Interview with Christophe Lemaitre, 200 M. Bronze medalist in the Rio Olympics

Entretien avec Christophe Lemaitre: Bronze medalist in the 200 m. at the Rio Olympics, French National Record holder in outdoor 200 m. (19.80)

English Transcription below

John Knych (JK): When I was in the train, the train passed Culoz, you grew up there?

Christophe LeMaitre (CL): Culoz.

JK: First I’m curious of your childhood there, because it’s a little town.

CL: Yes a little village.

JK: 3000 people?

CL: Yes, around there.

JK: So your childhood there, what did you do for fun? When you were little?

CL: There was not a lot to do, to be honest. Spend time with friends, play soccer, go outside.

JK: You have two older brothers?

CL: Yes.

JK: Are they also fast?

CL: No.

JK: Do you get along with your brothers?

CL: Yes, we got along, they were athletic too, played sports, like I did when I was a kid, but they didn’t sprint.

JK: Why?

CL: They didn’t have track at Culoz. And it didn’t interest them.

JK: And what do you parents do?

CL: My mom didn’t play sports. But my father played a lot of sports in the past, he was athletic. He did swimming and wrestling. But not sprinting.

JK: And I read that you played handball and rugby?

CL: That’s right.

JK: And that you found running by accident. There was the Tour de fête de Belly?

CL: Belay

JK: When you were 15 years old? Are you able to tell me about that experience? When you found the sport?

CL: Yeah but it wasn’t really by accident. We can say that…with my mother we were looking for another sport.

JK: Why?

CL: Because all of the other sports I did weren’t interesting. Or, it’s not that they weren’t interesting but…I wasn’t ah…I wasn’t enthusiastic. I didn’t have the desire to look for new experiences in those sports. And so while I was searching for new sports, I had my classmates and my gym teacher who were doing sprints and who said that I ran fast. So we looked for a place to prove myself. And at Belay there was a coach who tested athletes for the 50 meter sprint.

JK: Yes. Was it Pierre Carraz?

CL: No he was my first coach. The one who found me was Jean Pierre. And he started training me. He did the test and told me that I sprinted fast and that I had the quality.

JK: That you were talented?

CL: That’s it.

JK: How much time after this experience did you meet Pierre Carraz [his first coach]?

CL: I believe it was two years after, I think in 2005, or in 2007 I met him and started training with him.

JK: How did you meet Pierre?

CL: I think the first time was at a competition? Or I think it was the first time I went to Aix-les-Bains for training. It was there that he started to coach me. That he wanted to train me.

JK: And when did you know that you could succeed with running? In international competitions?

CL: I believe that it was…in 2007. With the Junior World Championships. I qualified in the 100 and 200 meters. And I finished 4th in the 100 meters and 5th in the 200 meters. And at the time in a new group for junior athletes. And I did that after only two years of training.

JK: That’s crazy. You started at 15 years old and three years later you were champion at the World Junior Olympics.

CL: That’s right.

JK: That’s unbelievable. So during those three years you were always working? Did you progress gradually, how was it?

CL: Of course I progressed little by little. In every race I beat my personal best time. However I didn’t really know a lot about training. I started with three sessions per week. The year after 4 sessions. There you go, I trained as much as the people in my athletics club.

JK: And immediately you got used to the life of an athlete? A serious athlete? Just after finding running did you get used to the rhythm of an athlete’s life? Or was it difficult in the beginning?

CL: No it was difficult because during some training sessions I had difficulty with…with long sprints. With 300 meters or 400 meters, I was really far behind my teammates.

JK: Why?

CL: Because I was bad. *Laugh/exacerbated sigh concerning the poor question* I didn’t have endurance. At the time I…in fact the cardio and endurance was very complicated for me. Aerobic sessions were horrible for me. It was really took 5 or 6 years for me to be able to handle those sessions.

JK: That’s interesting because the 200 meters is really your event. And of course that requires more endurance than 100 meters.

CL: Of course

JK: So your endurance improved little by little.

CL: That’s right.

JK: When did you realize for the first time that you could win a medal in the Olympics? After 2008 when you won the Junior Olympics?

CL: No it was much later. I think it was after Daegu. 2011. World Championships. Because there I ran the 19.80, the French 200 meter record. And I won the bronze. So I said to myself, the next year, in London, maybe I have a chance. To win a medal.

JK: So before Daegu you didn’t think that you could win a medal?

CL: Before? No. Because I was aware of my times in the beginning. 20.83. At the World Junior Championships. So when I saw sprinters running faster than 20 seconds, I knew I was far away. I was thinking really that I was incapable of achieving that level.

JK: But you did it. I read in an article that you said that if Teddy Tamgho can do it, so can I. Was he an inspiration for you?

CL: For the Junior Olympics?

JK: Yes.

CL: In fact no because I didn’t see him. While he was jumping I was preparing for my event. So when I finished I didn’t know that he was the World Champion.

JK: Okay. What’s more important to you, records or medals?

CL: Medals. Without a doubt.

JK: What is your relation with your coach? You told me that after two years you found Pierre Carraz. Today you work with Thierry Tribondeau.

CL: To be clear I am still working with Pierre Carraz. I have two coaches. It was Pierre who asked Thierry to join us for helping with my preparation.

JK: And your relationship with Pierre Carraz. Tell me, do you have complete confidence in him, do you call him every day, how do you work with him?

CL: Yes he is someone who I have confidence in for my training and preparation. He is someone with a lot of experience. And he has an eye for seeing the strengths and weaknesses in an athlete. And so yes I have complete confidence in him because he can prepare me well for the major competitions.

JK: I read in article in France Bleu that Pierre said, “We know where we are going.” Just after your performance in Rio, he said “That night we asked ourselves how we can prepare for the Tokyo Olympics.” Is that true?

CL: Well, I wasn’t there. But yes I heard that Triboneau called Carraz to start planning for the Tokyo Olympics.

JK: Wow. Did you party after winning the bronze medal? Or did you start working immediately after?

CL: After I finished the games, yeah I went to Club France to celebrate with the French fans who came to Rio to support the French team. I celebrated with them, there you go.”

JK: I saw a video of your teammate on the bus, he wasn’t sure that you had won because it was so close, the rest of the team of France, they were excited. You choose to study and prepare here instead of Paris? For what reasons?

CL: The atmosphere of Paris, I don’t see myself living there, to be honest.

JK: Why?

CL: It’s totally different. I need calm and a place to relax. It moves 24/7. Everything is grey. There’s all these buildings. There are no mountains or forests. There’s nothing. There’s no nature. It’s horrible. The people are always hurrying and are unpleasant. To visit, sure, but to live, no. It’s not my thing.

