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Usain Bolt on Kobe Bryant, fatherhood and Tyreek Hill’s Olympic outlook

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MIAMI — The world’s fastest man sauntered into the back room of a Miami art studio that had been converted into a Gatorade pop-up for Super Bowl weekend.

He opened a bottle of Bolt24, Gatorade’s new off-the-field drink for the 24/7 athlete, an endorsement Usain Bolt takes literally.

“Last night I went to bed at, maybe, like 5 [a.m.],” he said the Saturday morning before Super Bowl Sunday, adding that outside of his native Jamaica, he believes the party scene in Miami is second only to London.

Bolt fully reclined and rested his legs in a NormaTec compression therapy device while spending the next 20 minutes discussing a wide range of topics with NBC Sports.

The retired sprinter recently announced he is going to be a father in a social post.

He does not know the gender of his child yet and declined to reveal the due date.

“I’m excited, but I’m nervous,” said the 33-year-old. “I’ve always been a fun guy, I’ve always been that person. But should I be that person and make my girlfriend [Kasi Bennett] be the bad guy? Those are the questions I’m asking, so we’ll see what happens.”

Bolt, who has two siblings and eventually wants three children, will not encourage his offspring to pursue sprinting.

“That’s going to be hard for my kid,” he said. “If they want to do it, I’m fine with it. But initially I’m going to say don’t do it, ’cause I know the pressure that will come along with it.”

Bolt has always wanted to have a son to follow in his footsteps. But after watching ESPN anchor Elle Duncan deliver an emotional tribute about Kobe Bryant’s pride in being a #GirlDad, Bolt is now hoping for a daughter.

“I could see in his eyes how much he loved his girls,” Bolt said. “I would love to have that feeling.”

Bryant’s untimely death hit Bolt hard. Bolt was driving when he heard the news and immediately pulled over. He completely stopped checking social media. He tried to watch the Lakers’ tribute, but changed the channel after five minutes because he teared up.

Bolt had at least three significant interactions with Bryant. During an NBA All-Star Weekend, Bryant paused a conversation with Bolt to fetch his daughters for sprinting advice and a photo.

Bolt believed he competed with Kobe’s Mamba Mentality.

“I wouldn’t say I was dedicated as Kobe,” Bolt said, “but when I competed, I went out there no matter what was going on and was focused.”

Being in Miami, the conversation eventually turned to football.

Bolt laughed when asked about Tyreek Hill, the Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver who said he is serious about trying to qualify for the U.S. Olympic track and field team. Hill, who reached the top in-game speed of any NFL player in 2019, was a world-class sprinter in high school but is seven years removed from his track days.

“No, there’s no chance,” Bolt said, pointing out that Hill would have to run the 200m three times over three days at June’s U.S. Olympic Trials. “A lot of people think it’s about one-off runs, but it’s rounds that really show who you are and the amount of work you do. So I think no, he wouldn’t make the team.”

Bolt, a longtime Packers fan, reiterated he would try out for the team as a wide receiver if Aaron Rodgers called.

“I think my hands are good,” he said, “and I know I’ve got the speed.”

But Bolt, who had a brief professional soccer career, would not listen if the MLS or another soccer league called.

“I think I’m past the soccer stage,” he said. “I tried it, and it was OK, but it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.”

Bolt still follows track closely.

He said it was “nerve-racking” watching the 2019 World Championships as the Jamaican men failed to earn a 100m or 200m medal for the first time since 2003.

“I actually missed it,” he admitted. “I was like, ‘Aw crap, did I do the right thing? Did I retire too soon?’”

But he has no regrets about retiring in 2017.

“You question yourself,” he said, “but I know I made the right decision.”

Bolt wonders why the Jamaican men stopped dominating the sprints since he retired.

“Hey, if you know, tell me,” he said. “But the girls are doing awesome, so that’s a good thing.”

Bolt will be in Tokyo during the Olympics. He has had conversations with television networks, but has not committed. He is excited to go to an Olympics as a fan, and hopes to experience swimming and an Argentina soccer match, in addition to track.

Bolt predicted a U.S. sprinter will win the Olympic men’s 100m title for the first time since 2004.

“From my standpoint right now, Christian Coleman has got the Olympics won already,” Bolt said. “He’s fearless. He’s really fearless.”

Yet Bolt has learned to never overlook Justin Gatlin, who finished second to Coleman at the 2019 World Championships but will be 38 in Tokyo.

“My greatest competitor was Justin Gatlin,” Bolt said. “For the last five years of my career, he kept me on my toes, and I will always respect him for that.”

Bolt was less confident predicting the Olympic 200m champion.

