After coming to close to Olympic 100m glory, the versatile American sprinter is aiming “to do more damage” across a range of events this season
Almost nine months on, Fred Kerley still can’t stop himself from shouting “push” at his own image on the screen when he watches the Olympic men’s 100m final back, urging the tiny gap between second and first place to be bridged.
“I was this close to a gold medal,” says the Texan, holding his index finger and thumb a millimetre apart.
It had been expected that the first Olympic 100m final of the post-Usain Bolt era would be a wide-open affair and so it proved. Six men finished under 10 seconds and the medallists all clocked PBs as Italy’s Marcell Jacobs became the surprise winner in 9.80 from Kerley’s 9.84 and Canadian Andre de Grasse in 9.89.
Kerley’s silver was a surprise to many – until last summer the 2019 World Championships 400m bronze medallist and 4x400m champion was seen as a one-lap specialist – but not to him. “All I was thinking about was ‘gold medal’,” he says. “That was my expectation. I accomplished something but silver is not all right – I wanted gold.”
He intends to be the one on the top step of the podium this summer – at a World Championships on home soil in Oregon – instead. At which event, however, remains to be seen.
“I’m the biggest 400m runner of all time,” says the 6ft 3in tall athlete who has just turned 27. “My body isn’t built for 400m, it’s actually built for the sprints.”
The narrative had been moving towards Kerley concentrating on the shorter events and, indeed, he has already run sub 10-second 100m and sub 20-second 200m times this spring. Does this mean he is moving away from 400m? It turns out that going down the distances initially happened through necessity rather than by design.
“I haven’t switched from the 400m, I’m still training for it,” he insists. “I was training for the 400m all through the Olympics. If the 2020 season had happened [as initially planned] it would have been an amazing year in the 400m for me.
“I was planning to focus on the 400m and do some damage. I was running fast, getting better and training at high intensity. Then came all the Covid restrictions and we couldn’t go to the track.”
When the time finally came to attempt to qualify for the US Olympic team, at the Trials in 2021, Kerley was struggling. He had just run 44.74 over 400m at the FBK in Hengelo but all was not well.
“For none of my races in the Olympic trials was I healthy,” he recalls. “My ankle was swollen and I was thinking ‘hopefully I can get in the top three and make the team’. I wasn’t healthy for any of the rounds. I decided at the last minute to run the 100m and 200m, knowing that I couldn’t go round the turns the way I wanted to.”
A crucial decision was made the day before entries closed for the trials.
“I said to my coach and agent, ‘I think my best move right now would be the 100m and 200m’,” added Kerley. “And they said to me, ‘if you believe in yourself, go for it’.”
As it was, Kerley booked his Tokyo place by coming third in the 100m (9.86) but missed qualifying for the 200m after coming fourth in 19.90 – a time which would also have given him fourth in the Olympic 200m final.
With Tokyo moving further into his past, Kerley’s options in 2022 appear to be very much open. “If I have a healthy season, I think I can do more damage in the 100m and 200m but also the 400m,” he says. “My training hasn’t changed. The only thing different this year is that I’ve started lifting weights a little, which I never did before, so now I’m getting more strength and conditioning in my legs – more explosion.”
A stronger Kerley would be a fearsome prospect. He is only the third man in history – alongside Wayde van Niekerk and Michael Norman – to run under 10 seconds for 100m, under 20 seconds for 200m and under 44 seconds for 400m. He is very clearly not one to get carried away, however.
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“If you are capable of running a 43-second 400m, running 19 for 200m is easy,” he says. “I guarantee that anybody who can run a 43 can run a 19. LaShawn Merritt, Michael Johnson, anybody else who ran 43 seconds could also run a nine-second 100m. Some coaches are scared to let athletes out of their comfort zone and are worried that if they ran fast in the 100m, would they be comfortable and capable of coming back to 400m?”
That is not the case for Kerley, who exudes a healthy level of self-confidence.
“I am a competitor and I like to compete,” continues the reigning 100m Diamond League champion. “No one in this world will break my confidence. I believe in myself and that’s a hard man to beat. I never go into a race thinking I’m going to lose.
“I grew up in the church. Without God himself, I wouldn’t have been to an Olympic Games or be doing half the stuff that I do. You’ve got to have faith to spike up every day. You’ve got to have faith that you’re going to win. You’ve got to have faith that you going to do big things – and I believe I will be doing big things.
“I know what I need to do for the gold medal – just continue to work and never stop. I know that 2022 will be one of the best years of my life.”
To quote a favourite phrase of his, in Oregon he really could do some damage.
» This article first appeared in the May issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here