For Trayvon Bromell, July 4 was an independence day. His first race as a rebuilt sprinter, more than four years after he first felt discomfort in his left heel.
It was also much more than that. Bromell, whose training base is Jacksonville, Fla., arrived in Montverde, off Lake Apopka just west of Orlando, for a meet called the Showdown in O-Town.
Exactly four years earlier, Bromell celebrated qualifying for his first Olympics at age 20.
Three years after that, 364 days before the Showdown, Bromell left that Montverde track and had his coach believing he might quit sprinting.
Finally, 10 days before last month’s comeback meet, Bromell learned that the woman who taught him to be a sprinter, from age 4 through high school, had died.
That coach, Garlynn Boyd, was supposed to be in Montverde on July 4 to watch Bromell.
The time came for heat five of the 100m. Bromell leaned into the starting blocks of lane two on a wet track. He felt the weight of the last few years. He sensed his arms shaking.
After at least one false start, Bromell ran. He won the heat in 10.04 seconds.
Bromell’s personal best is 9.84, but that he approached the 10-second barrier, which separates fast sprinters from medal-contending ones, after what he endured the last four years was very promising.
Bromell found his mom, Shri Sanders. She raised him, his two brothers and his sister, by herself in St. Petersburg. She prayed over him after the victory.
He raced again three weeks later. He ran 9.90 seconds, which would have earned bronze at the most recent Olympics and world championships.
Bromell’s speed was back, but in interviews he’s reflected more on a recent personal transformation. Aside from sprinting, Bromell said on a Flotrack podcast that he crawled out of “the destruction of my past,” “the downfall of my career” and “a real dark alleyway” in this Olympic cycle.
In an interview last week, Bromell declined to discuss specifics.
“I’ve got something coming out in the near future that’s going to speak and answer all the questions that people want to know,” he said, noting that it’s mostly related to mental health.
By 2013, the track world began to learn about Bromell, a 5-foot-8 inch high schooler who sprinted in shorts, not tights, and a headband.
He broke his left knee in eighth grade doing backflips, broke his right knee and forearm in ninth grade playing basketball and in 10th grade cracked a hip during a race.
Through all of that, he was coached by Boyd of the Lightning Bolt Track Club. Boyd began teaching Bromell how to be a sprinter before he started elementary school.
“We come from a bad area where poverty is big, and we didn’t really have a lot,” Bromell said of his family. “[My mom] worked all the time to make sure I was good, to make sure we had somewhere to live. When I went to practice, coach G was like another mom, to everyone, to every kid in the city who came in connection with us. She loved us. With my injuries in high school, my mom and coach G were the only people who believed I was special, even in times when I didn’t feel I was special.”
She fought diabetes for years — both of her legs were amputated — but Bromell didn’t know for sure her cause of death. A St. Petersburg Times obituary reported she contracted the coronavirus before she died at age 54.
“I don’t even have the words to explain this pain I’m feeling,” was posted on Bromell’s Instagram the day of her death. “God knows that with everything in me, the world will know the lives you help change!”
In 12th grade, he became the first U.S. high schooler to break 10 seconds over 100m (albeit with too much wind for record purposes). Matthew Boling later broke Bromell’s record by .02.
Bromell, also a slot receiver at Gibbs High, passed on football interest from schools including West Virginia. He took a track scholarship at Baylor, known for producing Olympic 400m champions Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner.
“I don’t really like to put a kid in a box and say we expect this or that,” legendary Baylor coach Clyde Hart said in 2014. “I think he’s going to get better. He’s going to get a lot stronger. In my opinion, most sprinters don’t get their prime until 24, 25 years old. He’s only 18.”
As a freshman, Bromell won the NCAA 100m title in 9.97 seconds, becoming the first teenager to break 10 seconds with legal wind (and still the only one to do so). As a sophomore, Bromell clocked 9.84, a time faster than anything Carl Lewis ever recorded. It ranked him fourth on the U.S. all-time list.
Later that summer, Bromell shared 100m bronze with Canadian Andre De Grasse at the world championships, behind Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, becoming the second-youngest medalist in that event’s history. He turned professional, signing a contract with New Balance, which he said is still in place today.
In March 2016, Bromell won the world indoor 60m title (Bolt, Gatlin and De Grasse were absent). His coach at Baylor, Mike Ford, still calls it the best Bromell race he’s seen in person. The Olympics were five months away.
In Bromell’s first top-level meet of the spring, he led a 200m in Rome coming off the turn. Then he slowed down considerably and finished seventh.
Three days later, he felt left heel pain while warming up at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain. He withdrew and flew back to Texas.
An X-ray revealed a bone spur growing near his Achilles. The Olympic Trials were in four weeks. They had to modify training and hope to minimize the pain, putting off potential surgery until after Rio.
