Fred Kerley nabs his first career Diamond League victory in Rome (© Hasse Sjogren)
When athletes reflect on 2018, offering up an end-of-season judgement on their performances, what they don’t say can often be as important as what they do.
So when Fred Kerley casts his mind back over a season in which he became IAAF Diamond League champion over 400m and says, with a blase attitude, “it was a good year,” it’s easy to spot what he didn’t call it: great.
That’s because in recent years, the 23-year-old US sprinter has set his own threshold for excellence, one he intends to surpass next year.
“I’m learning new stuff all the time,” he says, “and I can’t wait to take it to 2019.”
After a collegiate career of breath-taking brilliance, much was expected of Kerley in his first season as a professional, and he delivered.
But that’s not to say he’s satisfied. After all, everything he’s done for the past year and a half has had the misfortune to be compared to what he did at the NCAA West Preliminary meeting in Austin, Texas, in May 2017.
It was there that Kerley made his name reverberate around the world, his NCAA record of 43.70 moving him to seventh on the all-time 400m list just weeks after his 22nd birthday (Michael Norman’s 43.61 this year has since pushed him down to eighth).
On his biography on the Pace Sports Management website, Kerley has a pinned quote: “Just here to make a lil history.”
So far, so good on that front for an athlete who, despite his achievements, still has enormous scope for improvement.
A native of Taylor, a small town in Texas, Kerley grew up showing more interest in American football and basketball than athletics, but in his senior year of high school fate dealt him a hand that steered him towards sprinting.
“I broke my collarbone playing football, it was the last playoffs game, so that took me out of that and basketball,” he says. “But I was in shape that senior season.”
He utilised his fitness to good effect and lowered his 400m PB to 46.48 at the age of 18, then weeks later took it down to 46.38.
Kerley went on to spend two years at South Plains College before transferring to Texas A&M, where in 2016, under the guidance of coach Alleyne Francique, he put a period of injury behind him to lower his PB to 45.10.
In 2017 he enjoyed his breakout year, winning the NCAA title in 44.10 and going on to reach the 400m final at the IAAF World Championships in London, finishing seventh in 45.23.
After turning professional Kerley moved his training base to Phoenix, Arizona, where he trains at the Altis base under the guidance of coach Kevin Tyler. “It’s lovely there,” says Kerley. “I’ve been there for one year now and I’m learning all the time.”
But 2018 wasn’t all smooth sailing. At the US Indoor Championships in February a race filled with tactical imprecision saw him fade to third in 45.63, meaning he missed out on an individual spot at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham.
Outdoors, he made amends, taking Diamond League victories in Rome, Birmingham and at the final in Zurich.
But most of all, Kerley learned the ways of this new world, traversing from city to city, hotel to hotel, stadium to stadium, on the circuit.
“By now I know the ins and outs,” he says. “If you don’t learn, you would never get better and now I know what I’m capable of doing for the 2019 season.”
He may have no major plans indoors this season, but his sights are trained firmly on the IAAF World Championships Doha 2019. At the recent Athletics Awards in Monaco, Kerley had the chance to take a virtual reality tour of the Khalifa International Stadium and when the image turned towards the medal rostrum, he remarked: “that’s where I’ll be – top step.”
To achieve that, he knows a step up will be needed, particularly with the likely return from injury of world record holder Wayde van Niekerk, but knowing what he now knows, Kerley is not willing to settle for anything less than the best.
“I want to be on the podium, have the gold medal around my neck and just enjoy life,” he says.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF