Earlier this year, folks were whispering that Christian Coleman was in line to become the next great American sprinter. They were calling him "The Next Bolt."
In November, he blazed past Usain Bolt at the IAAF World Championships in London, stunningly ending Bolt's 45-race win streak during the semifinals of the 100 meters and finishing ahead of Bolt (but behind Justin Gatlin) again in the final. Then in February, about two weeks before his 22nd birthday, Coleman became the world record holder in the 60-meter indoor, running a time of 6.34 at the U.S. Indoor Championships in Albuquerque to shatter Maurice Greene's 20-year-old mark of 6.39.
Coleman had already unofficially beaten Greene's time in January, and he would beat it again in March. It was a stretch of utter domination that forced the world to take notice.
Now, only months later, the hype has been replaced with doubt.
He hears it all.
He's a one-trick pony.
He's only a short-sprint, 60 guy.
He can't consistently win the 100 or the 200.
Coleman's run ended with a second-place finish in the 100 at the Prefontaine Classic in late May and a fourth-place finish at the Rome Diamond League meet less than a week later. Worse, he was battling a right hamstring injury during that stretch. It cramped and locked, and it caused all of his momentum to halt.
He struggled to hold on to his lead in Oregon as Ronnie Baker pulled away in the final 20 meters. But the recent Rome loss? That was frustrating. And motivating.
"It was a wake-up call for me," Coleman says.
Coleman realized he hadn't properly taken care of his body; he hadn't treated it like the "Ferrari" that his longtime coach, Tim Hall, calls it.
Coleman probably shouldn't have competed in back-to-back races while rehabbing, but he doesn't see limitations. Never has. That's why one afternoon, the summer before heading off to college at the University of Tennessee, while hanging out with some friends at the house of his former high school coach, Mark Tolcher, Coleman declared that he was going to sprint down the driveway, past a downward slope and clear Tolcher's 20-foot-wide pool. Coleman was a dominant long-jumper at the time. He was also out of his mind.
"Coach," Coleman pleaded. "You know I can do it." Tolcher shook his head. "Not happening."
But that day confirmed everything Tolcher knew about his sprinter: "Christian wants to dominate everything."
People doubted him then, and while he grew up in southwest Atlanta.
Won't make it at the next level.
He was so bite-sized as a kid that he looked more like "a kid who played the violin" than an athlete, says Robert Wilson, who coached him during his freshman year at Westlake High School and during summers.
The doubts fueled Coleman then, as they do now.
Finally healthy after rehabbing for six weeks, he'll have a chance to redeem himself at the Muller Grand Prix Birmingham on Saturday. He faces a star-studded field for the 100 that includes 21-year-old favorite Noah Lyles, the current world's fastest man in the 100 (9.88) and 200, plus Commonwealth champion Akani Simbine (South Africa) and double Olympic relay champion Yohan Blake (Jamaica).
"I have a lot to prove," Coleman says. "Not only to other people, but to myself, that I'm the best in the world."
Coleman wasn't nervous. His father, Seth, had told him many moons ago to jump up and down and put the nerves in his legs to keep them out of his head. But this was not child's play. This was his professional debut at the 2017 World Championships, the biggest race of his life.
BOLT! BOLT! BOLT! BOLT! Coleman remembers 60,000 fans in London Stadium roaring. But he was eager to challenge the icon in the same way a rookie Allen Iverson yearned to shake Michael Jordan in 1997. A race is a race; a competitor is a competitor.
Coleman's mind was clear. He didn't talk with any of the sprinters. He didn't steal a single glance. He never does.
He's always had a quiet demeanor. As a child, his big sister, Camryn Coleman, was practically his spokeswoman. Thankfully, when the four-year-old's lips froze during the Easter play at Israel Baptist Church in east Atlanta, six-year-old Camryn quickly grabbed the mic from her baby brother's clammy hands and delivered his lines.
Christian was even elected Deerwood Academy student government association president as a fifth-grader without delivering a single speech. His two friends, Clarence and Cedric, campaigned for him, shouting: "Vote for Christian! Vote for a winner!" as Coleman simply waved and held up his four shiny gold medals from the Junior Olympics.
"He doesn't really talk much, but he's magnetic," Camryn says. "He's a natural-born leader." His family still calls him Mr. President today.
But when he lines up for a race, he morphs into Mr. Assassin.
