Christian Coleman may have been the one to stop the great Usain Bolt’s 45-race winning streak in the 100 meters in track’s 2017 world championships. He may have gone on this year to break a 20-year-old record for the indoor 60-meter sprint. He may have for the second consecutive year recorded the world’s best time in the 100.
But do you think any of that carried weight as Coleman put on his finishing kick for a degree at Tennessee and discovered he hadn’t yet met his physical-education requirement?
You think he could just show his medals and say, “Yeah, I think I’ve got that covered.”
Not one bit.
So, here this summer was the world-class athlete, the potential heir to Bolt’s sprint kingdom, needing two Phys Ed classes – along with other actual classroom work – to complete his sports-management degree. This combining school with a global track career was difficult enough without adding the burden of irony.
In addition to tennis, Coleman, 22, signed up for an even more paradoxical credit hour.
Jogging. Yes, the ultimate fast-twitch runner was taking a class in jogging. That’s like a fighter pilot needing to get rated on a crop duster. That’s the Formula One driver taking a second job with Uber Eats.
“People think track athletes like to run long distances,” Coleman said, laughing. “I’m a sprinter. I like to get in the blocks, go 100, 200 meters and that’s it. Running long distance and cross country is an entirely different beast. I have a ton of respect for those guys.”
Coleman jogged when he had to. One week in Belgium, he won the IAAF Diamond League 100M final in a personal-best 9.79. The following week he was back in the classroom in Knoxville studying sports communication, women in sports and sports marketing. Whatever it took for the sprinter to finish the marathon of a college degree.
On Friday morning, the World’s Fastest Graduate picked up his sheepskin during ceremonies inside Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena. And to think just the week before Coleman was in Monaco, tooling about in a rented Ferrari, as one of five finalists for international track and field’s male athlete of the year. He didn’t win. But, hey, he was in Monaco. In a Ferrari.
Yeah, it has been an eventful 2018 for Coleman, once a small kid out of a small private school in Fayetteville who went off to college at Tennessee and got really fast before turning pro after his junior year in 2017.
Having the discipline to stay the course for a degree when it would have been so easy and so understandable to put down the studies was but one point of light in a 2018 that contained a constellation of highlights and challenges. Not that getting the degree was really optional.
“I told him that was non-negotiable. He had to do that, he had to go back and get his degree,” said his mother, Daphne Coleman, Ph.D. She’s an instructional coach at Atlanta’s Hutchinson Elementary. Coleman’s father, Seth, is the media-relations manager for the Atlanta Public School system. Sense any education-based theme here?
OK, the GPA didn’t exactly match his 40 time – Coleman once ran a 4.12, a tenth of a second faster than the record run at the NFL combine. But he’s got an excuse. He’s been a little busy this year.
Coming back from a splashy pro debut in the 2017 worlds in London – where he beat Bolt in the semis and finished with a silver in the 100 – Coleman set off alarms right away during the indoor season. By February, he toppled Maurice Green’s two-decade-old record in the 60 (6.39) during the U.S. Indoor Championships, running 6.34. He beat Greene’s mark again, running 6.37 to win the Indoor Worlds in March in England. That ain’t jogging.
The indoor sprint record may not have the cachet of the 100- or 200-meter mark, but as Coleman said, “Anyone who’s an actual fan of track and field knows who Maurice Greene is. He’s a legend. To have my name on top of his and for him to be a friend of mine – we have the same agent, and I remember talking to him in 2016 when he told me I would be capable of beating that record – that’s something that meant a lot.”
As he was transitioning to the outdoor season, Coleman began getting distress messages from a hamstring. He tried to run through them. The one-time all-state defensive back at Our Lady of Mercy High School tends toward a certain rub-some-mud-on-it-and-keep-going attitude.
Sometimes that serves him well.
“For me, I try to carry my mentality and mindset I had playing football onto the track,” he said.
“If you’re about to play a football game, you can shake hands before, but as soon as you strap on a helmet, it’s ‘go time.’ There are no friends out there. I carry that same type of mentality to track and field and try to take everyone’s heads off, just dominate the best way I can. I think that mentality has gotten me pretty far.”
But after a few also-ran finishes, that mindset was also leading him down a frustrating path. You don’t have time in the 100 to play hurt. And the yobs on social media who start prattling about him being a flash in the pan certainly don’t help the healing. Eventually he and his coach Tim Hall decided to shut down the production for a month or so to get right.
When he arrived in Belgium in late August for the Diamond League Finals, he was feeling right. The more Coleman kept saying how fit he was, the more his father was sure that something good was about to happen.
As Christian won the 100 in a season’s best 9.79, both his parents watched from their separate workplaces. On her end, Daphne cried a little at the finish.
“Very unprofessional,” mocked her husband.
“I know how much he wanted that,” Daphne said. “I know Christian has always been kind of the underdog. When he played football he was small and people doubted him. I think he’s always had this chip on his shoulder. This was another moment where he thought, I have to prove myself more capable than the next person.
“For him it was validation and I was just so happy.”
One week later, back in Tennessee, where as a collegian he swept the NCAA 100- and 200-meter titles in 2017 before turning pro, he went quietly back to class. No standing ovations before the lecture or anything. Combine earning the degree with a couple personal bests on the track along with the satisfaction of conquering the mid-year injury and you have what Coleman considers his best season yet.
So, what comes next? There’s always another race to be won.
Coleman’s rise in ranks of the wicked fast has been a little stunning. Like Bill Schmitz, the athletic director back at Our Lady of Mercy said, “He was fast in high school and he did some really good things in high school, but what he’s done since he left here ... my gosh, what he’s done is insane.”
Here Coleman is now being fitted as the fellow to fill the void left by Bolt’s retirement. The pressures of expectation are great and will only grow with the coming of another world championship next year and the 2020 Summer Games in Japan.
He’s inviting them.
“Everybody asks me, do you get tired of the Bolt comparisons; of being asked who’s going to be the next guy?” Coleman said. “I tell them I just feel honored and blessed to be in that conversation.
“As kid growing up, playing football, you see a guy like Usain Bolt winning these world championships and these Olympic Games and you don’t even realize you can be on that level. To have my name in that conversation, put in that realm of athlete, is an honor. I never get tired of the comparison. I never get tired of people asking who is going to be the next guy.
“I just want to try to set my own path, make my own legacy.”
He’ll be packing and moving from Knoxville to Lexington, Ky., to follow his coach (Hall left Tennessee to take a coaching job at Kentucky). The ethic he has applied to getting this far – “Nobody’s going to out-work him,” said his father – is portable.
“If he can stay healthy, the next couple years can be pretty scary,” Seth said.
But first there was one detail remaining to put a bow on a memorable 2018. Tennessee owed him a degree.
“Getting a degree was bigger than me,” Coleman figured.
Explaining, Coleman stepped outside himself and imagined what the next generation might say when looking at his example: “This guy grew up right off Campbellton Road. Here’s someone who came from the same area as me and looks like me and was able to do these things on the world stage in track and field. And he also valued education, he also got his degree.”
Everything else is fast in Coleman’s world. But one doesn’t sprint – or even jog – through one’s commencement. His trip across the arena stage while acknowledged as a graduate of Tennessee’s College of Education, Health and Human Services was clocked at 15.75 seconds (unofficial).
He had, for the first time, built a strategy around taking his sweet time.
“I’m going to take it nice and slow and soak it in,” Coleman said beforehand. “Remember the moment because I highly doubt I’ll be back in class. It will be my last degree. Walk real slow,” he said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.