Thursday, October 24, 2019

Faster than Lightning - Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt left a legacy as mind-boggling as his running was - nine Olympic golds in 100 m, 200 m and 4x100m in Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro. All of them in his signature style - no close finishes nothing. He'd actually celebrate before the race was over. Ridiculous! I wanted to know how anyone could become so good, so I bought this book.

Bolt's book begins with an accident he had while driving his BMW (rather speedily) sometime after the Beijing Olympics with two young ladies. It was a serious accident and no one died but it was an incident that changed his life for good - he realised he had a mission to fulfill, to take his god-given ability to fulfill potential. I notice that biographers do this - pick one defining incident and then go back to the story.

Bolt's childhood in Jamaica were spent with his parents and two siblings - from his father's earlier relationships - a sister and a brother. Tall for his age, he could never stay quiet and when he ran, he was quick. Bolt loved cricket and was a good fast bowler.

His mother worked hard and so did his father. They taught him values - to respect everyone was one big thing. There's interesting story of how he had to say hello to everyone on the road whether they responded or not - if he did not wish anyone his father would whack him. Another story of how he would eat off the trees when he was hungry - healthy stuff. And another when he was assigned the job of fetching water in buckets because there was no running water at home - Bolt decided to carry two buckets at the same time to reduce the number of trips (forty) and built a lot of strength that way. Else, his father would whack him.

Bolt's early talent shone through as he won athletic events for his school and earned a scholarship to go to William Knibb High School which had a sporting culture. He ran ridiculous timings in 200m and 400m. However Bolt hated the 400 m training - the consecutive reps of 500/600/700 and 700 sit ups to strengthen the core. It was his school coach at William Knibb who told him that he had serious potential if he took athletics seriously.

Sore Loser and the Making of a Dream
One thing that Bolt hated was losing, and he was losing to a boy called Keith Spence. Spence's father pushed him hard to train and to win, training that made Keith strong. Bolt took his training seriously with the single purpose of beating Spence and beat him in their next race. Bolt made one of his famous mantras for himself that day - If I beat anyone in a big meet, they'll never beat me again. His next inspiration to dream big came when he watched a video of Michael Johnson winning gold at Atlanta and Don Quarrie running the 200m in the Olympics. A dream arose - of winning an Olympic gold. While he trained hard Bolt was also tactical. Both he and NJ, his school friend and now his manager, would strategise on how to prepare for each race - he ran smart and was aware. He also was flexible about changing his game.

Fear of Failure
When the World Junior Championship was coming closer Bolt found himself slacking off training. He did not want to compete, did not want to lose. That was when his mother told him to give his best -she'd be proud of him anyway. That assurance took a load off Bolt and he began training seriously, without stress, a 15 year old running the Under 20s. So big was the occasion and so nervous was he that he tried to wear the wrong shoes on the wrong foot. He couldn't even stand he says and was unable to move. But once he got going in the race (he took his time at the start), no one could catch Bolt. He realised how mental strength played a big part in the process and made a mental note that there will never be a negative thought in his mind ever again. Even a distraction for the hundredth of a second could cost him.

The High Performance Centre, Kingston
Bolt's parents hired Mr Peart to teach academics and also manage him at Kingston where Bolt joined the High Performance Centre, an initiative of the IAAF and the JAAA. He was assigned to Coach Coleman there. Bolt was not too pleased with Coach Coleman's tactics which he felt were inflexible. He suffered a lot of pain in his spine and when he brought that to the Coach's notice it was felt that he was slacking off. When the pain continued he consulted a famous German doctor he told him that he had a condition called scoliosis - a condition of the spine - and he could not correct that with physiotherapy. It was bad news. More bad news followed when he came in 4th at Athens and hit a low spot with criticism in the media about his junk food binges and partying.

Change the Coach
Bolt changed coaches and got himself Glen Mills and they hit it off immediately. Mills gave him a three-year plan to prepare for Beijing Olympics. They needed to do a lot of strengthening to overcome the scoliosis issue and strengthen his back and abs. Gym was vital, sit ups, core, stretching. Bolt followed everything his coach said - he fully trusted Mills who was like a father figure to him. Mills shortened his strides while running and improved his performance some.

