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Bolt’s surreal aura

Monday, August 31, 2015
Jamaica's Usain Bolt competes in the men’s 4x100m relay final at the World Athletics Championships at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, Saturday. AP Photo

Going where gold has been found in the past has been Usain Bolt’s best bet.

Bolt’s breathtaking Beijing breakout performance in 2008 still reverberates. The Trelawny speedster has swept up nuggets in a modern-day gold rush that takes sprinting beyond the pale. The world has caught on, yet no sprinter has caught up.

 Bolt won gold medals in the 200 at every global championships. His victory Thursday bestowed him a fourth world title in the 200 to go with his two Olympic gold medals. In total, he has won 10 world championship gold medals.

For sure, the multiple gold medallist is undoubtedly the best news received by the Caribbean in years. 

In 2008, Pablo McNeil, one of the coaches responsible for Bolt’s fame—and fortune, was sitting under an ackee tree in his yard when the phone rang. The track coach could have ignored my call, what with a gaggle of news agencies hounding him since Bolt ran like hell in Beijing. 

Yet McNeil uncradled the receiver, and so the back story of his charge’s success began to spill out. It was as if Bolt had uncoiled his lingay frame, bursting free from shoe-tight starting blocks.

Well, that’s how the firing of the starter’s pistol echoed all the way to William Knibb Memorial High School in Martha Brae, Trelawny, where, at 15 years old, Bolt had finally figured how to angle himself into the blocks, turn the tricky curve by exploiting the arms like pistons so he could slingshot his sinewy stilts down the straightaway—the voice of limbs bellowing a shout-out, a primal scream, really, toward the 200-metre finish line.

Having trained Olympians Donald Quarrie, Raymond Stewart and others in high school, Jamaica’s coach Glen Mills has polished another breakout athlete. Mills may be in the spotlight again, but his colleague McNeil  will always stand in the shadows as the principal investor, the one who formulated strategy for Bolt’s progression. And that’s how the first Beijing echo reached McNeil in 2008 —satisfied, yet bristling as ever.

“I’m disturbed, upset at how Bolt was removed from high school while I was assisting with his development,” said McNeil, who likened the drama of Bolt’s relocation to a kidnap without ransom.

“Whoever was behind it didn’t advise me and never called, but I heard they put him up in a house in Kingston.”

Bolt had lived with parents Wellesley, an itinerant businessman, and Jennifer, a rooted Seventh-Day Adventist; an elder sister and younger brother.

McNeil harked back to an earlier bizarre turn of events when Wellesley tried to pull Bolt out of Knibb, but Cherry Campbell, the president of the PTA, stepped in and successfully argued in favour of the coach as Bolt’s mentor. 

Campbell sold coconut drops to help defray Bolt’s running expenses. Likewise, the French family, supermarket owners, provided nutrition, while Clifford Waddell chipped in with clothing and shoes and Brenda Jackson, who managed a games room, took the role of a surrogate mother. Bolt called her “mommie.” It was all a community effort—from Falmouth to Trelawny—without any of the clan, except Bolt’s whiz coach, being aware of the direction the yellow brick road would take.

McNeil, who passed away in 2011 at 72, matriculated at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and kept company with the sport’s great names of his day. After all, he was in the same pool of sprinters like Tommie Smith, renowned for his black-gloved, fist-in-the-sky protest against racism while standing on winners’ row (200 metres) at the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968. 

Four years earlier, McNeil had run his first Olympics in Tokyo. One year later, in 1965, he matched compatriot Herb McKinley’s national record in the 200 in San Diego, and again in Barbados.

McNeil caught up with Bolt, a budding athlete, after he graduated from Waldencia Primary School. Bolt was 12 years old entering William Knibb in 1999, and McNeil, a social science teacher and physical education instructor, sports under his control, already had a sumptuous salutation at the ready.

“It was his agility and energy in physical education that excited me,” McNeil said.

“He showed us more turn of foot (old Jamaican saying) than anyone else.”

An unpaid coach (“like 95 per cent in the profession in Jamaica”), McNeil was assisted by three physical education teachers and a father-figure, Dwight Bennett. Soon, Bolt, inching taller with each birthday, was making a racket on the track, his training pushing two to three hours each weekday. The payoff was grand. He was clocking 10.3 seconds in 100-metre straight-aways, one after the other.

