Catch him if you can


By Sarah Sekula, published in Insights, Insel Air´s in-flight magazine

Imagine what it’s like to be the fastest man on the planet. To know that anyone who challenges you to a race is bound to lose. To know you are the most extraordinary sprinter in track-and-field history. A freak of nature. A once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

That’s a pretty extraordinary gift. One that could land Usain Bolt with an ego twice the size of Jamaica. After all, he is the defending Olympic champion in track and field’s 100, 200, and 4×100. And his fame spans the globe — from his hometown of Kingston to South Korea, where fans flock to him, to the U.S., where he made the short list for TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2009.

Sure he offers up arrogant comments now and then, but he says he is humbled each time he breaks a record. Even more surprising, Bolt, the charismatic and telegenic guy who loves to do Jamaican dancehall moves in public, crack jokes and flash his world-famous smile for the cameras, says he’s actually a quiet guy.

Well, a quiet guy with a huge dose of personality, that is. That’s what makes him so appealing.

First, let’s rewind. For those of you who missed his record-breaking sprints at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, here’s a quick recap: It’s a warm August day at Beijing National Stadium. The crowd of 90,000-plus fans, as usual, roars for 21-year-old Usain as he trots onto the track wearing his gold Pumas.

Donning Jamaica’s yellow-and-green uniform, he rocks back and forth; the starting blocks cramp his gangly 6-foot-5-inch frame. Mentally preparing himself for what could be the best run of his life, he kneels then propels himself forward, as the starting pistol blasts. In a split second, everyone’s up and running.

Within a few seconds, he is several strides ahead of the pack. His body leans forward. At the 80-meter mark, the long-legged Jamaican glances to each side, realizing he’s clearly going to win. With a quick celebratory pound of the chest before the race is even over, he wings his arms out and crosses the finish line only barely breaking a sweat. Funny thing is: He does it all with his shoe untied; his left laces flopping in the wind.

And he runs it all in 9.69 seconds to set a new world record and capture Olympic gold glory. Even better, it is a new personal best for Bolt, who shaves three-hundredths of a second off his time, despite easing down well short of the finish line. And then comes the victory lap. Electrified by the crowd, he points to the stands in his now-famous victory pose — his right arm bent in a bicep curl, the other arm outstretched with index finger pointed skyward.

He then proceeds to do a salsa-style jig here and there around the track, while the fans boom once again. “He made it look easy,” said the announcer. “I have never seen another 100-meter Olympic champion run that easy. He dominated that field; this has never been seen before in Olympic history, ever.”

What’s even more impressive is that it was Bolt’s first year running the 100-meter dash. In fact, he begged his coach to let him run this particular race. Better yet, later in the Games, Bolt went on to win gold in the 200-meter race and the 4×100-meter relay.

And the fascination with Bolt doesn’t end there. Listen to what he ate before the 100-meter dash: chicken nuggets from McDonald’s. Yes, the phenom, with the statuesque physique, woke up that morning around 11 a.m., scarfed down some nuggets and went back to his room for a two-hour nap. Then, he paid a second visit to McDonald’s for yet another round of nuggets. Seems the greasy pre-game meal didn’t bother his stomach one bit.

Rise to Stardom
As a youngster growing up in northern Jamaica’s Trelawny parish — before there was a Gatorade drink named after him and before he was driving a Skyline GT-R — Bolt says his mind was always on sports. But not on running, as one might guess. His first passions were football and cricket. “I was a fast bowler in cricket,” Bolt recalls. “And a coach suggested I try track and field.”

So he did. And Bolt discovered that he could run fast, really fast. The rest, as they say, is history. By the age of 12, Bolt had become the school’s fastest runner in the 100-meter distance. By 14, he competed in a global event, the IAAF World Youth Championships in Hungary, lowering his already impressive times. By 15, Bolt became the youngest male world junior champion. And by 16, Puma approached him as a sponsor. Suddenly, he was a huge star.

London Calling
Fast forward to the present, and the hype still surrounds this legendary athlete. After all, in Beijing he became the biggest sprinting star the world has ever seen. And he also became Jamaica’s first 100-meter men’s gold medalist. But, it doesn’t faze Bolt, now 25. “I am excited about the opportunity to defend my titles,” he says. “Beijing was a wonderful experience, and I am aiming to repeat in London.”

Right now, he’s training hard in Jamaica. “The temperature is great all year round,” he says. “And I love that. I am able to train in very comfortable surroundings.”

But that doesn’t mean the training is enjoyable. “My coach, Glen Mills, has a comprehensive program that includes strength, conditioning, speed work and race prep,” he says. “It is all hard, but I am dedicated to giving my best, so I am ready.”

It’s that ambitious effort that will likely pay off at the London Olympics, where he will compete in the 100- and 200-meter races and also be part of the 4×100-meter relay team and the 4×400.

At the end of the day, it’s clear why fans call him the “Lightning Bolt” or “Insane Usain.” But they mystery still remains: What exactly makes this supreme athlete run so fast? It’s not performance-enhancing drugs, as naysayers suggest. Bolt says he is tested regularly.

Perhaps it’s the fact that his legs are longer than most sprinters. Bolt typically takes 40 strides in a 100-meter race while bronze medalist Walter Dix takes 47. Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills, says one of the reasons he has such an efficient stride is because he lifts his knees so well.

This all makes sense. But, then again, you must consider this: Most sprinters are short and stocky. According to conventional coaching, Bolt’s too tall for 100-meter sprinting. He is 6-foot 4-inches and nearly 200 pounds. And the taller the athlete, the tougher it is to launch off the starting block.

Can Lightning Strike Twice?

Perhaps the only way to explain it is that he is super-human. The question on everyone’s mind now is: Will Bolt’s sterling list of credentials continue to get longer? Can Bolt, and his record-breaking pair of legs, snag four gold medals in track and field at the Olympics? That remains to be seen. It hasn’t been done since Carl Lewis’ gold-medal record in 1984. One thing is certain, though: Bolt is sure going to try.

The fascinating thing is that it’s just Bolt, his supersonic feet, and the track. In his individual races, nobody else can speed him up or slow him down. And it’s not just spectators who are left stunned. As Bolt approaches speed of 30 m.p.h., he still can’t believe it himself.