JK: Soon you are going to begin intense training for Tokyo. Can you share with me what your life is like when you are in the most intense part of your training? The daily routine?

CL: I discuss with my coach to prepare. All the work that we have to do. Five or six sessions per week. With a part that is short sprints, long sprints, a lifting session, and a general physical session. So in the winter we build the base. The goal is that we compete internationally. In the winter we go someplace with better weather for training. Because it is really quite cold here.

JK: Lot’s of snow?

CL: Not really snow, because of the lake next to us, it creates a micro-climate. But yes were are next to mountains so it gets really cold. So sometimes we go to the south. Or to another country. To find better conditions. Then the summer arrives and we need to run fast because there is the selection for the Olympic team. And it’s early. I think it’s in June. I hope I’m not making a mistake with that. But we have to run fast early. If we hope to make the list.

JK: My best French friend wanted me to ask you this question: how many kilometers per week do you run? In general? Do you know? [Christophe thought I asked: how fast do you run? I didn’t understand that he didn’t understand my question right away.]

CL: How many kilometers/hour? 40 kilometers. Between 40-42. After, to run 10.00 for 100 meters you have to run an average of 37 kilometers/per hour.

JK: But how many kilometers do you run per week? Total?

CL: Ah, we don’t run lot. For example, we run more in the winter. 3 laps of the track and we’re finished. The we do other things.

JK: How do you relax? I read that you like Overwatch? Is that your favorite way to relax?

CL: It’s not necessary my favorite way to relax. It’s mostly a way to pass the time. To distract myself. I play the saxophone. And there are other things. I stay busy.

JK: I’ve talked with the athletes who are constantly thinking about their sport. But you, when you’re not running, you try to do other things and not think of track? Because it’s so intense. Do you follow the success of other athletes? How much are you a student of the sport?

CL: In general yes. I follow the other athletes’ performances. Diamond league. World challenge. In France too. It interests me. I love watching, with my friends, the competitions. I love my sport.

JK: I read that your hero is Usain Bolt. I saw a video where you are in a photo with him. How are you inspired by him and what have you learned from him? I read that he has respect for you and for your victory. Have you learned things from him?

CL: Usain Bolt…I think of him first as an adversary like the others. Despite him being the best sprinter in he world, and conquering so many others, I always considered him like any other adversary. Like any other sprinter.

JK: So he wasn’t really your hero, just another competitor?

CL: Yes, exactly. But I always considered a race against him as a chance…because you know that the race is going to be fast when there’s Usain Bolt. So it’s necessary that you take advantage of this opportunity, to try and hold on, to not lose your head, to run fast.

JK: Would you say that Jimmy Vicaut is your rival? Because you ran with him in the relay?

CL: For Jimmy it’s like Bolt, he’s a competitor like any other. When we were in the relay together, things change, we were teammates, we worked together, to win the relay. But beyond that, I didn’t consider him as being more important than the others because he is French.

JK: So you wouldn’t change your training?

CL: No, he trains in Paris, I train here. We only see each other in big competitions. But that’s it.

JK: Now I have a difficult question, what did you feel in Doha when the team didn’t finish the race. How do you handle the obstacles, the injuries, the losses in your career? Because I read in an article that you said something very profound, you said, “The secret of sport is to not be imprisoned in your previous race.” Can you explain this phrase? It’s powerful.

CL: I said that because there was a time when I was practically 100% consumed by athletics in my head. And I did nothing on the side. All I did was training, recovery, working with the team, competition. And I think I was into it too much. I was always consumed by ambition, to perform well, to succeed, and so during the moments when it was difficult, when I wasn’t performing well, or when I was injured, I had nothing on the side to forget it, to think of it less, to move on. I was completely disappointed and always thought to run and run to rid myself of the bad races or injuries, etc. Except I wasn’t improving and I was frustrated because I was working more than I had in previous years when things were working, and I didn’t understand that I was training more and harder without the same results. So I changed my method, saw a Sports psychologist to help me put my ideas in order, to feel mentally better, to be capable do succeed for me. Because before I run to shut up the critics to show others that I’m capable of running fast. And that my career wasn’t behind me. I changed that by running for my own pleasure. So when I had injuries or low moments I was able to stay positive and keep my head because I knew that the critics were just sport and it’s a part of my life, but not my whole life, I do other things that I’m passionate about and that I love. It’s going to stop someday so I’ll make the most of it now, but I’m not just Christophe Lemaître the athlete but Christopher Lemaître who does athletics, not just an athlete, I’m someone just like anybody else, athletics is not my whole life, just a part.

JK: Concerning the question of the critics, I read that your coach said, “It’s part of the daily routine of high-performance athletes, when you’re in the light you’re exposed to critics, if you’re not being criticized you’re in your little garden doing little chores.” For you, do you follow or ignore the critics? Do critics feed you or do you say to yourself, “they’ll say whatever they want, I’m me, and I don’t give a shit.”

CL: At an earlier time I read a lot of the critics and like I said I read to shut them up. But I don’t think that it was good thing. Because they don’t know how you train. They feel they can judge you but they don’t know your training. They don’t know where you’ve come from, your moments of doubt, the extremely difficult moments. And that pisses you off. You want to show them that they’re wrong. That I’m someone who can still perform well. And I’m not someone who does nothing, but that I work really hard. And now I’ve learned to ignore it all. When I have bad performances, I don’t look at the critics at all. That was just a phase. I think that no matter what happens there’s always someone who will be critical of you, even when you do things well. And they give criticism that’s not at all constructive. So it’s necessary not to listen to them. They can scream all they want. Keep living your life how you know how.

JK: So how do your previous experiences in Rio influence your life today? I read that Vicaut said that, “In Rio, you were ranked 35, and you placed 3rd.” And I read that Doha is a trampoline for the Tokyo Olympics. So now…I read that your objective for 4 years has been Tokyo. So now how does your experience compare with your experiences before Rio? Because before Rio you had injuries. How do you feel now? How do you feel compared with the year before Rio?

CL: The year before Rio it was complicated because I had a lot of injuries. And I didn’t make the finals of the World Championships. In addition it was just complicated. But there was something that I knew: if I wasn’t injured I knew I could run really fast because the only times I couldn’t run fast were when I was injured, and the injuries affected my training. I knew that if I had a year with no injuries or very few injuries, I could succeed. So the goal for Tokyo is to avoid injuries as much as I can, to give attention to any little pain, to get out of the psychology of injury. If I feel bad I take a week off. It’s necessary to be vigilant, to every little alert of the body. And don’t fear injury. It can happen at any time. An injury can be a sign that I need to take a break before a worse injury. Be careful, be vigilant. Be capable of not training. Better to miss a day here or there than get injured and miss weeks.