“I think [reigning 200m world champion Noah Lyles] could be beaten,” Bolt said. “In a one-off run, no. But through the rounds, he kind of didn’t impress me as much.”

Since he will be in Tokyo, Bolt was asked whether he could — hypothetically — lace up racing spikes and advance out of a heat to an Olympic semifinal in the 100m or 200m.

“For sure, no problem,” he said without hesitation. “In both.”

Does he still have enough speed to advance from an Olympic semifinal to a final?

“I think over 200m, I could make it to the final as the last, last guy,” Bolt predicted. “But in the 100m, I don’t think so.”

Both scenarios are purely hypothetical, since the deadline to unretire for a 2020 Olympic bid has passed. Retired stars like Bolt must re-enter the drug-testing pool six months before they are allowed to compete. Track’s international governing body confirmed that Bolt has not done so.

Since Bolt is happily retired from Olympic competition, how does he want to be remembered?

“I want to be remembered as one of the greats,” he said. “My only goal in track and field was to be among the greatest in the world. The Kobe Bryants, the Muhammad Alis, the Peles, the Maradonas. That’s how I want to be remembered. That’s the work I put in. I want to be remembered as one of the greatest sportsmen to ever live.”

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MORE: Bolt, Phelps lead dominant Summer Olympians of 2010s

 

Wilson Kipsang, former marathon world-record holder, banned 4 years

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Wilson Kipsang, a former marathon world-record holder and Kenyan Olympic bronze medalist, was banned four years for whereabouts failures — not being available for drug testing — and providing false evidence regarding a missed drug test.

Kipsang had been provisionally banned in January in the case handled by the Athletics Integrity Unit, track and field’s doping watchdog organization. Athletes must provide doping officials with locations to be available for out-of-competition testing. Three missed tests in a 12-month span can lead to a suspension.

Kipsang, 38, received a four-year ban backdated to Jan. 10, when the provisional suspension was announced. His results since April 12, 2019, the date of his third whereabouts failure in a 12-month span, have been annulled. He is eligible to appeal. The full decision is here.

Kipsang won major marathons in New York City, London, Berlin and Tokyo between 2012 and 2017.

He lowered the world record to 2:03:23 at the 2013 Berlin Marathon, a mark that stood for one year until countryman Dennis Kimetto took it to 2:02:57 in Berlin. Another Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge, lowered it to 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

Kipsang, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, last won a top-level marathon in Tokyo in 2017. He was third at the 2018 Berlin Marathon and 12th at his last marathon in London in April 2019, a result now disqualified.

Other Kenyan distance-running stars have been banned in recent years.

Rita Jeptoo had Boston and Chicago Marathon titles stripped, and Jemima Sumgong was banned after winning the Rio Olympic marathon after both tested positive for EPO. Asbel Kiprop, a 2008 Olympic 1500m champion and a three-time world champ, was banned four years after testing positive for EPO in November 2017.

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MORE: Christian Coleman suspended after disputed missed drug test

As Cullen Jones leaves Olympic-level competition, his mission is amplified

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Cullen Jones‘ impact on his sport shone again in late May, despite competition being shut down since March and swimmers at all levels kept out of pools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones, motivated by a message from 2012 Olympic teammate Lia Neal, created a group text chat among 10 to 20 Black swimmers sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The topic: How can we make our voices heard?

That kind of get-together was impossible during Jones’ ascent more than a decade ago. He was the first Black swimmer to hold a world record and the only Black swimmer on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

The U.S. swim team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 could include multiple Black swimmers for both genders for the first time.

Jones, a 36-year-old Olympic gold and silver medalist (two of each color), will not be one of them. He recently announced retirement from the highest level of swimming. The last member of the epic Beijing 4x100m freestyle relay to bow out.

His legacy includes not only records and medals, but also role model status for countless young swimmers. And the face of USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” program, barnstorming the last 12 years to help teach kids how to swim, particularly in underserved communities.

Jones is not finished working toward equality outside of the competition pool.

“George Floyd’s death is a catalyst for me,” Jones said in a June interview. “Just emboldens me to do more.”

Jones decided to speak out about discrimination, sharing stories of racism that he’s faced since becoming a swimmer after nearly drowning as a child. He filmed social media videos, joined a webinar series started by Jacob Pebley and Neal and contacted longtime sponsor Speedo.

“I always kept it very corporate,” Jones said. “I was always very neutral. You would never see me hanging out with my friends drinking, because I worked with kids. That wasn’t the image that I really wanted to put out there. When it came to my political ideals, I never really put it out there because I wanted my platform to be very straightforward, clean cut so that when companies want to align with me they know they’re aligning with a safe brand.

