When Fred Kerley was a young boy, sleeping on a pallet with 12 other kids in a single room in Texas, he would dream of travelling the world. Instead, on a night of impossible drama in Eugene, he conquered it.
In the final desperate strides of this world 100m final, Kerley instinctively stuck his chest out and thrust his arms back like an aerodynamic Super Man. As he did so, his compatriots Marvin Bracy and Trayvon Bromell, were straining, flailing, losing form. In a blurred finish, the 6ft 3in Kerley somehow got up on the line to snatch gold in 9.86 sec, with Bracy taking silver and Bromell bronze both in 9.88.
It was the first American clean sweep of the men’s 100m podium since Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell in 1991. But long before the stadium announcer had confirmed the result, and the crowd had started to chant ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ Kerley was charging down the back straight, deliriously celebrating one of sport’s great rags to riches tales.
The bare bones of how the 27-year-old’s story would surely be rejected by Hollywood for stretching the boundaries of the impossible. At two his dad was in jail and his mum was absent having taken “wrong turns in life”. And so his aunt Virginia adopted him and his four siblings and raised them with eight of her own in Taylor, a small city 30 minutes outside Austin, under the tiniest of roofs. It was a tough upbringing, but Kerley was always encouraged to dream and to soar.
“Me and my brother and sisters got adopted by my Aunt Virginia,” he explained afterwards. “We had one bedroom. There were 13 of us in one bedroom. 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,” added Kerley, who has the words ‘Aunt’ and ‘Meme’ – his pet name for her – tattooed inside his bicep. “Keep on accomplishing great things. You don’t want to be in the same position as you were when you were younger.”
Touchingly, he said he also now speaks to his parents. “Every day,” he said. “What happened before doesn’t happen now.”
Along the way there have been many sliding doors moments. Kerley wanted to be an American football player and only switched sports after breaking his collarbone in the final game of his high school career. And until 2019 he was a 400m runner, good enough to win a bronze medal at the world championships, before switching to the 100m and 200m when his ankles felt a little sore at the 2021 US Olympic trials.
A month later he won a 100m silver medal in Tokyo – but finishing just 0.04 behind Marcell Jacobs left him with a burning sense of frustration. For the past 11 months, Kerley hasn’t been able to stop himself from shouting “push” whenever he watches back a video of the final. In Eugene, though, that push was timed to perfection.
“I saw Bracy in front of me,” he recalled. “He dipped early. I dipped at the right time and got the job done. It’s amazing to get a clean sweep, the greats did in 1991 and the greats of 2022 did today.”
It helped, of course, that Jacobs was missing from the final, having suffered a leg injury in the heats. While the Tokyo bronze medallist, Andre De Grasse, was a shadow of his former self after injuries and Covid. But Kerley, like he has done so many times in his life, seized the day.
But everyone on the medal podium had a story that deserved to be amplified. Bracy, for instance, ran in the 2016 Olympics before chancing his arm in the NFL – only to later break it in his first game in a developmental league in 2019.
“I made the decision right then to come back to track,” explained Bracy, who had spells at the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks. But still the challenges mounted. His silver medal came after an appendix rupture and an intestinal blockage, which has left him with eight staples from his belly button down to his pelvic area.
And Bromell? Well, he spent close to $300,000 between 2016 to 2019 to repair a severely damaged Achilles tendon that led to him being wheeled out of the Rio Olympics. In 2018 things got so bad he even wrote a draft letter to his agent announcing his retirement. “It’s hard to wake up sometimes,” he said on Saturday night. “In practice my ankles be cracking, hips be cracking. I sound like an old man. But nights like this make it all worth it.”
In another era, these stories would be absorbed into the mainstream of US sport and life: amplified and celebritated. No more. Even in Eugene, which bills itself as Tracktown USA, the 15,000-seater Hayward Field stadium was maybe only 80% full.
Perhaps there is still time for things to change, especially if Kerley wins more medals in the 200m and 4x100m relay. It surely helps too that he is quite the renaissance man, with tattoos across his body and a love of growing veg. “My crops are actually doing good,” he said. “Before I left, I cut some squash off. I ate spinach out of the garden and it was amazing.”
With that he slapped his left bicep and smiled. But athletics’ new Popeye isn’t only thinking of adding more muscle on the track. He also wants to inspire the next generation. “Every day a bunch of youths are looking up to me,” he said. “If I can do it, they can do it.”
What a story. What a performance. And what a human being too.