Our team met up with spokesman Usain Bolt in Jamaica earlier this year to film a commercial for ENERTOR, our performance insoles that can help anyone break their limits.
Writer Stephen Caldwell was part of the team, and sat down with Usain to talk about his life, his road to Rio and how he broke his limits to reach where he is today. This week, we’re giving you new insight into Bolt and what makes him tick with our series sharing what Caldwell learned from his time with the world’s fastest man.
Come back on Friday for the final chapter!
Usain Bolt, 29, is relaxing in a chair on the bus, his 6-foot-5 frame filling the space all around him. He is very tall, which I knew, but I’m a little surprised at how broad his shoulders are in person. He leans forward as he talks, listening carefully to the questions and giving thought to each answer. He’s loose, if a bit reserved, but it’s evident his walls come down the more he gets to know people.
His height, by the way, is one of the reasons Bolt shouldn’t be the fastest human on the planet. The ideal height for a male sprinter is around 6-feet, maybe 6-2. Taller men have a longer stride, but struggle to get out of the blocks quickly and efficiently. In fact, when he was young, his father once told him “they will leave you in the blocks.” Bolt’s response: “I am running, not you, Dad.”
Even as a budding teenager, you see, Bolt seemed to possess an unusual sense of self-confidence and self-awareness that’s served him well through the years.
“It’s all about doing what you want and enjoying what you do and then just work for it,” he tells me. “Some people tell you this is what’s good, this is what you should work toward. I know what I want, so I work toward what I want. It makes me comfortable. And it’s easy to work toward it when it’s your goal.”
Bolt grew up in Sherwood Content, a rural village on the northwestern side of the island. A country boy destine for worldwide fame, he played cricket and soccer as a youth, and aspired to go pro in those sports. He’s still a fan of both of those sports, but it became clear as he neared high school that his future was on the track as a sprinter.
He never saw his height, his rural upbringing, his curved spine, his early career hamstring injuries, the intense competition, or the so-called unbreakable world records as barriers to his success.
“I never set limits for myself,” he says. “I just pushed and worked as hard as possible to get the best out of myself.”
American universities beckoned, but he chose to stay on the island. He shot his first commercial with Puma when he was 15, and he’s stuck with them his entire career. He officially turned pro at 16, signing with Ricky Simms and Pace Sports Management. His manager and executive manager are friends he’s known since high school. He shoots almost all his commercials in Jamaica, insisting that foreign ad agencies also uses local crews, actors, and extras. The Jamaican production company that helped with his first commercial nearly 15 years ago, in fact, is here for today’s commercial.
One of the few changes he made along the way was with his coach. Bolt had a reputation as a practical joker when he was younger, and the hard work of training never came easily. But in 2004, a year after turning pro, he began working with Glen Mills, whom he credits for helping him focus on the hard work without striping his life of the fun and joy.
“He is a guiding light in my career,” Bold said after the 2008 Olympic Games, “and he has shown me the way to improve myself both as a person and as an athlete.”
Bolt still enjoys life. If you’re out late at night in Kingston, you might spot him in a club. He laughs at himself several times during our interview. He jokes playfully with the film crew between takes. If Bolt feels an emotion, there’s a good chance he’ll express it. When the West Indies cricket team won the Twenty20 World Cup in April, Bolt posted a video of himself doing a shirtless version of the “champions” dance to singer/cricket star Dwayne Bravo’s “champion” song. And, of course, he celebrates with his iconic “lightning bolt” pose.
But he’s quick to point out that his world revolves around track and field. He says he doesn’t drink alcohol and he no longer stays out as late as he once did, especially during the racing season when he’s training to face world-class competition.
“To me, it’s the simple things,” he tells me. “The only thing other than track and field that I’m really dedicated to is I try to find ways to help the sport and the younger generation coming up, which I do through my foundation. Everything else is chill.
“I’m always happy. Almost always. Otherwise you get stressed. Most times, I’m happy. You just get things done. You have to focus on what makes you happy. Track and field makes me happy. Training might not make me so happy. But it helps me do what I need to do, so I get it done.”
Bolt, like the island he calls home, has a vibe about him. There’s a distinct lack of intensity until you see him spring into action – when he’s running, of course, but also when he’s reading lines or shooting scenes for the commercial. He seems to have a natural ability to let go of the things that are out of his control while still pushing to do his best at whatever it is he’s doing.
That’s Bolt’s approach to track and to life.
“Being just chill, I think is just an island thing,” he tells me. “Most Jamaicans are laid back. But the hard work and dedication I get from my dad. He instilled that in me when I was growing up. … I’m driven and motivated. I just go out and set goals for myself. I don’t set impossible goals. I set goals I know I can reach and work toward them, and then I set better goals. That’s how I work up the ladder.”
Things will go wrong from time to time, he points out, but those aren’t limits that define him or steal his joy. They are just part of life. He’s overcome injuries and missteps over the years. He has lost only two of his last 20 races against international competition, and one of those was because of a false start. He shook it off and went right back to work.
“It’s something that comes with sports,” he says. “The false start was definitely my fault. You have to accept that you messed up. You can’t do anything about it, and you move one. You have bad days in training. You have injuries. My coach taught me that early on. You learn that it will happen at some point in your career. It’s how you deal with it that matters.”
Here’s an example of how Bolt deals with setbacks: In April 2009, Bolt was in a car accident when the BMW he was driving slid off a rain-slick road and into a Jamaican ditch. The car was totaled, but Bolt and two passengers were uninjured – until Bolt stepped out of the car. That’s when he stepped on thorns that stuck so deeply into his left foot that he had to have surgery to get them out.
But about two weeks later, Bolt was in Manchester, England for a highly publicized street race. Event organizers had spent nearly half a million dollars to set up a customized track in the streets, and Bolt, coming off his Olympic year, was a star attraction in the 150-meter race. There was pressure on him to be there, and he was cleared to run by the doctors and his coach. But things got more complicated when it poured rain that day. Bolt, who hadn’t run competitively since the accident, had to warm up in the hallway of an office building. In other words, these weren’t ideal conditions. Just before the race began, however, the sun popped out and Bolt blazed down the track in 14.35 seconds – a world record for that distance.
I ask him if he now takes special care of his size 13 feet, perhaps the way a gifted pianist takes care of his hands or a singer takes care of her throat.
“I know the importance, but I don’t stress about it like a lot of people do,” he says. “In life, I look at it like this: things will happen. If it’s destine to happen, it will happen. So for me, I do try to take care of my feet and look out, but I’m kind of clumsy. I beat my feet up a lot sometimes.”
Those feet have carried him further than he ever imagined, but he’s clearly not done.