Though Coach was happy with Bolt showing signs of having the heart of a champ, Bolt, his doubts if he was good enough. He'd come in fourth in the World Championship. When he returned home to Jamaica another significant thing happened - the same crowd that made him a hero booed him. Bolt decided that he would do it first for himself and no one else. He would not think of the public, just do. Coach also asked him to aim for something so he had a goal - Bolt thought he would buy a washing machine for his mother and a good car for himself. He had seen Asafa Powell and his fancy cars.

New Agent
They signed on a  new agent Ricky Simms and Simms told Bolt how his earnings were related to winning big races. Bolt pictured himself with a fancy car, clothes, about what he wanted the most to motivate himself? And then he trained - beyond what the Coach called the "moment of no return "- a point when the body told you to quit - at tipping point. If you stopped then, all the pain and the effort was pointless, and the muscles would not increase their current strength. If you worked through that moment of no return, did a couple more reps, ran through the pain, then you added strength.

When Bolt loses to Tyson Gay, Coach tells him bluntly that it's the result of his slacking off in the gym. Bolt feels he had done enough but the penny drops. He decides that he will not be beaten by Tyson again. He realised that the smallest slacking off showed up on the big stage and he focused seriously on his training.

Let's Try 100m Also
Bolt running the 100  m came as a freak decision. He was only a 200 m runner till then. Coach Mills decided that if Bolt needed to improve the form in 200 m it might help if he ran another race to complement the 200m. This decision was made a year before the Beijing Olympics. Coach decided on the 400 m because it looked like a natural for Bolt who was tall and good over longer distances. The 100 m was too technical where a poor start or a loss in concentration could cost you big time. Someone like Bolt who was 6'5'' was at a disadvantage as he untangled himself off the blocks compared to someone like Tyson who was 5'10'' and was at the ideal height to get off the blocks fast.

Bolt hated the 400m and he asked his Coach for one chance to run the 100 m. If he gets a time of 10.30 secs he should be allowed to compete in 100m. Coach agreed - but put a smart condition - that Bolt break the 200m at 19.86 secs. Bolt promptly broke the 36 year old record held by Don Quarry with a 19.75 sec run. And then he ran the 100m at 10.03 sec!

A New Possibility - 100 m Champ
Bolt trained hard through 2008 - followed everything that the Coach told him without cutting corners. No junk food, no parties, lots of rest. They figured that he had his advantages in 100 m too - he ran the 100m in 41 strides whereas others took 43, 44 and 45 strides. The bad start was offset by the monstrous finish Bolt had.

Bolt's mantra for the 100 m 
Keep body forward, head down, push hard, get tall as I run, head comes up, knees are high and shoulders go down.

In the next race, Jamaican Invitational Bolt ran the 100m in 9.76 secs. No one believed it - especially in the USA. The 21 year old couldn't be bothered less despite one bad timing in the next race and at the New York Grand Prix where he ran against Tyson Gay, he ran 9.72 secs, a new world record. To keep him grounded So focused on his process and such high standards did he set for himself that there were races when Bolt actually let the other guys take it because he felt he had a bad start and didn't deserve to win.

Olympic Golds - Beijing Olympics 2008
After three years of intense training with Coach Mills, Bolt arrived at Beijing for the Olympics. Before he landed, he left a message to himself on his phone - "I will win three gold medals and come home a hero".

Before the 100m final, Coach Mills merely told him 'You're ready', words that gave him great assurance. Bolt told himself not to panic, got off to a bad start as usual, relaxed and then bolted. 10m before the tape he threw up his hands in celebration and pounded his chest with no one else in sight. He won the gold and broke the world record with a timing of 9.69secs to be the fastest man on earth. Someone told him later that he had run the whole race with his laces undone. Bolt remembers that he only experienced joy, a rush, sense of freedom, fun, excitement, intense energy all rolled into one. It was heavenly he said.

