The fastest college athlete in the country was slow to the party.
Christian Coleman, the headliner at the NCAA Track & Field Championships, throttled down to slow motion as he soaked in his victory lap at storied Hayward Field. The Tennessee junior waved to a sea of hearty souls who braved the drizzle and gusts to appreciate what very well could be America’s next sprinting sensation.
It was a sight to behold, bringing into focus the blur that charged down the back stretch in the 100 and 200 meters – looking like a comet in his orange outfit.
“I can’t believe what’s happened, but then, I’m not surprised,” the soft-spoken 21-year old Atlanta native said in his southern drawl, allowing a slight smile that broadened. “I know sky’s the limit, the potential I have. I just try to do the best I can.”
Coleman’s best on Wednesday night in the 100 prelims sent a buzz throughout the track and field stratosphere. He won in 9.82 seconds, pulling up slightly at the finish as sprinters tend to do in qualifying heats. That time makes Coleman the fastest collegian ever. He is suddenly the world leader in the sport’s most glamorous race and the fourth fastest American all time. That’s heady stuff for a shy sort who visualizes races by the hour in an attempt to doze off the night before big races.
Coleman swept the 100 and 200 on Friday night in Eugene, taking the 100 in 10.04 and the 200 in 20.25, each into a strong head wind and on a soggy track (he ran a 19.85 in the NCAA prelims). He is just the second runner in NCAA history to sweep all four sprint national championships in the same academic year, the other being one-time Tennessee star and Olympic Gold medalist Justin Gatlin, a fan of Coleman and a new mentor of sorts.
Coleman said he was still trying to comprehend the magnitude of a week that had been “so surreal.”
Later this month, Coleman will be in Sacramento, where the conditions are expect to be dry, still, hot – ideal – for the USA Track & Field Championships. Coleman will provide a jolt of anticipation for fans – track or otherwise. Speed stimulates, be it the 40-yard dash in the NFL combine, a football player breaking free, NASCAR, or a horse race.
Coleman knows. He’s living it. Video of him running the 40 in 4.12 seconds went viral; it would be an NFL combine record. Tennessee football coach Butch Jones tweeted to Coleman, “What’s your cleat size?”
Coleman was an all-state receiver in high school but has focused solely on track since, understanding that slightly built 155 pounders don’t last long in a sport big on collisions.
Decked in Volunteers garb up to his neck to stay warm, he explained his fascination and appreciation for speed.
“It takes a great athlete to do something this special,” he said. “It looks easy, but it’s not easy. It requires a lot of work. I’m proud of myself, and for all of these guys. I’m a student of the sport. I grew up watching it, and to be doing what I’m doing, to have my name with the great names, it’s humbling.”
Coleman is diminutive at 5-foot-9, but that is the beauty of the sprints. One doesn’t have be 6-5 like Usain Bolt, though that length helped Bolt set world records in the 100 (9.58 in 2009) and the 200 (19.19 in 2009).
Coleman tasted the Olympics last summer in Rio de Janeiro as an alternate on the 4x100 relay. He spent time with Gatlin, whom he will now race against in Sacramento.
“He’s become a friend of mine, a mentor,” Coleman said. “He was once in the same position as me. He’s talked to me about how to handle myself, what to do with my career.”
Coleman said he will decide after the USATF Championships if he will return to Tennessee for his final season or turn pro. U.S. men’s track coach Vin Lananna said Coleman has the right approach for this sport.
“Not only is he a phenomenal athlete, but he’s a phenomenal young man,” Lananna said. “In Rio, he did a great job of engaging, being involved, being part of the team. I’m quite impressed with him.”
Said Gatlin to Tennessee media after Coleman ran his 9.82, “Watching him gave me goose bumps. You’re able to watch a star being born. I’m just going to get my popcorn ready, sit back and enjoy the show.”
Coleman said the only time he isn’t going fast is when he wants to, “just chill with my friends, play video games.” As a boy, Coleman preferred the outdoors to gaming. He was a jet on the playgrounds and parks in Atlanta, where his mother, Daphne, and father, Seth, work in education, and he soaked in races on TV.
“I remember watching Gatlin in the 2004 Olympics, winning gold, when I was 8, and making it on the Olympic stage became a goal,” Coleman said. “My parents always pushed me. They were good athletes. Not world class,” he said with a laugh, “but good. I can take them! I’ve always been fast, even as a kid with cousins and my sister, playing dodgeball, kickball, four-square.”
Volunteers coach Beth Alford-Sullivan said of Coleman, “I think he can run even faster.”
But projecting how fast can be an exercise in futility. That’s the opinion of Fred Baer, in his 60th year in this sport as a sprinter, spectator, event coordinator and/or journalist. He has witnessed world records, including the famed Night of Speed in Sacramento in 1968 when the world mark in the 100 was broken by three men and tied by seven others.
“I say let history speak for itself,” Baer said with a laugh. “Can’t promise fans anything in Sacramento when Coleman comes, but there are two major things in running that get people excited: the 4-minute mile and the sub-10 100. Coleman is a rising star, and I don’t know if I want to go any farther than that right now. I’ve seen too many projections not go well.
“He’s not better than Usain Bolt. Can he beat him next year? Maybe. But not now. Next year? Yes. OK, there I go projecting.”
USA Track & Field Championships
Where: Sacramento State
What: World Championship qualifying meet
When: June 22-25