JK: You have become more skilled to read and watch your body. To say: now, I need rest.

CL: That’s it.

JK: I watched this video, the revenge of the unliked. France TV sports. Have you seen it?

CL: No.

JK: It was the..

CL: Oh yes, the television segment.

JK: Yes, and I know it may be difficult to talk about it, but can you tell, your adolescence wasn’t easy. I learned that the other students weren’t kind to you. In what way were the other students cruel to you? I read that when you were 11, you closed your off. Can you talk about this period in your life?

CL: Yes, it lasted all through middle school. It was a lot of mockery. The remarks which hurt me. And even sometimes happened outside of school when I crossed the students who were mocking me.

JK: And this part of you life, how did you keep going? When the others weren’t kind, how did you fight against it, or deal with the mockery?

CL: I never really was able to deal with it. I was really very timid. I didn’t dare…I had difficulty talking, the only time I dared to do something, it came back to hurt me. It wasn’t working. When you are alone in a group, even when you try to fit in, it doesn’t work, you feel like everything is against you, you can’t do anything. It’s complicated to get out.

JK: Between 11 and 15 you were mostly alone?

CL: That’s it.

JK: And when you found sport it opened a door for you? And you life completely changed?

CL: Yes.

JK: I read two phrases online: “He will function better not caring about the others…he was not going to struggle or shed tears against their mockery.”

CL: Hmm-hmm

JK: When you said that…the recognition of others…I would like friends…but you didn’t have the way to make friends. That second phrase: not going to shed tears against their mockery. What does it mean?

CL: It means…when the students mocked me, I didn’t know how to react or change it, how to get out of it. In the beginning I thought it was pass, the it was just something fleeting, and that they will stop, when they’re older, or find someone else. But it never stopped. And I didn’t know how to get rid of it.

JK: I read that after Rio you were proud to be France. Is that true?

CL: Yes. Proud to win a medal to France. Yes I had the desire to win a medal for France. When I had it I was happy to be able to be with the other champions. In Paris. To be with those who supported me.

JK: What would you like Americans to know of what it means to be French? I know it’s question a little bizarre.

CL: Yes. Pffff. I think that it is the same for Americans, we are proud of where we come from, I know that Americans are very patriotic, but there’s still a pride of being French, a cultural pride. For athletes there is this desire to make France shine, whatever the way you do that, a pride of singing the Marseillaise. A strong pride of being French. Despite the multi-cultural aspect of France, people from different regions, people are still proud of being French. People are happy to see athletes who shine.

JK: The 200 meters is your specialty. What part of the race are you trying to improve right now? To achieve the next level?

CL: I think I want to improve every part. But the part I can improve the most is probably the turn. The first part of the turn, it’s all right, but the second part of the turn I am capable to move better into the straight and to hold my speed and to conserve it. I can improve that. I know that I can hold my speed right to the end. It’s just that part of the turn which is a little complicated.

JK: Of course Tokyo is in your head right now. But 2024 the Olympics are in Paris. Is there a part of you that thinks: if my body can hold on, Paris is a possibility? Or is too far to think about?

CL: Yes at the moment it is a bit far away. I have always had the habit to think year by year. For 2024 I’ll have to think later, if my body still capable of running fast? Also mentally do I still want to keep training? To continue to keep trying to reach a higher level.

JK: Is it tiring, in general, the life, your life, the life of an athlete? Or have you found a good rhythm with things like the saxophone?

CL: I think that it is necessary, to endure, you have to be capable of doing other things, because it’s true that it’s exhausting to think 24/7 of sport, I think it’s important to, like I said, think of other things. To liberate the spirit and the head, other activities.

JK: And you study here, in Aix-les-Bains, also, industrial…you’re at university?

CL: Not here. Annecy. Business collective communication. Yes it’s important to have other projects.

JK: Have you visited the United States before?

CL: Yes, twice, 2-3 times for my sporting internship, also a school trip.

JK: So you ran there.

CL: Yes, 400 meters with my club. The team of France was presented. It was super, great. And I had did 100 meters and I won there.

JK: Do you think that after your career you want to stay in the world of athletics, to be a coach, or other things, or do you not think of that?

CL: Of course I think of it that is why I have my studies. But still the future is still vague. To stay in the sport as a coach…I could…or do other things…do something completely different. Social media, management.

JK: When I watched the video of your victory in the Olympics. I saw that you have a routine before your race. How to you relax before a competition. How do you prepare right before a race? How do you relax? Like before the Olympic race?

CL: In general, I stay relaxed. For me the stress of the competition just comes a few hours before the race. And in general before that I’m rather relaxed. I watch TV, take a nap. Even the day of the competition I can sleep thirty minutes in the afternoon. It’s not a problem. I pass my time tranquilly.

JK: And now you work with your coach, is it the same time with Pierre as with Triboneau?

CL: Now in fact the preparation is created by both of them. They make it together. For the season. There’s not time with one, time with the other. They are both there and they observe me and give me their opinions. There’s not one or there other.

JK: I saw that you are the first white man to run faster than 10 seconds for 100 meters. I read that you don’t like this title. I read that you don’t like this title. What do you think of this though, to be the first man under 10 seconds for 100 meters?

CL: Yes it’s something that I don’t like because it ignores the important fact that I broke 10 seconds that I’m a man who is capable of that, and at the time it was new French record, which is very rare for France at the time, and that was totally ignored for the fact that I was the first white man to break 10. I prefer to be judged in the domain sportive. The color is anecdotal.

JK: What do you think that you can improve more easily, the 100 meters or 200 meters? Now you have the record of 200 meters. And Jimmy Vicaut has 100 meters. Do you think that you can run faster in the 100 meters? Or do you prefer to concentrate on the 200 meters?

CL: I think that, in my opinion, it’s preferable to concentrate on 200 meters rather than 100 meter because that’s where I’ve proved myself and that’s where I have the better chance of earning a metal, in relation to my potential. But I think I’m still capable of running fast in the 100 meters. I think it’s important to run the 100 meters to prepare for the 200 meters. Running the 100 meters will improve my speed. The pure, basic speed. To prepare for the 200 meters.

JK: Do you have the gold medal in your head for Tokyo? Or do you think: I just want to run the fastest that I can? If I win, I win.

CL: Of course it is my dream, I think every athlete has it, to be the Olympic champion. But I know that there is lot of unknown in sport. More important is to just want to be in peak form for the competitions, for the Olympics. After to be capable to bring out my best race, my best moments, and to medal.

JK: When you think of your adolescence, is it like another life for you? Or when you think of that time are you more motivated?