Before the 200m final Coach said again 'Don't worry. you're good.' 200m was his race and with 50m to go Bolt was way ahead of the pack. Another new world record wit 19.30 secs. In the 4x100m final, Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter and Michael Frater and Bolt set a new world record again with 37.40 secs.

No Drugs
Bolt won with no drugs. He says how the officials would follow them everywhere, even into the bathroom and looked at his crotch while he gave them their samples. He talks of how he became a big celebrity after Beijing. When he went back home the Prime Minister was there to receive him. An evening out with Heidi Klum and Sandra Bullock in the USA where nothing "happened" though he wished. In Jamaica he says, they view sex differently and are not too uptight about it.

The Hard Work Starts Here
But Coach was there to push him again - he told him that the hard work starts here. Bolt has to run fast and even faster. No more fooling around. Once he told him to avoid sex, no fast food. Bolt was a superstar now with his personality. Then came that 2008 car crash and Bolt saw his survival as God's message to him. He realised that someone was looking out for him. He appreciated the chances he got and wanted to make the most of out it. He started mentoring and coaching younger kids. More work and more world records - he ran 100m in 9.58 secs and 200 m in 19.19 secs at the World Championships.

Doubt-Ridden and Finding the Authentic Bolt - Relax and Have Fun
In 2010 Bolt wanted to rest but the Coach pushed him. He got back to his partying mode and then lost a race to Yohann Blake.  There were injuries and he started doubting himself. In the World Championships in Korea against a weak field he got disqualified because of a bad start - thanks to stressing himself about it. Before the 200 m he decided - 'To hell with it. I'll have fun. Being relaxed made me a champ. Stop worrying and be yourself.' He won the 200m and the 4x100 m medal with a new world record at 37.04 secs.

London Olympics - 2012
Bolt's belief came from the arena, the buzz of the crowd fed him. Three more golds in London Olympics and he knew he would be a legend. A defining moment that kindled the spark in hiSs preparation fro London was when he was beaten by Yohann Blake in the Olympic trials in Jamaica - Bolt sees Blake silencing the critics with a finger on his lips - something Bolt finds disrespectful. Bolt decided then that he would never let that happen again. In London for the Olympics again against Blake and Justin Gatlin, Asafa and Tyson, Bolt ran home in the 100m final with a 9.63 secs timing  In fact, he slowed down at the end, else he would have done 9.52 or 9.49 even. In the 200m final, he was done with 70 m to go - that's how far ahead he was. Again the 4x100 m he and Nesta Carter, Michael Frater and Blake won the gold.

Another 3 Olympic golds and he was officially a legend. The one thing Bolt wanted after the Olympics was baton of the 4x100 m that an official did not want to give him until a voice over the loudspeaker instructed him to give it.

The book ends there with Bolt wondering bout life after running. Cricket, football - he even spoke to some about it, played some cricket in Australia too. Rio Olympics was still 4 years away. Could he? As the story continues Bolt goes to Rio and picks up three more medals after this book had long ended. Truly a legend. (watch all his Olympic golds in this video)

The work ethic, the going through the pain barrier, his hating losing to others and how he decided to not let that happen again, the many moments of no return, the sheer joy of running, winning and celebrating, the smartness that accompanied his talent and hard work, the desire to fulfill his potential, the purpose he got after his accident and belief that someone was watching over him, all of those made Bolt the champion he was. It's that heart of a champion, of the one who loves the big stage, the one who comes into his own and loves winning, that makes him different unlike those who train hard but lose their heart on the big stage. For Bolt it was hard work, a point to prove and to run while having fun and being relaxed (he'd joke on the track, even in the race in the way he celebrated!).

The book ticked all the boxes that the book 'Mindset' talks about - a good coach who set high standards and showed process to achieve it, supportive parents who facilitated growth, a demanding work ethic and a learning mindset. I got what I was looking for in the book. Check out his races in all three Olympics and you get a sense of why Bolt was called Lightning.

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