“But, after George Floyd’s death, I was of course enraged and upset.”

Jones and other Black swimmers helped USA Swimming recraft a June 1 statement condemning racism. On June 12, USA Swimming published a new statement, acknowledging that the sport, like society, fostered systemic racism. It detailed four short-term steps the organization would take.

Jones said “Make a Splash” was already in the process of restructuring before the pandemic. Now, he wants to be sure the tour hits the neighborhoods that most need it, such as the South Side of Chicago and Memphis.

More than 30 U.S. Olympic, Paralympic and national teamers came together to educate the swimming community on what Black Lives Matter means and to raise money for charities that support Black communities. Jones urged contributions to the Innocence Project to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

“Many times we’re expected to be athlete first, and then Black second,” Jones said on a webinar with Neal and two-time Olympic 50m freestyle gold medalist Anthony Ervin titled “Swimmers for Change.” (Neal and Ervin each have one African-American parent. Ervin’s dad is three quarters African American and one quarter Native American.)

We need to keep our mouths open about things that are going on because we are the faces of what USA Swimming is in diversity,” Jones continued. “We need to make sure that these young people, as they’re coming up, they understand that they can look to us.”

Jones was born in the Bronx and moved to Irvington, N.J., as a kid. “Crips and the Bloods, gun shots, everything, that’s what I grew up around,” he said. “I leave my house, and I don’t wear certain colors because I don’t want one side to get upset.”

Jones, at “Make a Splash” stops, told families his swimming story. At age 5, he nearly drowned coming off a slide at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pa.

“It can take as little as 20 seconds for a kid to drown,” Jones, whose best event, the 50m freestyle, is a 21-second splash and dash without taking a breath, wrote in The Players’ Tribune in 2015. “I was under water for 30 seconds.”

Jones was rescued by a lifeguard and resuscitated with CPR. “The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘What’s the next ride we’re getting on?'” Jones wrote. “My mom’s first words were, ‘We’re gonna get you swim lessons.'”

By 8, Jones began a competitive swim career that lasted nearly three decades.

At 15 years old, the mom of a swimmer that he finally defeated said, “Shouldn’t he be playing basketball?”

“I was not instructed to speak out at the time,” Jones said. “I was instructed to work harder and not let anyone get in my way. That determination is what led me to the podium at the Olympic Games.”

Jones carried that memory through college at NC State, where he regularly heard boos after winning races at dual meets in his senior season in 2006.

Then a few years ago, as an Olympic champion professional, Jones was pulled over by a police officer. He was told to pop the trunk. The officer didn’t have a warrant, but Jones complied. Inside of it were some fins, paddles, a kickboard, swimsuits and copies of Jones’ autographed card that he distributes.

“The guy looks, and he goes, oh, you’re that Black swimmer that went to the Olympics. OK, well you have a good day. Took off,” Jones said. “There’s so many different ways that this still happens today.”

The night after Floyd’s death, Jones was walking Vinny, his family’s French Bulldog, around 10 p.m. outside his South Carolina house in what he describes as a nice neighborhood.

He saw a police car go past, stop at an intersection, turn around and drive up to him. The officer rolled down his window and asked Jones if everything was OK. Yes, Jones told him. The officer asked how old Vinny was (six years). They made small talk about each owning dogs. Then the officer told him once more he wanted to make sure everything was OK and drove away.

“If I wasn’t 6-foot-5, muscular and Black, I don’t know that you would have necessarily turned around. You definitely wouldn’t have asked me twice if everything was OK by me walking my dog,” Jones said in recalling the interaction. “I had to verbally disarm him by telling my vast — not so vast — knowledge of dogs so that he would feel comfortable with me, even though he’s the one with the gun. And I’m going to have to teach my child [11-month-old Ayvn] how to do that.”

Jones became visible to the nation as part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay that won in Beijing, anchored by Jason Lezak‘s fastest split in history to overtake the French.

Jones earned the fourth and final spot on the team with the fastest split in the preliminary heat the night before. (That same night was one of Jones’ favorite memories: meeting the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team and LeBron James quipping, “Oh, snap, you got a brother on the team?”).

After Jones completed the third leg of the morning final, he was so exhausted that he said he “was blacking out.” Jones made what he called “an idiot move” and swam to the side of the pool to exit — traditionally done after individual races — rather than lift himself out right there at the wall.

When Lezak out-touched Alain Bernard, Jones was still on his way back to join the first two U.S. swimmers, Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale, behind the starting block. So Jones wasn’t in the immediate celebration photos and video that spread across the world.

