When Trayvon Bromell was 10, he used to race kids on the street near his home in St Petersburg, Florida, and he rarely lost.
A decade on, little has changed in that sense; the kid has grown up to become one of the fastest men on the planet, having lowered his personal best to 9.84 last year and tied for third in the 100m at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015.
With such an enviable list of accolades for one so young, it’s understandable that the 20-year-old is not short on confidence. “I’ve never feared anyone,” says Bromell, who is deeply religious and prays twice a day. “When I’ve got God on my side, I fear no man.”
Bromell will be one of the star attractions at this weekend’s US Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon, where he hopes to book his place on the US team for the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016, which will also be held at the same venue from 17-20 March.
Two years ago, Bromell won silver over 100m at the IAAF World Junior Championships Oregon 2014, so knows how it feels to take on the world on home turf. “I love running up there,” he says. “The fans always come out with a lot of love, so I hope I can go to World Indoors and do something great.”
Approximately 7000 people will pack the Oregon Convention Centre for the event, considerably more than the one person – his uncle Terrell – who was in attendance when Bromell’s talent emerged in that unofficial street race 10 years ago.
Finding the perfect fit
It was he who first encouraged Bromell into athletics, but back then, the youngster’s sporting dreams always involved him catching a football at the end of a sprint. “I didn’t care too much for track, but a lot of people obviously saw something special in me,” he says. “As good as I was at [American] football, I could never gain the weight I needed, so I let that dream go and focused on something that fitted me a little more.”
Sprinting, it turned out, suited him perfectly, and Bromell enjoyed a breakout year in 2014, becoming the first U20 athlete in history to break the 10-second barrier in legal conditions by running 9.97 to win the NCAA Championships.
Despite turning professional in October, he continues to take classes at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he is studying communications, and has chosen to remain under the guidance of college coach Michael Ford.
“Most athletes, when they change coaches, they go down,” says Bromell. “Why would you leave someone who helped get you where you are?”
He may carry the swashbuckling confidence of a 20-year-old with the world at his feet, but Bromell retains the wisdom of a man twice his age, one who is aware that – as former marathon world record-holder Steve Jones used to say – every great runner is one hamstring injury away from oblivion.
As a teenager, Bromell had his fair share of injuries: a broken hip (running), a broken arm (basketball) and two broken knees (trying to do backflips over his friend). Through it all, the physical pain was less damaging than the emotional toll of having to admit his body wasn’t built for contact sports.
“It kind of messed me up in my head,” he says. “People were all in my ear, but at the end of the day, I just focused on getting better. In track I got better; it was just where I was supposed to be.”
Eyes on the prize
Despite his success, the memory of those injuries ensures he always keeps one eye on life after athletics. It’s for this reason he works just as hard at his academics, attending classes from 8am until 1:30pm each day and squeezing his training in before tutoring sessions in the evening.
“Track and field could end in a second, but education is key. That’s the only thing that’s going to keep you going. I’m still trying to balance training and school, but a degree is the main goal out of anything. That comes first.”
That said, Bromell is fastidious when it comes to training, heeding the warning of the old adage that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
“I never socialise. I pretty much go to school, practise, go home, recover and get ready for the next day. When I’m at home, I still work out. I do core work, abs, and have a pair of blocks. I don’t stop. I practise 24/7.”
In his spare time, Bromell likes to pull up old race videos, studying both his form and that of his rivals, figuring out ways to get faster.
Though 2016 is in its infancy, Bromell can sense he’s on the right track, and in Kentucky earlier this year, he proved it, lowering his 60m personal best to 6.54.
“I’m getting better every day,” he says. “I’ve been doing some of the old training and trying new things to make me a better sprinter. My start is good, now it’s all about fixing my finish. I gotta be able to finish strong.”
In Beijing last year, Bromell actually led Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin halfway through the 100m final, so he knows if he can fit the final piece of the puzzle by the summer, he can be a genuine threat at the Olympic Games.
I ask if the experience in Beijing gave him confidence, perhaps removing any fears he had about competing against – and being able to beat – the fastest men in the world.
“I’ve never been worried about anybody, never been scared of anybody,” he says. “Who have I to fear?”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF