When Christian Coleman returned from an 18-month suspension last year, he found that men’s sprinting evolved in his absence. He changed, too.
So after Coleman placed sixth in defense of his 100m title at last July’s world championships, his first global outdoor meet in three years, he was reflective.
“The last 100 meters I ran competitively was in Doha in 2019. I was 23 years old. The next 100 meters I ran competitively I was 26,” said Coleman, who won the 2019 World title in a personal-best 9.76 seconds, then ran 10.01 for sixth at the 2022 Worlds. “So I knew this season was going to be a grind, just getting my feet back underneath me, just getting my race pattern down. Just getting back into the groove of competing at a high level.”
Coleman left the mixed zone that night with two succinct lines regarding his future. “I’m back at square one,” he said. “I don’t like to come up short of my goals.”
The man listed in his Georgia high school yearbook as “most likely to receive a Nike endorsement” spent the offseason working on facets of his profession beyond putting one foot in front of the other. In his words, he soul searched.
He relied on a chef to better his diet with organic foods. He is leaner, improved in the weight room and feels like an elite sprinter again.
“He felt he had to reprove himself,” last season, said Tim Hall, Coleman’s coach for eight years. “That can weigh heavy on a kid.”
Coleman returns to top-level track at the Millrose Games in New York City on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock). He is in the headline race, the 60m, in a showdown with Noah Lyles. It conjures 2019, when a Coleman-Lyles rivalry stoked men’s sprinting.
Lyles, the world 200m champion, is coming off a personal-best 6.51 seconds in the 60m at last Saturday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix. He upset past world 60m champion Trayvon Bromell and then said he was coming for Usain Bolt‘s 100m and 200m world records in the spring and summer outdoor season.
Coleman owns the three fastest indoor 60m times in history, all from 2018, including the world record of 6.34.
“I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily trying to make a statement,” Coleman said of Saturday’s race while acknowledging the motivation to “run against guys you know are going to be at the top come this summer.”
Coleman had a bye onto last summer’s world outdoor championships team as the reigning world 100m champion. This year, he must earn one of three spots at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, in July.
In 2021 at Eugene’s Hayward Field, Coleman watched the Olympic Trials from spectator seats as three other Americans made the team for Tokyo. In 2022 at Eugene’s Hayward Field, Coleman was first out of the blocks in the world championships 100m final, then reeled in by the field and passed by five men, including three Americans who swept the medals.
“I’m not looking at last season as a huge representation of who I am as an athlete,” Coleman said last week. “I know I can be better.”
He’s not looking to the more distant past, either. Coleman was the world’s fastest man in the 100m in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and over the entire five-year Tokyo Olympic cycle.
He began that stretch as the Tennessee Volunteer who ran a 40-yard dash one tenth faster than the NFL Combine record. Over the years, he shed doubts of whether he could maintain enough speed over 100 meters to succeed Bolt as sprint king.
Since Coleman’s ban in 2020 and 2021 for missing drug tests (he never tested positive for a banned substance), Bromell and new world 100m champion Fred Kerley have matched Coleman’s 100m personal best of 9.76.
“I feel like I’m on a totally different timeline,” Coleman said when asked of his pre-suspension self. “So it’s just really hard to compare where I’m at now with what I was feeling like in 2019.”
He began last year with a world indoor championships silver medal in the 60m, clipped by Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy by three thousandths. He ran 9.87 in the 100m at nationals, his best time of the year, ranking eighth in the world.
Coleman summed up last season as “decent.” Hall labeled it “nothing short of amazing,” given the circumstances.
“To be out of the rigors of competing with some of the best athletes in the world, you kind of lose your rhythm, your timing. You lose a lot of things. You lose that competitive edge,” Hall said, adding that Coleman trained through the ban. “Once we got in the world championship, he made the best of the opportunity he had.”
Coleman is younger than all of the men’s 100m medalists at the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 World Championships with less injury history than most of them, too.
In high school, Coleman kept a goal sheet on his wall. He stopped doing that as a professional. Coleman and Hall had the same answer when asked aspirations for 2023.
“[Fast] times will take care of itself,” Hall said. “I told him we have nothing to prove to anyone.”
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