"People sometimes have a false view of track and field, that it's kind of soft and kind of friendly. And guys aren't necessarily laughing and joking, but everyone's just friendly and 'ha ha, he he,'" Coleman says. "I just came in and just was like, 'Nah, I don't know what y'all talking about, but every single time I step on the line, I'm trying to win.'"
In London, Coleman held off a late surge by Bolt to beat him by one-hundredth of a second.
Donovan Bailey, the 100-meter champion at the 1996 Olympics, has taken notice. He believes Coleman must improve technical aspects of his sprint and get stronger, but he says he has "unlimited potential."
"Christian has the talent to be one of the fastest people that ever participated in the sprints," Bailey says. "We know that he has the physical tools. We also know that he has the mental tools. He's fearless."
Coleman says competing against Bolt felt surreal, but he isn't afraid of any challenge.
"It's a huge blessing and a huge honor to even be in the same conversation of being 'The Next Bolt,' but for me, I've always wanted to leave my own legacy," Coleman says. "I've always just wanted to be my own person, create my own path and have people 10 years from now saying, 'Who's going to be the next Christian Coleman?'"
The week after the world championships, Coleman returned to classes at Tennessee in the same gray sweatpants and sweatshirt, clutching the same black backpack. But this time, throngs of students flocked to him for autographs and selfies.
It was a moment that an 11-year-old Coleman could not have pictured after a painful loss one afternoon.
The fifth-grader ran to the top row of the concrete bleachers at Twelve Oaks Stadium in Clayton County, Georgia. He pulled his gray hoodie over his face to hide his anguish. He felt humiliated after coming in third in the 100 and 200 behind two boys: Jamal, whom he had beaten before, and Kenwardo, a new kid. They were bigger, stronger and had already hit their growth spurts, while Coleman was still stuck in his prepubescent body.
The losses were piling up. Coleman was no longer the fastest, like he had been since he started running at the age of five. His frustration mounted, as he couldn't will his body to mature no matter how hard he prayed.
Seth walked to the top of the stands. He couldn't see his son's face, but he knew the pain cut deep.
"You have to be patient," Seth told him. "You have to wait for God to bless you to grow. Stay hungry, stay dedicated."
Coleman didn't dream of becoming a track star, though. Competing in the same Westlake area that produced Cam Newton and Adam "Pacman" Jones, he wanted to be a football player. But coaches tended to overlook him because he didn't pass the eye test.
"A guy your size gets one shot to prove he can play; bigger guys will get 100 shots to prove they can't play," Seth repeatedly told his son, who now is 5'9" and 159 pounds. "When you get your shot, you gotta be prepared. You gotta outwork everybody."
Coleman would complete 30- to 40-yard sprints up steep hills in muggy heat under the direction of John Lewis, his speed and agility trainer from age six until high school. Once, Lewis had a 12-year-old Coleman do a sled drill: running 10 yards flat, 20 yards uphill, starting over, 20 yards flat, 20 uphill, 40 flat, 20 uphill, 50 flat, 20 uphill.
The feat seemed impossible. Coleman fought back tears, along with a little snot that had already trickled down his nose. He was exhausted from the workout up to that point, but he accepted the challenge.
"What he has is the tenacity to keep trying and trying no matter what people say about his makeup or his build," Lewis says. "He just said, 'You know what? I'm going to go to work.'"
He'd complete extra workouts with his dad after practice. The two would call the sessions "Christian's Part 2."
"I wanted them to knock it off, go swimming, go to Six Flags," Coleman's mother, Dr. Daphne Coleman, says. "But Seth would always say, 'While you at Six Flags riding roller coasters, someone is out there practicing.'"
Yet Coleman was still was not the fastest in the area as a high school freshman or a sophomore. Ryan Clark, now at the University of Florida, shined instead.
Coleman finally had his growth spurt and broke through as a junior, winning state titles in the long jump and the 200 for Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School. He repeated both state titles as a senior, also won the 100 and anchored his school to a record-setting 4x100-meter relay.
He thrived in football, too, as an all-state defensive back who also played returner and running back. Coleman was electric, returning kicks and punts for touchdowns, generating 800 yards of total offense and racking up 60 tackles in his final season. He was deceptively strong for his frame, which made him difficult to bring down.
"He was kind of like a one-man fast break," says Chris Slade, Pace Academy's football coach, who coached against Coleman. "You almost had to have 13 guys on the field to try to stop him."