But he was the only one to make the media rounds throughout the rest of the day because he didn’t have any more races left at the Games.

He estimated he did 13 hours of media that day. Jones returned to the Athletes’ village around 2 the next morning. He never cooled down after his swim. He was speechless after so many interviews when he entered his room, which he shared with close friend Ryan Lochte. (Lochte greeted Jones by jumping on his back, and even crying a little bit.)

Soon after, Jones received two phone calls that also changed his life. One, from a friend who told Jones, “Do you know what you just did? Tiger. Venus and Serena. That’s what you just did.”

Another, from the USA Swimming Foundation. Jones was told that drowning was the second-leading cause of accidental death in America. That 70 percent of African-American children can’t swim. That swim lessons could reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent for children ages 1-4.

He became a leader for “Make a Splash,” which started in 2007. The tour took off after his involvement following the Beijing Olympics. Four millions kids have received swim lessons through the program and its local partners.

“I don’t think there’s any question, at least up to date now, that Cullen has certainly made the biggest impact on the African-American community and the Black community in general in the sport of swimming,” said Olympic champion and NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines, who estimated he has traveled with Jones for more than 50 “Make a Splash” stops. “There are trailblazers, but nobody has made the overall impact of Cullen.

“We’ll look back on this — hopefully 20 or 30 years from now — he’ll be sort of our Jesse Owens and have had that kind of impact.”

Jones’ peers can attest.

Simone Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win an Olympic title for the U.S. in Rio. In her famous, tearful interview after the 100m freestyle, Manuel said the gold medal was not just for her, but for those who inspired her. She named Maritza Correia, the first Black woman on a U.S. Olympic swim team in 2004, and Jones.

Jack LeVant, a rising Stanford junior and 2019 World Championships team member, remembers sitting around the TV with his family back in 2008 to watch the relay. He was 8 years old.

“Cullen, undoubtedly, has been my biggest role model in the sport,” LeVant said. “It was so awesome to see someone who looked like me doing the things that I wanted to do one day.”

Which made an interaction between LeVant and Jones in 2017 so meaningful. Jones, in what turned out to be his last major meet, missed the world championships team by .02 of a second in the 50m free. LeVant, then 17, saw his idol on the pool deck.

“I was devastated for him,” LeVant said. “As he was walking by, I was like, yo, great job, Cullen, we all love you man. He stopped and he shook my hand. He looked me right in the eye and thanked me for saying that.”

Reece Whitley, a rising junior at Cal, remembered his first time meeting Olympians at a childhood swim meet. He was not there to compete. But his mom thought it would be a great idea for Whitley to see two Olympians who were there: Brendan Hansen (a Pennsylvania breaststroker like Whitley) and Jones. A decade later, Whitley, as a high school senior, was an instructor at a “Make a Splash” stop with Missy Franklin, Gaines and Jones.

“A lot of professional swimmers, once they get to their later 30s and early 40s, and once they have a kid and start a family, they kind of leave the sport, but Cullen clearly has a mission that I stand behind, and he’s going to stick with it until everything is right,” Whitley said.

Jones’ devotion to “Make a Splash” was so ardent that Neal believes it cost him in competition.

“He was traveling so much for ‘Make A Splash’ one year leading up to trials,” she said. “He wasn’t able to reach his potential that summer of making whatever team that was because he also dedicated so much of himself to advocating for water safety.”

In a way, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Jones’ original mission.

“This kind of puts a halt on all the kids that could have learned how to swim this summer because these public pools are being shut down,” Neal said, “but then when you have private pools still opening, that attracts more predominantly white families and kids, and they’re still on track to learn how to swim.”

Jones said that, at last check a few years ago, the amount of African-American children who couldn’t swim dropped to 64 percent, from 70 percent when he partnered with “Make a Splash” in 2008.

There were similar improvements for Latin American and white children. Jones attributed the success at least partially to swimming’s popularity — “the Michael Phelps phenomenon.”

“At the same time, you had this water safety prevention initiative that was there, screaming, i.e. me, that it’s important to get kids to learn how to swim,” he said. “So to see those numbers drop in my lifetime, I did not even expect that, let alone to see it in about eight years.”

The USA Swimming Foundation told a story from 2010, when “Make a Splash” stopped in Shreveport, La., three months after six Black teenagers drowned in the Red River.

The foundation reported that six kids total showed up for the swim clinic with Jones, all terrified.

“I got out of the pool,” Jones said after eventually getting all six into the water, according to the foundation. “I went into the bathroom, and I just started crying. I thought, ‘I get it. This is what I need to be doing.'”

MORE: Jason Lezak’s memories of Beijing Olympic relay

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