CL: Not it’s totally finished. I don’t think of it at all. Now is time when I think of myself and my projects, I live my life serenely, without a problem. I feel good. I’m happy with what I’ve done and I’m happy with what I do, that’s the main thing. It’s the mocking of the critics, it’s my performances that count.

JK: And your family, your brother, they are proud of you? You’ve had a lot of success. What do your family think of your victory.

CL: Yes well of course they are happy and proud, they have already told me, of course. I think that any family would be proud and happy to receive this honor in sport, of course. It was surprising for them. But they follow and support me.

JK: Christophe, thank yo use much, it was a pleasure for me. The coffee is on me.

CL: Thank you.

JK: I think that’s all I would like to talk with you about…*pause*…and again, pardon me for my French.

CL: No, it was comprehensive, it’s good.


The Tragic Death of a Japanese Olympian

Special thanks to Roy Tomizawa

(Check out his great blog: The Olympians)

And  Ichiro Aoyama’s book on Tsuburaya for the

Biographical and historical content.

“If you get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it.”

-Herman Melville

While wandering around Tokyo this past February, I felt hungry and decided it was time to eat some authentic ramen noodles. It was Saturday night and I was near Shibuya Crossing:

Shibuya Crossing at Night

After leaving the lights and crowds, I began exploring dark alleys and foreboding side streets in hopes of finding, not a hole in the wall, but a culinary crevice (Tokyo is a very compact city) that only a local could discover. The night before I had visited a “hole in the wall bar” suggested by my lonely planet tour book, and to my chagrin saw groups of well-dressed white people huddled over pricey cocktails and conversing in English. Na. This time around I would wander until I found a place where the staff and patrons looked at me with either dull suspicion or obvious disgust. “Koko ni gaijin wa nan desu ka?” (What is that dirty foreigner doing here?) Yes, much better. Kon ban wa! (Good evening!)

My stomach was grumbling. I turned a corner and there it was: a ramen place that was the most inconspicuous, smallest restaurant I had ever seen. There were 4 chairs inside jammed against a crumbling wall, a flimsy counter, a narrow hallway behind the chairs, then an open kitchen without a door. I would learn later that there was only one worker present who was the host, chef, waiter, bus boy, and dishwasher. There was also only one customer; a woman sitting by herself on the middle chair.

As I set down my lucky backpack on the floor near the chair the host/chef/waiter/busboy/dishwasher gesticulated towards the entrance. The woman turned and said in perfect English, “You have to use the machine.” Next to the door was a vending machine with pictures of food on plastic squares. I learned later that many restaurants in Tokyo utilize this vending machine system: you order and pay right when you arrive, then wait for the food to be served. The pictures were blurry and did not resemble any sustenance I could recognize, so I picked the one with best mix of colors and sat down.

While reading a book on Jack Ma, I furtively inhaled the beef-spice-broth smell of the woman’s ramen bowl next to me and thought, “Yes, this is going to kick the shit out of those ramen-dime-blocks back home.” 
ramen funnyramen funny 2

Funny-Noodle-Flavor broke

Then I put the book down and struck up a conversation with the woman. For this essay, and the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Matsuri. You may be wondering what this all has to do with the tragic death of a Japanese Olympian…

not all who wander

I asked Matsuri how she found this place. “My mother recommended it to me. She says this restaurant has the best ramen in all of Tokyo.” Even though Matsuri’s English was very good with only a slight accent, I could see via her facial expressions that her mind was in overdrive before each sentence. Nonetheless, the conversation went smoothly. I told her that I was in Tokyo for a week, by myself, and staying in 6 different AirBnB locations throughout the city. She wrote down on a napkin the name of a shrine (Meiji Jingu Shrine with a “quiet and refreshing” park)…

Ah, Sumo titties, so refreshing...
Ah, Sumo titties, so refreshing…

…and a place called Kappabashi Dougu Street (merchants have been gathering there since 1912 selling everything from hardware to restaurant supplies):


While she wrote on the napkin, I noticed slight scars on Matsuri’s wrists and hands. Before she left, I learned that she was a plastic surgeon. Immediately after revealing her occupation Matsuri assured me that it’s not like being a plastic surgeon in the United States. “It’s much easier to become a plastic surgeon here. Much less school. It’s very easy.” This was a theme throughout our conversation, her constant humility and downplay of my compliments. But I could tell she was very intelligent. She gave me her business card and I gave her mine. She left and my ramen meal arrived. Matsuri’s mother was right: it was delicious.

The next day I woke up in my $20/night AirBnB cubbyhole near the prostitute district and checked me email. Matsuri had sent me a long message:

Good morning. Here is a long list of interesting or my favorite places in Tokyo. Enjoy your trip. :D.

Below were 32 places (streets, shrines, restaurants, and museums), some with links, all with symbols next to them. At the bottom of the email was a key for the symbols: star = my favorite. * = good for people-looking. Circle = good for knowing Japanese culture. Square = funny.

Matsuri was intense, kind, and thorough…and I liked it. I emailed back asking if she wanted to have dinner that night. She said yes.

We met at Ueno park. I had just checked out the museums by there, and waited near teenage boys arm wrestling, feeling tempted to challenge one of them:

Anata wa gaijin ude o tameshimasu?...You want to test the dirty foreigner’s arm?
Anata wa gaijin ude o tameshimasu?…You want to test the dirty foreigner’s arm?

We walked to the restaurant district nearby. It was a cool, pleasant night and we threaded the bustling crowds. I almost purchased this Godzilla shirt…


…but decided I needed to start making better buying decisions, especially now that I was embarking on the path of an impoverished journalist. Matsuri led me to a busy restaurant off a side street, pushed aside some plastic curtains, and we sat down.

The dinner was relaxing and fun. We learned more about each other’s lives. Matsuri was living at home with her mother. Her parents had been divorced for 20 years and lived in separate apartments, but her grandparents still believed their children were married and living together. Despite this hidden separation, Matsuri’s parents were still pressuring her to marry. Japanese culture can be excessively polite, strict, and repressive.

Matsuri mentioned that she checked out my website. Her favorite story was, “The Aspiring Actress.” She asked me questions about the piece and I could tell that, to put it crudely, she “got it.” I was further impressed when I learned that she had never lived in an English-speaking country, although she had visited Thailand 10 times. Her speaking and reading skills were the result of school and self-study. Our first course arrived, Oden:

Lots of brown.
Lots of brown.

Oden is Japan’s “pot winter” dish and contains an assortment of boiled eggs, daikon (raddish), konjac (yam cake), and processed fishcakes stewed in a light, soy-flavored dashi broth. It’s like the “shephard’s pie” of The East.

While eating our food and crushing bottles of Sake, we also discussed books. I showed her the other book I was reading:

Makioka sisters

Matsuri had read it before, and we discussed the differences in the translation. Matsuri was very disappointed in the title. In Japanese the book is called Sasameyuki, which means Light Snow. The book centers around the character named Yuki, who is one of four sisters, who drifts aimlessly and carelessly through life and is unable to find a husband, despite the pressure of her family to marry. In Japanese, there are numerous ways to describe snow, here are six different ways, and it’s meaningful that the author named his book Light Snow rather than the Makioka Sisters. We wondered about what else was lost in the English translation, and I told Matsuri about my plan to teach myself Japanese.

Matsuri asked if I did any sports back in American, and I told her I was a runner. She asked if I knew about the Japanese runner, Kokichi Tsuburaya. No, I did not. Kokichi was famous, in the athletics world and in Japan’s literary world. He had won the bronze medal in the marathon in the Tokyo 1964 Olympics. Then he wrote-

“Hold on, I have to go the bathroom (I was drunk).” Here’s a crappy picture I snapped on my way back from the bathroom:

When you're drunk, banal places in foreign countries look fascinating.
When you’re drunk, banal places in foreign countries look fascinating.

The conversation moved on from Kokichi Tsuburaya and we ordered desert. I tried to pay, but Matsuri insisted that she treat me to the dinner. Then we left the restaurant…

On my last day in Tokyo I emailed Matsuri asking if she wanted to hang out again. I was drinking beer with Wolfgang (a physicist who I met my first day who was studying at Keio University) and we decided to get some late-night snacks. Tokyo is not a late-night town. The subways close at midnight and most of the restaurants close too. We began wandering around Shimbashi and I snapped this picture of a drunkenly “salary man” passed out against a pole:


Finally, we found a place that was open and selling Takoyaki, or fried balls. Tako means octopus and yaki (which sounds similar to ‘yucky’) means fried. Here they are:


Matsuri met us there after work and we drank, eat Takoyaki, and talked. We stood at a table near the street and the chilly breeze complemented the hot balls I kept impatiently scorching the roof of my mouth with. We had a good time. I told them how much I had enjoyed my trip and swore that I WOULD RETURN SPEAKING JAPANESE. Matsuri gave me a book of poems:


I can’t read them yet, but someday I will.

As I hugged Matsuri goodbye, I thought she looked preoccupied and sad. I even thought there were tears in her eyes, but that could have been the street-lamp reflections and the wind. She said, “I forgot to tell you the story of Kokichi Tsuburya!”

 “It’s alright, I’ll look him up later.”

“Goodbye. It was nice meeting you!”

“It was nice meeting you too. Goodbye Matsuri!” She left.

On the plane back to New York City, I looked up Kokichi Tsuburya. Over the next couple months I sporadically researched his life. Here is his tragic story:

Kokichi was born in Sukagawa, Fukushima in 1940. He was 1/7 children:

Kokichi is front and center, laughing, with his father.
Kokichi is front and center, laughing, with his father.

The family planted rice and raised livestock. When each child reached the age of 10 they were put to work. The father, Koshichi Tsuburya, was extremely strict and believed his children required extra discipline to ensure they did their chores. Like a drill Sargent, he ordered them around yelling, “Go Forward!” “Right Face!” and, “Attention!” On top of cooking, cleaning, and planting, he trained them to use bayonets and hit them whenever they were not obedient.

As a young boy Kokichi loved to run, especially with the family dog. At the age of 5, though, he felt acute pain in his legs and back. Koshichi noticed that his son’s left leg was shorter than his right. When they brought him to hospital to confirm the diagnosis, they also learned that Kokich had tuberculosis arthritis, which causes pain in the weigh-bearing joints of the ankles, knees, and hips. Kokichi felt pain whenever he ran.

Despite this pain, Kokichi kept on running. He looked up to his older brother, Kikuzo, who ran in competitions. They ran together and even though Koichi was 7 years younger, he kept up. The brothers would go on runs late at night. Their father did not approve. “You can’t earn a living off of running,” he said. So the sons would sneak out to run when their father was taking his evening bath.

Koshichi finally confronted his son and asked, “If you run, will you take this all the way?” Kokichi replied, “Yes,” and the father added, “If you decide to do this, do not stop halfway.”

Kokichi dedicated himself completely and in high school he qualified for the National 5000 meter race. He did not win. Without anyone urging him to do so, he shaved his head to publicly account for his defeat.

After graduating from high school Kokichi joined the Ground Self-Defense Force, following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a soldier. He became a 1st lieutenant.

Kokichi is in the center.
Kokichi is in the center.

At the age of 24 he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in the 10,000 meters and the marathon. He also fell in love with a girl named Eiko, who he planned to marry after the games.

I'm coming Eiko...
I’m coming Eiko…

The Tokyo Olympics was historic in various ways: it was the first Olympics held in Asia, it was the first time South Africa was barred from taking part due to its apartheid system, and they were the first games to be telecast internationally without the need for tapes to be flown overseas. They were the first Olympic games to have color telecasts and of the 5,151 participants 4,473 were men and 678 were women. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics there will be nearly an equal ratio of men/women competitors and there will be mixed events (men and women competing in the same relay, such as the 4×400 meters). We’ve come a long way.

The competitions were held in October to avoid the city’s midsummer heat and humidity. On the 14th of October, Kokichi raced the 10,000 meters and placed 6th. This would be the last time the Olympics used a traditional cinder track for the track events, as a smooth synthetic all-weather track would be used for the first time at the 1968 games.

The last event of the games was the marathon. Kokichi was entered in the competition with his friend and teammate Kenji Kimihara. No doubt they discussed that Japan had not won a single track medal during the entire Olympic games, and this marathon would be the last chance for them to win one for their country.

Abede Bikila won the gold, becoming the first and only man to win the gold in the marathon in two, consecutive Olympics (he won gold in 1960 running barefoot). Here’s good amateur video of his finish, where immediately upon crossing the finish line he began doing calisthenics. Great athletes never stop.

Here’s a video with great footage:

When Kokichi entered the Olympic stadium he was in second place and greeted by a roar from the crowd. But right behind him was Basil Heatley, who would pass him in the last 200 meters (13:59). Kokichi was devastated that he would let a competitor pass him in front of so many Japanese people, and there was a collective groan when he lost. Later, Kokichi would tell his friend Kenji Kimihara (who was 23 years old during the race and placed 8th):

I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people. I have to beg their pardon by running and hoisting the Hinomaru [national flag] in Mexico [the next Olympics.]