Bromell made the Olympic team, placing second at Trials to Gatlin in 9.84 seconds. He trained for Rio in a pool and on an anti-gravity treadmill. When he sprinted, it was often on grass and not in spikes.
Ford felt it was a victory that Bromell even qualified for the Olympic final, where he finished last in 10.06 seconds.
“I wasn’t going to run,” Bromell said. “I was telling myself that I was just in too much pain.
“I ended it with a clear heart knowing that even though I wasn’t able to produce what I knew I could, because of the circumstance, I still was able to witness and be a part of something that a lot of people may never get the opportunity to do.”
Five nights later, Bromell lined up against Bolt for the anchor leg of the 4x100m relay. He felt no pain.
As Tyson Gay neared with the baton, a dashing Bromell turned his head back for a moment to ensure the handoff. Bolt, in the adjacent lane, opened a slight lead and extended it down the straightaway.
Bromell, in dipping to try to edge Japan’s Asuka Cambridge for silver, stumbled and tumbled on the blue track. As Bolt made the final decelerating pose of his Olympic career, Bromell’s loose orange baton flew in the background.
As Bromell tried to catch himself hitting the ground, the heel pain returned. He couldn’t walk off the track. Officials brought out a wheelchair. Bromell departed believing his anchor secured the bronze medal.
Minutes later, he left a medical room with crutches and was told the team was disqualified. Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin exchanged the baton out of the zone.
“I gave everything that I could, almost just throwing myself just to try to get the medal, then it was just like, dang, we got DQed,” Bromell said. “I just couldn’t win in the situation. I got hurt going into the Olympics, then I couldn’t really perform how I wanted to in the 100m and then this. I’m taking an L after L after L right now.”
He underwent the post-Olympic surgery. Bromell was in a boot for two months. He said he did no rehab exercises for six months, per doctor’s instructions. Scar tissue built up. He went 10 months between races and, in his return, was eliminated in the first round at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships. Bromell didn’t feel right and had the heel re-examined.
I don’t see how you can run 10.2, a new doctor told him. Your tendon should have torn off the bone.
Bromell underwent another surgery and started over again. This time, he went two years between races. On July 6, 2019, Bromell took a misstep about 70 meters into a 100m heat in Montverde and eased up, clocking 10.54 seconds.
Ford feared it was the Achilles, but Bromell taped up the foot and lined up for his final. Halfway through that race, he blew an adductor muscle in his upper leg. Bromell returned to his hotel and spoke with Ford.
“I thought he may quit,” said Ford, who had coached Bromell for nearly four years.
Bromell stayed in Florida to consider his next move. Ford flew back to Texas. They decided a change was best. Bromell spoke with Reider, who developed a knack for helping athletes return from leg injuries.
Christian Taylor, the 2012 Olympic triple jump champion, switched takeoff legs after knee pain and repeated as gold medalist in Rio. De Grasse joined Reider’s group in November 2018 after a pair of season-ending right hamstring injuries. In 2019, the Canadian earned 100m bronze and 200m silver at the world championships.
“[Bromell’s] expectations were just to be like he was before, at some point,” Reider said. “The expectations for me were just to get him to a point where we could see if we could actually train. When we got in, there were some basic functions he couldn’t do.”
Bromell did what Reider called rudimentary strength and conditioning exercises those first months. He began sprinting in earnest in March.
That Independence Day race — the 10.04 — was his first in four years without pain, Reider said. Neither Ford nor Reider was surprised by that time or the 9.90 on July 24.
“We made some steps to be able to be an athlete and not a rehab project,” Reider said. “I think he can run faster than he’s ever run.”
Bromell lives by himself in Jacksonville. He has other passions, notably photography.
He sees a counselor regularly after a difficult stretch of years. That’s brought him out of what he called “situations I probably shouldn’t have been in.” He plans to reveal specifics later.
“I stopped doing a lot of things in my life that was destroying me,” he said. “I stopped having pain and hurt in my heart and having it consume me. … I started reading my Bible more. I started reading books more. A lot of things that helped me evolve as a human. To have more peace, live properly and not destroy myself from within.”
Bromell doesn’t know where his 2015 or 2016 World Championships medals are. He doesn’t assign as much value to them as he does three-page essays that he received from college fund applicants in 2018. He promised $10,000 each to five students, choosing the recipients based on their submitted life stories.
“There’s people out here that were literally writing in their essays, Tray, your fighting, your drive to not give up helped me to not commit suicide tomorrow,” Bromell said. “Imagine reading something like that. Who would’ve thought this little kid from south side St. Pete could have an impact just by running 100 meters. That’s my gold medal.”
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