Fast times at Walter Knibb High certainly alerted the coach but he didn’t let on to Bolt that his pupil was a prodigy. Then there was a workout, the 200-metre step-down that determined whether Bolt could handle, say, the 400. The tricky part of the six-set series was that the last one was expected to be run the fastest even as it was especially exhausting. Still, Bolt was upright at the end.

“I allowed him to develop gradually,” said McNeil, remembering that conditioning was his main concern.

There was apprehension in the classroom, too. Bolt was less than stellar. It was tutor Norman Peart who put a hand. 

By 2001, McNeil’s attitude to track was more spatial than temporal. Time spent there became an odyssey of discovery. He stepped up training on the school’s uneven track—a grassy pathway that flooded during a downpour. And he’d take his athletes to Burwood Beach so they could pump their arms underwater, working against force. He knew he was struggling against the tide, though, when he couldn’t enforce a strict diet in an area of grim poverty. So, Bolt and teammates made do with yams, cocoa, bananas, breadfruit and dumplings.

When McNeil enlisted his young charge in foreign meets, red flags went up at the Jamaican track and field body. But the uproar didn’t deter him from piling up routines on Bolt’s loaded regimen. One of the workouts was aptly called the Killer Diller, coach Bud Winter’s template at San Jose State University in California. 

McNeil also favoured the approach of Los Angeles-based countryman Leo Davis, whom he holds in esteem.

“Davis has credentials as one of the leading coaches in the world, though not in his own country,” said McNeil of his friend who trained Olympians. “They won 28 gold medals at world-class meets over the years. I liked his style.”

The Killer workout consisted of six laps of nonstop interval sprinting at 50 metres and 60 metres. Each would lead Bolt through a jog of 180 metres, then catapult him down the final leg under a spiteful sun like a ship in space.

“Some people were calling me ‘wicked,’ but after we practised the Killer Diller he’d ask me, ‘what else?’”

That Bolt embraced a grind that could induce the heaves from a normal athlete was not beyond the rarefied atmosphere of his prodigious talent. So, McNeil added another specialty; it required Bolt to sprint 450 metres, rest for a few minutes before tackling the 550, and, after unwinding for ten minutes, run down the 600 like a cheetah on speed.

Nothing came easy, though his demeanour disproved it. 

For example, there were periods when Bolt habitually trained on three or four sets of 30-metre sprints, as well as 50s and 70s. Afterward, skipping rope on the ball of the foot and maintaining a high knee lift became a chore that drained the heart. The activity emphasised rotation of the hips, McNeil said, because they’re the power plant. From the knees down is just support for the body, McNeil reminded Bolt.

But even then, with the tank on empty, Bolt was his usual clowning self.

“He’s just a happy-go-lucky youngster,” his former coach said.

“He doesn’t understand how fast he is. He was never rude, but I used to get upset that he didn’t value the level of speed he had to deal with. Some afternoons, I’d be looking for him at workout and his friends would tell me he’s in town.”

Bolt was chasing skirts on the sly.

“But once I brought him back, he gave me 101 per cent,” McNeil said.

“I take it that he was spoken to in no uncertain terms and so he made up his mind to break the 200-metre record at the Olympics. What Coach Mills has been doing is a continuation of where I left, in addition to his own method of coaching. He added spice.”

Reached by phone in Los Angeles, Davis, too, wrapped his emotions in Bolt’s surreal aura.

“It is wonderful, exciting and a pleasure to see the cleanest win—and the cleanest lean—in years. Of course, his previous mentor is among the greatest coaches of all time. That, too, helped.”

Flashing back seven years, McNeil said he mentored Bolt about “proper foot placement and body angle” so he could settle his six-foot-five frame in the blocks.

“What mystifies the world of sprinting,” McNeil said, “is how could this tall guy master the curve? Rolling the hips was the key and pumping the arms around the curve meant the left arm had to stroke ­faster than the right because the track curves leftward, and when you approach the straight both arms must be back in rhythm together. The more rapid the action, the faster hip rotation will follow.

“He had terrible arm action: his shoulders were raggedy and his head was thrusting backward. So everything I taught him before coach Mills got him in 2005 was about technique.”



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