After the games, Kokichi began training hard. He was a national hero and vowed to do better in 1968. He also wanted to marry Eiko. Kokichi’s coach at the Self-Defense Forces Athletics school, Hiro Hatano, supported the marriage, and so did Kokichi’s parents.

tsuburaya-and-miyake-celebrating d

But Hiro Hatano’s boss did not approve of the marriage. In 1966, coach Hatano’s boss declared that Kokichi needed to focus 100% on his training and that a marriage would distract him from his goals. In Japan, there are rigid hierarchies, and this system is even more strict in the military.

Hatano’s boss brought Hatano, Eiko, and Eiko’s mother together to discuss how the marriage would have to wait until after the Olympic Games. That way Kokichi could focus solely on his training. Kokichi was not at the meeting.

Hatano protest this decision, but was left with the task of telling Kokichi that he couldn’t marry Eiko. Hatano refused and ended up being demoted and removed from his coaching position.

Eiko was devoted to Kokichi and still wanted to marry him, but Eiko’s mother was not supportive any longer. Eiko’s mother was anxious that a marriage to a famous, bronze-medalist with the whole country counting on him would add a burden to his wife. She also wasn’t confident that a marriage in 2 years was certain. And since Eiko was 22 years old, she could lose her chance to marry well.

The marriage was broken off. Since Kokichi didn’t have a coach anymore, he began training on his own. He became plagued with injuries. He felt intense pain in a slipped disk that he had hurt years ago. In 1967, an injury to his Achilles tendon required surgery.

At the end of 1967 Kokichi returned home for a New Year’s holiday break. His father was distraught with news that he did not want to tell his son. But he thought it was best to tell his son the news before he found out on his own. He told him that Eiko had married someone else. Kokichi’s response was, “Oh, Eiko-san is married. That’s good for her.”

Soon after Kokichi returned to his Self-Defense Force base to train. But he couldn’t run a step because he suffered from lumbago. On Janurary 8th, 1968, teammates of Koichi entered his dorm room to find that he had slit his wrists and killed himself. He left behind a suicide note:

kokichi-tsuburayas-suicide-note y

The suicide note is consider by the Japanese literary world as a masterpiece for its simplicity and banality. Yukio Mishima (who ended up killing himself 12 years later during a military coup through seppuku) described it as beautiful, honest and sad. Kensaburo Oe, the Nobel Prize winner in 1994, believed it was a cultural marker of the 1960s Japanese ethos. Here it is:

My dear Father, my dear Mother: I thank you for the three-day pickled yam. It was delicious. Thank you for the dried persimmons. And the rice cakes. They were delicious, too.

My dear Brother Toshio, and my dear Sister: I thank you for the sushi. It was delicious.

My dear Brother Katsumi, and my dear Sister: The wine and apples were delicious. I thank you.

My dear Brother Iwao, and my dear Sister: I thank you. The basil-flavored rice, and the Nanban pickles were delicious.

My dear Brother Kikuzo, and my dear Sister: The grape juice and Yomeishu were delicious. I thank you. And thank you, my dear Sister, for the laundry you always did for me.

My dear Brother Kozo and my dear Sister: I thank you for the rides you gave me in your car, to and fro. The mongo-cuttlefish was delicious. I thank you.

My dear Brother Masao, and my dear sister: I am very sorry for all the worries I caused you.

Yukio-kun, Hideo-kun, Mikio-kun, Toshiko-chan, Hideko-chan, Ryosuke-kun, Takahisa-kun, Miyoko-chan, Yukie-chan, Mitsue-chan, Akira-kun, Yoshiyukikun, Keiko-chan, Koei-kun, Yu-chan, Kii-chan, Shoji-kun: May you grow up to be fine people.

My dear Father and my dear Mother, Kokichi is too tired to run anymore. I beg you to forgive me. Your hearts must never have rested worrying and caring for me.

My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side.


When Kokichi Tsuburaya was found dead in his dorm room he was holding on to his bronze medal.

Kokichi bronze medal


For months I’ve planned to end this essay with Kokichi dead in his dorm room and holding on to his bronze medal…next to a suicide note about delicious food. But due to various life circumstances and additional research, there’s another part of the story I want to tell:

Kenji Kimihara:

Kenji 1964

Kenji was Kokichi’s teammate and friend at the 1964 Olympics, whom Kokichi confessed, “I made an inexcusable blunder…” Two years after the 1964 Olympics Kenji won the Boston Marathon. Then, in the 1968 Olympics, 9 months after Kokichi’s suicide, Kenji would win the silver medal in the marathon by 14 seconds. No doubt he felt redemption for Kokichi, winning the medal that Kokichi missed by 3.6 seconds.

20 Oct 1968, Mexico City, Mexico --- Original caption: Winners of the Marathon run with their medals. From left, second place winner Kenji Kimihara of Japan, shaking hands with official; Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia (first place) and Michael Ryan of New Zealand, who won the Bronze medal for third place in th 1968 Olympics. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

In 2016 Kenji Kimihara ran the Boston marthon, 50 years after his victory. He was 75 years old and ran the marathon in 4 hours 53 minutes and 14 seconds. There was little press given to this accomplishment.

We are all surrounded by sadness and lost opportunities. But we’re all, also, headed to the same, dark place. What’s tragic to me about Kokichi’s death was not his suicide or what caused him to take his life, but what he missed. Kenji, while he’s an old man, is still living, breathing, learning, and running. He is a reminder to me that life, with all its pain, confusion, glory, and hope, will always move on, past all tragedy and defeat. He is a reminder that life is only out there, waiting, for the living.

Kenji old man

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The Brief and Reckless Life of Marco Siffredi

Snowboarders, as a class of people, are notorious for being rebels. They party hard, break multiple bones, roll perfect joints in 10-15 seconds, wear strange patchworks of tattered clothes, prefer energy drinks over water (according to their sponsors), prank each other incessantly, are partial to toilet humor, don’t mind shitting outdoors in sub degree temperatures, and throw their battered bodies off of abandoned buildings to land on a rail and capture a SIIIIIIICK. Where did this lifestyle originate and where is it going? Are snowboarders entitled, goofy, self-centered idiots or epic, artistic, purpose-driven heroes? And before we get to Marco Siffredi (the first man to snowboard continuously down Mount Everest) and his place in this powdery microcosm of awwweessomee brooo, who was the first person who stood on the summit of a snowy mountain, icy wind lashing through dirty dreads, and spake: “I will tie my feet to this wooden plank…and shred this gnar”?

It all began with Sherman Poppen. He was a surfer/engineer who in 1964 bolted two kids skiis together as a Christmas gift for his daughter. Then, in 1965, a bowling ball manufacturer took this idea and manufactured the snurfer:


It cost $15 and 1 million snurfers were sold in the next decade. But this was just a silly toy.

