Track and Field

When a humble Usain Bolt ignited Quebec

On July 13, 2003, on the track in the then-brand new University of Sherbrooke stadium, nothing could stop Usain Bolt, not even the terrible weather. It was a glimpse into what the Olympic icon would become — the greatest sprinter of all time.

Olympic great showed flashes of greatness at 16, at the 2003 world youth championships in Sherbrooke, Que.

The 2003 world youth championships in Sherbrooke, Que., were a coming out party for Usain Bolt. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

On July 13, 2003, on the track in the then-brand new University of Sherbrooke stadium, nothing could stop Usain Bolt, not even the terrible weather.

A few weeks shy of his 17th birthday, the Jamaican won the 200-metre final at the youth world championships with a surreal time of 20.40 seconds and provided a glimpse into his iconic future.

​The Usain Bolt of 2003 was already getting faster with every race and only just beginning to exploit his immense potential. The 200 was already one of his specialties, but he wasn't yet a 100-metre runner. In fact, it would be another three years before Bolt would compete in track-and-field's crown jewel event.

Bolt would also compete in the 400-metre event in Sherbrooke. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Bolt also competed in the 400 at that Sherbrooke meet. It was an event in which he also excelled, but he didn't want to run it because it was so demanding.

He managed to escape the event before the semifinals — an anecdote he recounted in his autobiography Faster Than Lightning. At the suggestion of a sympathetic doctor, he locked himself up in the toilet and said he had gastroenteritis. The ploy worked: He was exempted from the semifinal.

The general public in Sherbrooke knew nothing about Bolt's early success on the track, but in the world of athletics, he was already making waves.

"Everyone knew or had already heard mention of him," remembers Richard Crevier, head coach of the Canadian team at the youth event. "Everyone was excited to see him run. He was already the one in the middle. Everyone saw him as a future star."

The Jamaican was a show onto himself. Curiousity seekers came to watch him train and warm up before his races. They were not disappointed.

"Seeing it on the track was a revelation for me," says Laurent Godbout, an athletics analyst and member of the CBC's production team in Sherbrooke. "I had never seen a young man with such compelling athletic qualities … I remember that he was fairly tapered with his long legs, but above all, I remember the speed at which he attacked his turns and the fluidity of his race. It seemed so easy and natural."

In 2003, Usain Bolt was already six-foot-five, but his muscle mass wasn't yet fully developed. He had the slender build of a high jumper.

"Already at the time, he was a head above the others, literally and figuratively," said Glenroy Gilbert, head coach of Athletics Canada, who was responsible for sprinting and relay teams in Sherbrooke. "We could not miss this athlete."

"It was already a show because of his size and his physique," adds David Pedneault of Quebec, who finished fourth in the 100-metre final and watched the 200-metre final from the sidelines. "Sprinters in general are not very big."

"It seemed almost abnormal. I was astonished by how comfortable he was with his size. He was at ease putting on a show."

Bolt might have been comfortable in his body, but it wasn't yet the perfect running machine it was to become: Not everything was fine-tuned, technically and biomechanically. This caught the eye of Canadian Bruny Surin, who captured Olympic gold as part of the 1996 Canadian 4x100 relay team and had retired a year before the 2003 event in Sherbrooke.

"What struck me right away was that it was asymmetrical. He would run a little from right to left. At that time, he had a low back problem and, because of that, he often injured his hamstrings. I took notice of his biomechanics. He would run a little crooked." 

Bolt beaten at 14

Like Bolt, Michael Grant came to Sherbrooke with big hopes. A silver medallist in the 200 at the 2001 world youth championships in Debrecen, Hungary, the 17-year-old American was aiming for gold — and nothing else.

He knew his Jamaican rival well, and not just by reputation. He had raced against Bolt two years earlier in the semifinals in Debrecen, a race that Grant won in 21.24 seconds. Bolt, then 14, took fifth place in 21.73 seconds, not good enough to qualify for the final.

American Michael Grant was Bolt’s main rival at the world youth championships. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

But it's not the memory of that first duel that Grant recalls.

"In 2003, I knew he was the favourite, but I expected to win," he said.

The American flew through his first races in Sherbrooke. His times — 20.88 in qualifying, a personal best, and 20.96 in the semifinals — were excellent and better than Bolt's (21.12 and 21.08, respectively). He entered the final with confidence but without any illusions.

"I felt so good. I had good times in those two first races. I was expecting Bolt not to run under 21 seconds before the final. I knew he had spared it, and I was not really worried about the times."

To beat Bolt, who was going full speed ahead, Grant needed to execute a perfect race. In the projections he drew up with his coach, Grant had to run around 20.25, because he anticipated Bolt running about 20.40.

That perfect race had to be won in the worst weather conditions.

"It was raining so hard, it was raining sideways," Grant recalled, adding there was also a 1.1 metre-per-second head wind. 

Standing in lane five, next to Bolt in lane four, the American wanted to get the most out of his start. But his hope faded fast.

"I thought I had to get out of the curve first, but he caught me at [the] three-quarter [mark]. After the curve, he opened the machine, and there was no way to catch him. The rain was not really a factor," said Grant, who had to settle for silver.

Bolt swallowed his opponents before coming out of the curve. He pushed to the finish line, without relaxing his effort, his eyes fixed on the official clock, which he stopped at 20.40, a record for the event. 

