DES MOINES — When Christian Coleman was in high school, he kept a goal sheet on his wall and scratched out every time he met a mark. As the world’s fastest man every year of this Olympic cycle, one could wonder what drives Coleman, aside from the obvious — his first world 100m title in two months and a gold medal in the Olympics’ marquee event next summer.
“I got it all up here,” Coleman pointed to his head on Friday after comfortably winning the U.S. 100m title in 9.99 seconds into a 1.0 meter/second headwind, flashing a pair of peace signs (or Vs for victory) as he crossed the finish line. “Right now what I’m just looking in on is getting a gold medal [at worlds] in Doha. And it’s hard not to think about the Olympics.”
Coleman, 23, has no shortage of motivation in his career thus far. He wasn’t recruited to major college football programs, despite being an all-state defensive back in Georgia, reportedly due to his size. Coleman is listed at 5 feet, 9 inches. He went to Tennessee to run track and broke the NCAA 100m record.
Coleman received the least fanfare of the U.S.’ three new phenoms in their teenage years. Noah Lyles, 22, and Michael Norman, 21, are the world’s fastest men in the 200m and 400m this year. Lyles and Norman garnered more headlines than Coleman at the 2016 Olympic Trials for just missing the 200m team coming out of high school. Coleman made that Olympic team (as the last man in the 4x100m relay pool).
“Maybe you could have seen it with Lyles and Norman,” NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon said last week. “Coleman, not so much. I think Coleman has maybe progressed the most since [trials].”
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In an 11-month span in 2016 and 2017, Coleman broke 10 seconds for the first time and lowered his personal best to 9.82 seconds as a collegian. No other man has run that fast in this Olympic cycle.
The world’s fastest man title was there for the taking, given Rio gold medalist Usain Bolt‘s retirement, silver medalist Justin Gatlin‘s age (now 37) and bronze medalist Andre De Grasse‘s season-ending leg injuries the last two years. Coleman seized it. Nobody in modern timing history, not even Bolt, ranked No. 1 in the 100m in all four years of an Olympic cycle.
“The media puts out stories like this guy is the guy to beat. This guy is the fastest in the world,” Coleman said. “I don’t really pay attention to it. … I try to officially be the fastest man in the world come the end of September in Doha.”
At the 2017 World Championships, Coleman faced Bolt for the first time and beat him in the semifinals. Ninety minutes later, Coleman got a jump on the field off the gun in the final (this has become his trademark). Bolt, towering one lane to Coleman’s left, and Gatlin, three lanes to his right, closed in the final meters. Coleman held off Bolt by .01, but Gatlin edged him by .02.
“I’m sitting up here on a podium with Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, guys I’ve looked up to my whole life,” Coleman said in that post-race press conference with all three medalists, where he was asked one question in 22 minutes.
Coleman opened his 2018 outdoor season with consecutive losses, slowed by a hamstring injury. He entered his last meet of the year on Aug. 31 ranked 10th in the world. But at that Diamond League final in Brussels, Coleman clocked the world’s fastest time in three years, a 9.79 that, adjusting for wind and altitude, may have been the most impressive time outside of the Bolt era.
“Mine,” Coleman repeated in a head-shaking, chest-thumping, finger-pointing celebration in Brussels.
This season, Coleman again lost his opener, this time to Lyles in matching 9.86s, that sparked a rivalry. Lyles said they simply aren’t friends; Coleman said he doesn’t single out any of his competitors.
Coleman insisted that what really counts is what happens at the end of the season in Doha. Lyles is focused on his best event, the 200m, where he and Coleman will hopefully go head-to-head here in Sunday’s final.
“Hopefully I can get many more in the future, but this is a big one,” Coleman said of his first national outdoor title. “I’ll be a little more comfortable on that big stage.”
Gatlin, the favorite for second place here and at Doha, scratched out of the final because he already has a bye into worlds as defending champion. They’re joined on the Doha team by veteran Mike Rodgers and Christopher Belcher, who each clocked 10.12.
Teahna Daniels was the surprise women’s 100m champion in 11.20 seconds, a month after placing fourth at the NCAA Championships. Daniels goes to Doha with Rio Olympian English Gardner, who was second (11.25) coming back from meniscus, ACL and hamstring tears in this Olympic cycle. Rio Olympic 4x100m member Morolake Akinosun grabbed the third individual worlds spot.
Pre-meet favorites Aleia Hobbs (2018 U.S. champion) and Sha’Carri Richardson (2019 NCAA champion in 10.75) were sixth and eighth, respectively.
In other events, Allyson Felix is in strong position to make her ninth straight world championships team after qualifying fifth into Saturday’s eight-woman 400m final. USA Track and Field can take at least six 400m runners to worlds for women’s and mixed-gender 4x400m relays.
Felix, at her first meet in more than a year and since Nov. 28 childbirth by emergency C-section, clocked 51.45 seconds in her semifinal, surging in the last 50 meters to ensure she was one of the four qualifiers for the final.
Felix said before the meet that she was “far from” her best. After she ran 52.20 as 11th-fastest in the first round, she said she was rusty and not quite up to her standard. The nine-time Olympic medalist is building momentum for trying to make her fifth Games next year yet still said her expectation coming into the meet was to win, “because I’m a competitor.”
“Just because I haven’t raced in so long, I’m just trying to use the rounds to kind of feel myself, like where I’m at, work out some kinks,” she said. “Just trying to put myself in a position to give myself a shot.”
Paralympic medalist and double amputee Blake Leeper won a 400m semifinal in a personal-best 44.38 seconds, but even if he does well in Saturday’s final, he may not make the world team. Leeper said his team is working on getting him eligible for the major international competition but would not get into specifics. Presumably, it is regarding the eligibility of his prosthetic legs.
“Blake has filed an application with the IAAF,” a USATF spokesperson said. “We allowed him to run conditionally at this event. We await the result of his legal case with the IAAF.”
Leeper’s time would have placed second at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. It would rank fifth in the world this year. Leeper said that he would have been eligible for the able-bodied world championships two years ago when he ran at nationals, but he didn’t make the final in 2017.
In 2018, the International Paralympic Committee said Leeper was running on invalid blades for its record purposes because he had yet to be classified under a new maximum allowable standing height (MASH) formula. An IPC spokesman said Saturday that he does not believe Leeper’s status has changed. The IAAF did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on his eligibility on Friday night.
“Hopefully with my times and my story, everybody else will accept me,” Leeper said, adding that he’s been running at the same height for the last nine years. “They keep changing the rules.
“For somebody to try to dictate and tell me how tall I should be or whatever I should be running on I think is just really unfair.”
Leeper was born without lower legs and has used prosthetics since he was a toddler. He earned 200m bronze and 400m silver (behind Oscar Pistorius) in his class at the 2012 London Paralympics and has long harbored a goal of racing at the Olympics.
Two-time Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor merely needed to show up to secure his bye into worlds as the defending champion. He did little more than that, running through the pit on his first attempt and then calling it a day. Taylor is joined on the Doha roster by two-time Olympic silver medalist Will Claye, who is ranked No. 1 in the world this year.
Olympic champion Ryan Crouser threw 22.62 meters to win the shot put and will again be joined on the world team by Joe Kovacs (22.31) and Darrell Hill (22.11). They ranks Nos. 1, 3 and 5 in the world this year.
Devon Williams won the decathlon to clinch a world championships spot on a team that will include neither the retired Ashton Eaton nor Trey Hardee for the first time since 2007. Rio Olympian Zach Ziemek suffered a knee injury in Thursday’s high jump and withdrew. He can file for a medical exemption onto the world team, NBC Sports’ Paul Swangard said.
In the 800m, the favorites made Sunday’s finals — Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy, U.S. indoor record holder Donavan Brazier and U.S. record holder Ajeé Wilson, who is joined in the women’s final by 17-year-old Athing Mu.
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