When Fred Kerley was a little boy sleeping on a bunk with 12 other kids in a single room in Texas, he dreamed of traveling the world. Instead, he captured it on a night of impossible drama in Eugene.
In the last desperate strides of this 100m World Final, Kerley instinctively stuck his chest out and stretched his arms back like an aerodynamic Superman. His compatriots Marvin Bracy and Trayvon Bromell struggled, fought and lost form. In a blurry finish, the 6ft 3in Kerley somehow stayed on the line to snatch gold in 9.86s while Bracy took silver and Bromell bronze in 9.88s.
It was the first American victory on the men’s 100-meter podium since Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell in 1991. But long before the announcer had confirmed the result, the crowd had started chanting, “USA! UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!’ Kerley stormed down the backstretch, madly celebrating one of the great rags to riches stories.
The 27-year-old’s bare-bones story would surely be rejected by Hollywood because it would push the boundaries of the impossible. By the time he was two, his father was in prison and his mother was absent for taking “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 town 30 minutes outside of Austin, under the smallest roofs. It was a tough upbringing, but Kerley was always encouraged to dream and rise.
“Me and my siblings were 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 were enjoying ourselves and we are doing great things.”
“What motivates me is being from where I’m from and not being in the same predicament,” added Kerley, who has the words “aunt” and “meme” — his pet name for her — tattooed on his bicep Has. “Keep achieving great things. You don’t want to be in the same position as when you were young.”
He said touchingly that he was now also talking to his parents. “Every day,” he said. “What happened before doesn’t happen now.”
There were plenty of sliding door moments along the way. Kerley wanted to play American football and only switched to football after breaking his collarbone in the last game of his high school career. And by 2019 he was a 400m sprinter, good enough to win a bronze medal at the World Championships, before switching to the 100m and 200m when his ankles were a little sore at the US 2021 Olympic trials .
A month later he won a 100m silver medal in Tokyo – but when he finished just 0.04 behind Marcell Jacobs, it left him with a searing sense of frustration. For the past 11 months, Kerley couldn’t stop himself from screaming “push” whenever he was watching video of the finals. With Eugene, however, this push was perfectly timed.
“I saw Bracy in front of me,” he recalled. “He disappeared early. I dived in at the right time and got the job done. To pull off a clean win like the greats of 1991 and the greats of 2022 did today is amazing.”
It helped, of course, that Jacobs missed the final as he sustained a leg injury in the heats. While Tokyo bronze medalist Andre De Grasse was a shadow of his former self after injuries and Covid. But Kerley seized the day as he had so many times in his life.
But everyone on the medal podium had a story that deserved to be expanded. Bracy, for example, ran at the 2016 Olympics before risking his arm in the NFL — only to later break it in his first game in a developmental league in 2019.
“It was then that I made the decision to get back on track,” said Bracy, who had stints with the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks. But still the challenges increased. His silver medal came after a ruptured appendix and intestinal blockage that left him with eight staples from his belly button to his pelvic area.
And bromine? Well, he spent nearly $300,000 between 2016 and 2019 to repair a severely damaged Achilles tendon that led to his being disqualified from the Rio Olympics. In 2018, things got so bad that he even wrote his agent a draft letter announcing his retirement. “Sometimes it’s hard to wake up,” he said Saturday night. “In practice, my knuckles crack, my hips crack. I sound like an old man. But nights like this are worth it.”
In another era, these stories would be taken into the mainstream of US sports and life: amplified and celebrated. No longer. Even in Eugene, which bills itself as Tracktown USA, the 15,000-seat Hayward Field Stadium was perhaps only 80% full.
There may still be time to change things up, especially if Kerley wins more medals in the 200m and 4x100m relay. It certainly helps that he’s quite the Renaissance man, with tattoos all over his body and a penchant for growing veggies. “My crops are actually doing well,” he said. “Before I left, I cut off some pumpkin. I ate spinach from the garden and it was amazing.”
With that he slapped his left bicep and smiled. But the new track and field Popeye isn’t just thinking about adding more muscle on the track. He also wants to inspire the next generation. “Every day a few youngsters look up to me,” he said. “If I can do it, they can do it.”
What a story. What an achievement. And what kind of person too.