Meanwhile, in glorious upstate New York, Dimitrije Milovich was sliding around on cafeteria trays in the snow. What a beast. He began to develop snowboards following the example of the new short surf boards. He experimented with laminating glass and gravel on the board and also used nylon straps. In 1975, he created a company called “Winterstick” which is considered the first snowboard company:


They were mentioned by Playboy and Newsweek in 1976, and by 1980 they were broke.

Meanwhile, Jake Burton Carpenter, a 23 year old student in 1977, was obsessed with the Snurfer. He was snurfing all day and snurfing all night. He kept on improving the toy: foot straps for better control, fins for more stability. He started his own company in 1977. It still exists today:



Throughout this birthing decade, snurfers and such were not allowed on ski resorts. (Those pompous, tight-ass skiers probably had a sense that their arch-enemies were rising from the rad depths of gnarly hell.) The first snowboarders would go to resorts at night, walk up the trails, and ride down secretly in order to avoid a penalty. Even back then, snowboarders were rebels.

And while all this was going on, a little boy was born in a manger on May 22, 1979 in Chamonix, France. Chamonix is the extreme mountain sports capital of the world. The town was the host of first Winter Olympics in 1924 and is located in a valley 3,810 meters below the highest summit in Western Europe: Mount Blanc. The snowboarding messiah was the fourth child of a climbing family. His father was a mountain guide and his older brother would die in an avalanche. The “boy who liked to live” was named was Marco Siffredi:

Marco’s nickname was “l’Ange Blond.” The Blond Angel.

Fast forward through unruly childhood (in which he cut up his teeth multiple times which gave him his gap toothed smile):


In 1996, only a year after learning how to snowboard, Marco accomplished one of the valley’s “test pieces”: the Mallory on the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi, a 1,000 meter exposed rock garden with passages close to 55 degrees:

Eugster Couloir

To end that season, Marco became the first snowboarder to descend Chardonnet (sustained 55 degrees) with his best friend, Philippe Forte. Phillipe would die the next year in an avalanche on Chamonix’s Grands Montets ski area.

Marco in Chamonix

But what put Marco on the map was in 1999, at the age of 20, when after snowboarding for only 4 years he rode the Nant Blanc on the Aiggille. This mountain face had been skied only once before (1989) and is a 3,300 meter descent which averages 55 degrees in steepness, with sections of 60 and 65 degrees. To put these angles in perspective, Chamonix writer Trey Cook wrote: “…a blown edge, a miscalculated turn, or a momentary lapse of concentration and the rider might as well have jumped from an airplane without a parachute.” Here is Marco on the mountain:


That fall, Marco went to Nepal and descended Dorje Lhakpa, a 22,854 foot peak in the Himalaya. On his return from Dorje Lhakpa, Marco contacted Russell Brice of Himalayan Expeditions, a commercial guiding operation specializing in fully-equipped expeditions to 8,000 meter peaks. Brice advised the blossoming daredevil to attempt other 8,000 peaks (8/14 are in Nepal) before trying Everest. Why? To see if Marco’s body could even adapt to the extreme altitude. They made plans for the Himalayan giant: Cho Oyu:

Those specks are not ants. They are people.

The next year Marco descended Cho Oyu, the world’s six-highest peak, a big step towards his ultimate goal, the Holy Grail of descents: Mt. Everest. Yes, he was ready. Older snowboarders attempted to dissuade Marco against attempting Everest at such a tender age. Marco’s reply: “If we don’t do stuff that is a bit crazy at 20, we’re not going to start at 50, yours is the philosophy of an old fart.”


In spring of 2001, Marco journeyed with Himalayan Expeditions for Everest. Marco’s hope was to summit and descend by the Horbein Couloir, the most direct of the 15 established routes:

The Hornbein Couloir

But when they arrived there was hardly any snow on the summit. Most people (99%) attempt to climb Everest in the spring because of the lack of snow and lighter conditions. But these lighter, more “climbing favorable” conditions are not conducive to shredding. Marco had to go with plan B, shredding the Norton Couloir. Here he is, on his 22nd birthday, the day before he summited Everest for the first time:


Soon after leaving the summit, Marco’s binding broke due to the extreme high-altitude cold. One of the sherpas was able to fix it with bailing wire, and Marco entered the Norton Couloir, shredding 1,800 meters of slopes of 40-45 degrees. He arrived at base camp less than 4 hours after leaving the summit. Another snowboarder (Dr. Stephan Gatt) had summited Everest less than 24 hours before Marco, but had taken off his board and down-climbed past 100 meters of the steepest terrain. Because Marco rode all the way back to Advanced Base Camp (ABC), he is credited with the first continuous snowboard descent of the world’s highest mountain.

Marco shredding Everest

Most people would call it a day after this accomplishment. But Marco wasn’t satisfied. The next summer he made plans to return to Everest in the fall and attempt the Horbein Couloir.


For Marco’s second, Everest attempt he did not have a sponsor. He raised the 45,000 Euros (about $47,000) needed for the trip himself.


On August 22, 2002, Marco and his crew arrive at base camp and their gear is loaded on their backs for the trip to ABC.

The next day the crew sees that 30 centimeters of fresh snow had fallen overnight. While Marco looks at the North Face, which has been ripped clean, exposing the rock below, he describes the face as, “a festival of avalanches.”

Over the next few days the sherpas begin fixing ropes and carrying gear to Camp 1, approaching the “Death Zone” of 8,000 meters. Even at this place (6,000 meters) Marco is experiencing frequent headaches. Simples tasks such as tying boots, eating, and sleeping become struggles.

Je ne me sens pas bien

Due to storms and bad weather, the crew ascends and descends with fits and starts. But their meteorologist (Yann) informs them that Sunday, September 8, should be clear. Sunday will be the summit day. Marco records himself on camera saying, “The hardest is yet to come, little man. Don’t be too happy just yet.”

On Friday the push towards the summit begins. At one point Marco stands outside in his shirtsleeves and makes calls to his loved ones. He fills his friends in on his true progress, but tells his parents that he’s still at base camp: so they don’t worry.

On Saturday they make their way to Camp 3, officially entering the Death Zone. Here the human body can no longer regenerate. Marco calls Yann for the forecast. Yann tells Marco not to stay too late on Sunday because the wind will kick up in the late afternoon. “You won’t have many chances,” Yann says.

“Okay,” Marco replies. “Adieu, Yann.”

“Yeah, we’ll talk tomorrow, Marco. Call me when you’re down.”

“Yes, but adieu, Yann. Adieu.”

In French, there are two ways to say goodbye. Au Revoir is the typical “goodbye” between friends when you expect to see them again. Adieu is used only when the person never expects to see the person again. Yann is scared and nervous after Marco’s call. Soon after, Marco’s phone battery dies.