"He destroyed everybody," said Pedneault, the Canadian sprinter.

Grant finished second in 21.04, while British bronze medallist Jamahl Alert-Khan (21.35) was almost a second behind Bolt.

"Everyone wondered: 'Where does he come from? What's going on with this man?' He was so far ahead of everyone, with a time that made no sense," said Pedneault. "He was already in the 20 second range while at the time, in this competition, the [other] runners were closer to 21 seconds."

"It was like seeing the future approaching at high speed," said Godbout, the track-and-field analyst.

"The conditions for the final were horrible. But despite that, he achieved a senior international performance," recalled Richard Crevier, Canada's head coach. "We could see that he was already at that level. It's that simple. With his technique and speed, there was no doubt that this guy would become an international star."

Connected to Bolt

The son of Jamaican immigrants, the American Grant felt a connection to Bolt, and he told him so after the race.

They would never compete against each other again on the track.

By 2006, Grant was dedicated exclusively to football, with stints in both the NFL and CFL. 

By chance, the two runners ran into each other again in 2017, giving Grant an opportunity to greet the young prodigy who became a legend.

"I was in Jamaica in March for my birthday," says the American, now 31. "I shook his hand and spoke to him a little. Jamaicans are very proud of their country. Athletics is big there. I am proud of what he has accomplished, I am proud that he is a Jamaican."

Showmanship would come later

After the 200-metre victory in Sherbrooke, Bolt showed a flash of his humourous side, but he didn't yet display the showmanship that would later become his trademark.

Bolt was already turning heads as a teenager. (Courtesy Track and Field News)

"After the race, he walked around the track and shook hands with all the other runners to congratulate them," remembers Grant.

But the foundation of the extroverted character, that unshakable confidence and feeling of invincibility were already firmly in place.

"He thought he could win, you could see it. He was calm and commanded respect. He gave the impression that he was going to win, and that's what he did," said Gilbert.

Bolt, with such confidence at 16, made a huge impression on Surin, who, as a member of the Radio-Canada broadcast team, interviewed the young Jamaican after his win in the 200.

In that 90-second interview with Bolt, who was still catching his breath, Surin predicted the young Jamaican would run 100 in the 9.6 range — five years before the Jamaican would set the world record at 9.69 at the Beijing Olympics.

A year later, Bolt ran a breathtaking 9.58 at the world championships.

"Seeing this guy at 6'5" with the biomechanics he had, I gave him five years to run 9.6 in the 100 metres," said Surin. "I said it loudly, and I can say that 98 per cent or 99 per cent of people thought I was crazy." 

In 2003, the world of athletics was still looking at Bolt as a 200- and 400-metre sprinter. That September, Track and Field News magazine ran a cover story with this headline: The Next Great Long Sprinter?

Five years later, in Beijing, Bolt was a different runner, showing up at the Olympic Games as a specialist in the 100 and 200, with the results that the world now knows. His transition to the sprint event, which began in 2007, was a spectacular success. Most of those who had seen him running in Sherbrooke were surprised.

"It surprised me that he was also dominant in the 100," admits Grant. "The first time I saw him, he was tall and thin. I thought he would have a great career in the 200 and 400."

"I did not foresee him running the 100 metres," says Gilbert. "I could see him in the 200 and 400. It wasn't until a few years later, when he ran in the 9.70 in New York [a world record of 9.72 in May 2008], that I said to myself: 'Wow! He can also run the 100!'"

"He managed to have a fairly fast start and have enough acceleration to make the best 100 in the world. For me, the surprise was there," said Pedneault. "How, biomechanically, was he able to accelerate so fast? It was the biggest surprise when I saw him beat the 100 world record."

Bolt smashed the world record at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, clocking in an eye-popping time of 9.69 seconds. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

How Bolt became so great

How did Bolt become this 100-metre beast? He only exploited assets he already had in Sherbrooke, says Crevier. And his long stride does not explain everything.

"He has never had a good start, but with the amplitude of his stride and his ability to reach a maximum frequency equivalent to that of the runners shorter than him, you see him take the lead at each stride as early as 30 metres. That's what we could already see at that time," says Crevier.

Usain Bolt wins the 100m at 2008 Beijing Olympics

5 years ago
Duration 1:20
Jamaican sprinter takes gold in world-record time

In 2003, Surin saw the Jamaican as the prototype of a new sprinter, a bigger sprinter and master of this new biomechanics of the 100. In his eyes, this athlete could not become anything but the Usain Bolt that we know today.

"I told myself that at the end of his growth, he would find power. In his interviews, I also saw that he was someone who was willing to work very hard and who did not put up limits for himself," said Surin, who ran a 9.84 in a silver-medal performance at the world championships in Seville, Spain in 1999.  "I figured that with all this, it was impossible for him not to succeed."

Exceptional physical qualities, a monstrous stride, confidence, a strong work ethic: these were the traits Bolt already had in 2003. His path to excellence can be traced back to there. But there will always be something indefinable in his success.

Simply put, Bolt is a freak of nature who doesn't fit into a single category. 

Everyone who was there in Sherbrooke remembers seeing an up-and-coming star.

A few years later, they discovered a transformed, charismatic runner who became so much more than the humble teenager Surin predicted would one day be the greatest of all time. 

Translated from a report for Radio-Canada

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