But no matter how well Coleman performed at recruiting camps, he received little interest from major Division I schools. Mike Earwood, his former coach at Our Lady of Mercy, grew accustomed to hearing: "We like him, but…"
"He was a D-I prospect from a talent standpoint," Earwood says. "He was the fastest kid I ever coached and had such space awareness and had great hands. But it was the height, the size that scared the major recruiters off."
Valparaiso, a Division I-AA school, was interested in him, as were several Division II schools, but Coleman didn't want his parents to have to pay for college. It bothered him that he was not receiving the offers that players he felt just as talented as were.
"All the guys I saw today that got D-I rides, I'm better than them, Dad," Christian said while sitting in Seth's GMC Yukon on signing day in 2014, his senior year.
"I know," Seth said. "But it doesn't matter what you and I think. It's what the recruiters think. Don't worry. Just be who you are."
"That's all right," Christian said. "I'm going to go D-I in track."
As much as it hurt him, he said goodbye to football and committed to Tennessee to focus exclusively on track. That would be his motivation.
"You have to have that dog-eat-dog kind of mentality," Coleman says. "I think me playing football all my life and having that chip on my shoulder, not really getting the opportunities that I wanted, really carried over to track and field. It allowed me to use all that energy and put it in the direction of being the best track athlete that I could be."
Coleman hadn't anticipated breaking the 60 indoor world record earlier this year. He walked into the Clemson Invitational in South Carolina in January with no expectations. It was a smaller meet, a chance for him to knock off the dust as the 2018 season began, he thought.
He has always chased records, though. In high school, he hung a sheet of paper next to his bathroom mirror titled "Records to Break." It had the top marks for Our Lady of Mercy, Fayette County, Class A and state overall. He'd beam with pride each time he'd cross one off and scribble his time next to it.
That same fervor led him to shatter the NFL draft combine 40-yard dash record. He heard Bengals receiver John Ross call out Usain Bolt by saying he could run a faster 40 than the eight-time Olympic gold medalist. Coleman was quiet. Then he destroyed Ross' 4.22 mark with a blistering 4.12 on turf.
This season, he'd break numerous 60 records. His original record at Clemson (6.37) was not submitted for ratification since there was no "zero gun" test and because electronic starting blocks were not used (the blocks measure false starts; a "zero gun" test checks the automatic timing system).
Coleman persisted, toppling Greene's record officially in February and then topping it again—and breaking Greene's championship-race mark that stretched all the way back to 1991—in winning gold at March's IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England.
But Coleman shies away from talking about those accomplishments. He doesn't talk about being the only NCAA athlete other than Gatlin to sweep the 60 and 200 indoor titles and the 100 and 200 outdoor titles, either.
He opens up about his losses, though. One still stings, still drives him.
Coleman finished 15th in the 100 and 200 events at the NCAA Outdoor Championships as a freshman at Tennessee. It did not matter to him that he was named a second-team All-American in both events or that he was named SEC Men's Freshman Runner of the Year. He felt like he had failed.
He walked up to Hall, who was then Tennessee's sprints coach, deeply disappointed in himself.
"Remember this feeling," Hall said. "And do everything in your power to never feel it again. If you want to be the best, you have to be obsessed with your craft."
Coleman has morphed into a perfectionist, constantly laboring on his weaknesses, especially after the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he was a member of Team USA men's 4x100 relay. With a tattoo of the Olympic rings on the inside of his left arm, Coleman came back and worked to improve his start out of the blocks. He spent more time in the weight room to get stronger, too. He is still trying to tackle his weaknesses.
"He has a relentless approach," Hall says. "Being complacent is not in his DNA."
Coleman's phone rang. It was John Lewis, his former speed and agility trainer, checking in after he came in fourth in Rome back in May.
"When you lose, do you know you're giving people confidence?" Lewis told him. "They think they can really beat you."
Coleman didn't say much, but in his typical way, he said everything: He would get back to work.
He bounced back to win gold in the 100 at the Rabat Diamond League race in July, clocking a 9.98. Beating Baker (9.98) and Lyles (9.99) that day gave him confidence, especially heading into this weekend's Birmingham race, where he will have to prove himself again.
"I realized that I really am built for this. I feel like I'm just built differently," Coleman says. "I don't know of many people that can take almost two months off of not being able to train fully, 100 percent, train for three weeks, really hit it hard, then come back and go up against the best guys in the world and come out on top of them."
There's no doubt in his words now. Only hype.
"I don't think there's anybody out there that can beat me at this point."
Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and SLAM Magazine. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.