faster 9.96 in the semis. That put him in the conversation for a place on the 100m podium – which is what he achieved on the evening of 1 August in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, where he finished just behind Marcell Jacobs (gold) of Italy and ahead of Canada's Andre De Grasse with a time of 9.84.

“In the 100m, you just gotta’ be so sharp,” Kerley said about the race – the shortest and most explosive sprint on the Olympic athletics programme. “You gotta’ be the sharpest, and there’s no room for error. Ain’t no room at all for it.”

As Kerley targets the mantle of fastest man on earth – made famous most recently by his track idol Bolt – it’s worth noting that he only “got serious” about track and field in 2017.

Before that, he was “just playing around with it.”

Kerley, whose cousin Jeremy was an NFL wide receiver, played cornerback and safety on his high school American football team. “I liked to hit people,” he said with a half-smile, talking about the sport he still considered his first-choice until the age of 18.

It wasn’t until his Aunt Virginia, his guardian angel in ways many and varied, urged him to walk-on for the track team at the local South Plains Community College that athletics began to show a future path for the young Kerley.

That old college try

“Track and field just kind of grew on me,” said the man whose speed, attitude and work ethic saw him earn a scholarship, first at South Plains, and then at NCAA track powerhouse Texas A&M, where he won a national collegiate title in the 400m in 2017. “And I became elite by working my ass off.”

Athletics offered a road forward for Kerley, who admits to getting into trouble at school, and with the law, in his rough-and-ready teenage years. With his father jailed from the time he was a toddler, and his mom taking “wrong turns in life,” Kerley had strikes against him from the start. But his Aunt Virginia, who raised him – and his four siblings – always believed in him. And Kerley credits the woman he refers to, affectionately, as Meme with all the many things he’s gone on to achieve in his life.

Kerley brought the teamwork and sacrifice, the gladiatorial fire, that was pressed on him in the crucible of Texas high school football into his track and field pursuits. “All I know is grind, grind, grind,” he said about the way he approaches the track – and the opponents he faces on it.

“Your mind controls your body, so if you got a strong mind, no one else can tell you you can’t do something,” said Kerley, whose personal best (43.64) makes him the eighth-fastest man in history in the 400m. “You gotta’ believe in yourself before anyone else is gonna’ do it. And I believe 100 per cent in me.”

With an attitude honed in team sports, Kerley sees his exploits on the track as individual in their essence. His achievements and failures are his and his alone.

“Track is not a team sport – unless you’re talking about the relay or the fact that we’re all representing the USA,” he said. “Look at it this way: I want the gold, Ronnie [Baker] wants the gold and Trayvon [Bromell] wants the gold [all his USA teammates in the 100m].”

Chasing medals and living in the moment

It’s no surprise that he models himself after royalty like Bolt. The Jamaican global icon, who owns world records in the 100m, 200m and 4×100m relay (in addition to eight Olympic gold medals), lights a path ahead for Kerley who's fairly busting with potential.

“Medals speak for themselves,” said the Texan as he takes dead aim at his first at these Tokyo Games.

And while he’s mostly all-business, Kerley knows that reaching the Olympics is something to pause and take in. “I gotta’ make sure I enjoy the moment,” he said. “If you miss them, you can’t get moments like these back, so I’m just going to live in the moment, enjoy the moment and have fun in the moment.”

He looked like he was having fun in his 100m races here in Tokyo, finishing in the heats with a time that was the third-fastest overall – and getting faster all the way to his silver-medal worthy race in the finals.

And Kerley was in no way bothered by the lack of fans in the stands when he ran.

“You just hear the wind, and everything goes blank,” he said, trying his best to describe the feeling – so few will ever know – of running at outrageous speeds like he does in three distinct distances. “You just see the finish line. It’s like in the cartoons when it gets all blurred – you don’t see the fans. You hear the noise, sure. But you’re just moving.”

Moving – that’s precisely what young Kerley is doing. On the track and, in a larger sense, as he chases those places reserved for the best of the best in his sport.

“When someone says I can’t do something, I go and do it ten times past what they said I couldn’t do,” Kerley said with a half-smile, speaking slowly as he always does. “It’s all I know,” he concluded. “All I know.”

Fred Kerley (second from right)
Picture by 2021 Getty Images