Fred Kerley did not know that he was the fastest man in the world when he crossed the finish line at Hayward Field on Saturday night. Like so much else in his life, he needed to wait and wonder.
A slew of runners, three of them from the United States, had finished the men’s 100-meter dash at the track and field world championships within a fraction of one another, a blaze of speed as dusk descended on the stadium. Kerley, clad in a red and blue speed suit, crouched and studied a video board. It was only when the No. 1 appeared next to his name, along with his time of 9.86 seconds, that he knew he had won gold.
“I got the job done,” said Kerley, a man who is efficient with both his strides and his words.
Kerley, a former 400-meter specialist for whom none of this — acclaim, gold medals, world championships — was foreshadowed when he was growing up, had his arms raised when the rest of the results were posted, revealing a medal sweep for the Americans, with Marvin Bracy-Williams in second and Trayvon Bromell in third, both finishing in 9.88 seconds. Bracy-Williams tackled Bromell, his training partner, in an episode of unscripted joy.
“I don’t know what went through Marvin’s head,” Bromell said. “I know it’s the emotion.”
Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Italy, the reigning Olympic champion, withdrew from the competition before his semifinal heat on Saturday. Jacobs was said to have been dealing with a muscle injury. “I am forced to stop,” Jacobs said on Twitter.
Kerley managed to turn Jacobs’s absence into little more than a footnote.
Typically an impassive athlete, Kerley let his emotions surface after his win. He was thinking of his aunt, Virginia Kerley, who was watching back home in Texas and probably “blowing up his phone,” he said. She had raised him from the age of 2, along with several of his siblings. At the time, Fred’s father was in prison and his mother had taken “wrong turns in life,” according to a first-person story he wrote for Spikes magazine in 2019. At one point, Virginia Kerley had 13 children under her roof.
“If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you all now,” Kerley said on Saturday. “She actually sacrificed her life for me and my brothers and my sisters and my cousins.”
He added, “I’m thankful for her to put me in a position to win in life.”
Still, Kerley was not a top-flight recruit coming out of Taylor High School outside of Austin. He landed at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, where he labored with a hamstring injury as a freshman and placed a modest 11th in the 400 meters at the junior college national championships as a sophomore. But he always worked hard and without complaint, said Chris Beene, his former coach at South Plains.
“He was always a great teammate,” said Beene, now the head girls’ track and field coach at Anna High School outside of Dallas. “I mean, he would be willing to die on the track in the 4×400 for our team.”
With more training, Kerley’s talent emerged. At Texas A&M, he was the N.C.A.A. champion in the 400 meters in 2017. Two years later, he was the bronze medalist in the event at the world championships.
His future appeared to be in the 400, but he began to eye the shorter sprints during the pandemic. In a way, Kerley said, he wanted to return to his roots as a sprinter and long jumper. Or, as he put it, “I’m just back in my playground.”
The track world was abuzz over his unconventional decision. Shifting from the 400 to the 100 is not quite comparable to hanging up your steeplechase spikes and taking up the hammer throw, but it isn’t a simple transition, either. The 100 requires different skills and a revamped approach to training. There is a reason few athletes have ever been world-class at both disciplines.
But Kerley vindicated his move by winning the silver medal in the 100 meters at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, and has only continued to improve. At the U.S. championships last month, he ran 9.76 seconds in his semifinal heat, which was the third-fastest time ever by an American, and then dismantled a deep field in the final to win the title in 9.77 seconds less than two hours later.
But while many sprinters fill reporters’ notebooks like prize fighters, Kerley tends to keep his thoughts to himself. After winning his first-round heat on Friday, he flew past reporters without taking questions. When a reporter from the track and field website FloTrack asked him about his plan for Saturday, Kerley glanced over his shoulder and, without breaking stride, said: “What did I tell you last time?”
(It was not immediately clear to anyone what Kerley had said the last time. After some detective work, the gumshoes from FloTrack determined that Kerley had said, “You’ll see.”)
Bracy-Williams said Kerley was more playful and talkative around friends and fellow athletes.
“Contrary to popular belief, he’s not as stone-faced as y’all would think,” Bracy-Williams said. “He’s a fun guy. But when he comes out here, he’s all business.”
Kerley’s competitive streak extends beyond the track. On Thursday, he played cornhole with Bracy-Williams and treated it like an Olympic final. Kerley will apparently compete at anything.
“Even if it’s drinking water,” Bracy-Williams said. “So you got to come with it.”
There is one topic that does seem to pique Kerley’s interest when it comes to speaking publicly, and that topic is a specific one — the people who doubted that he would be any good at the 100 meters. As for how many of those people actually exist, who can say? But Kerley has used them, real or imagined, to fuel him.
As for the future, Kerley said he would race in the 200 meters this week while making himself available for relay duty in both the 4×100-meter and the 4×400-meter races. (Stay tuned. Or, as he likes to say, “You’ll see.”)
But while he knows that being the world champion in the 100 meters will change his life — “The future is bright,” he said — he is not about to limit himself or bow to conventional wisdom.
“In a couple months,” he said, “I’ll probably do the 400 again.”