On Sunday, summit day, the crew has left Camp 3 by 1:30pm. They begin breaking trail through chest deep snow. At 2:10pm, after 12.5 hours in the Death Zone, the team reaches 8,848 meters (29,028 feet), the highest point on Earth, the summit of Chomolungma (“the abode of the gods”), the Mother Goddess, Mount Everest. The ascent took 3x longer than Marco’s first Everest ascent in 2001.

At the summit, Phurba Sherpa is the first to arrive.

Phurba Sherpa. What a beast.

When Marco arrives, Phurba greets him with, “Where are we?”

“At the summit, but tired,” replies Marco. Phurba does a dance.

“Summit! Summit!” he yells.

“Tired. Tired,” Marco says. “Too much snow. Too much climbing.”

The clouds have begun to build from below. The sherpas are worried about the conditions and the late hour. They try to convince Marco not to go. But he’s worked 1.5 years for this. No, he’s worked his whole life for this. This chance may not come around again. At 3pm, Marco replaces his empty bottle of oxygen with a fresh one and straps in. “Take care, Marco,” says Phurba.

“Okay, Phurba. See you tomorrow.”

Marco drops and snowboards away. At 3:15pm, the sherpas watch Marco disappear down the mountain.

Marco Siffredi was never seen again. His body was never found.



Did Marco die dancing in one of those “festival of avalanches,” like his brother and best friend? Did he fall down a bergschrund (mountain crevice)? Did he collapse from fatigue and freeze to death (what his friends believe)? Nobody knows. And we’ll likely never find out.

What I like to think about, though, is Marco standing on the summit of Mount Everest for the second time, moments before plummeting into oblivion. Utterly exhausted, muscles twitching, burning, gasping for oxygen, the freezing winds biting through his jacket, his body rapidly breaking down, 23 years of recklessness and defiance behind him…and like Jake Burton Carpenter on a snurfer, or Dimitrije Milovich on a cafeteria tray, or any other self-centered, entitled, goofy idiot that has come before and will come after…stepping on to that wooden plank, staring down at a treacherous descent, risking a broken bone or death, and through the simple art of carving a slope never feeling more alive.

Last picture taken of Marco Siffredi

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Why is Usain Bolt so fast?

Jamaica's Usain Bolt races to the gold medal in the men's 200m final at the at the World Athletics Championships at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Jamaica’s Usain Bolt races to the gold medal in the men’s 200m final at the at the World Athletics Championships at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

This past Olympics Usain Bolt pulled off a triple-triple, winning 3 gold medals in 3 events (100 meter, 200 meter, 4×100 meter relay) in the past 3 Olympics, a feat that will go down in athletic history and will not likely be repeated during our lives. In track races that are often determined by 100ths of a second, in a sport where the body takes a particular kind of beating and where injuries lurk around the bend of the track (more so than swimming), in an environment where performance enhancing drugs are being furtively abused, it is extremely impressive that Bolt has maintained a #1 status for 3 consecutive Olympics. How did he do it?

Most articles on this topic will highlight Bolt’s superior genes and unique, physical build. While most sprinters are short or of medium height (5’5”-5’10”) Bolt is “freakishly tall:” 6’5.” This means that he has longer legs and a longer stride, which leads to him taking less steps, less contact with the ground, more time in the air, all contributing to less “ground resistance” and faster times. Here’s the breakdown:

Steps taken during a 100 meter race:

Amateur sprinter: 50
Elite sprinter: 45
Bolt: 40

Percentage of time spent in the air during a 100 meter race:

Amateur: 50%
Elite sprinter 60%
Bolt: 63%

Time spent in contact with the ground during a 100 meter race:

Amateur: .12 seconds
Elite: .08 seconds
Bolt: .07 seconds

Amateur sprinter top speed: 24 mph
Elite sprinter top speed: 26 mph
Bolt top speed: 27.8 mph

So why don’t we see more tall sprinters with long legs? Because tall runners cannot explode like Bolt. His explosion out of the blocks and acceleration is just as amazing as his long legged speed. Someone who is 6’5” with such long legs shouldn’t accelerate as fast as someone who is 5’5” with short legs, but Bolt does, stays even with his competitors for the first 25 meters, then in the last 25 meters leaves them in the dust.

Lesson: Sometimes an early disadvantage someone faces, which may prevent them from entering the ranks of the elite, is the exact thing which pushes them beyond the elite once they have reached that high level.

Here’s his world record 100 meter run:

So what allows Bolt to explode just as much as other elite sprinters? If we continue down the physical vein:

Fast-twitch muscle fibers. Bolt has a high quantity of these muscle fibers, like all elite sprinters, and has trained them to burst when the gun goes off:

Slow and fast-twitch fibers

Where did Bolt get these muscles fibers?

In the lab they recently discovered…forget science…Jamaica! (“You can take the boy out of Jamaica, but not the Jamaica out of the boy,”-Bolt’s mom).



Bolt was born in Trelawny Parish, in a primitive town with no street lights, limited running water, and old men riding donkeys. Bolt was a hyper active child, playing cricket with his brother, Sadiki, using a banana tree stump and an orange. His parents owned a grocery store and his father was strict.

Interesting tangent theory:
Woman in Jamaica regularly eat yams from aluminum rich soil, which is believed to help development of fast twitch muscle fibers.

Also: Sprinting gene (ACTN3), 75% of Jamaicans carry this gene. Compared to 70% of US international standard athletes.

But most important: culture! Sprinting is at the heart of Jamaican life. Ever since Arthur Wint won the 400 meter gold in the 1948 Olympics, Jamaica has loved and nourished sprinting.

Growing up, Bolt was a stand-out cricket player and was noticed by Pablo O’Neill, a former Olympic sprint athlete. A mentor was established early on and pushed him towards sprinting, without telling him how good he really was. This was key. Bolt won his high school championships. Bolt said that as a child, “All I thought about was sports.” His coach was often frustrated by his lack of dedication to training and his penchant for pranks. But this flippant attitude meant that Bolt didn’t burn out.

At the age of 15, Bolt participated in the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica. Before the race he was so nervous he put his shoes on the wrong feet. He still won the 200 meters, making him the youngest 200 meter winner ever. He vowed to never be influenced by pre-race nerves again. The International association of  Athletics gave him a rising star award and nicknamed him the Lightening Bolt.  Seven years before his first Olympics, Bolt was being told he was the greatest in the world at his age, celebrated in the capital of his country, which idolized sprinting.

In 2004, at the age of 18, Bolt participated in the Athens Olympics, but was eliminated in the first round due to a hamstring injury. He gains experience with an Olympics and the hunger grows. In 2005 and 2006 more injuries prevent him from completing a full season. The hunger keeps growing.

In 2007 he broke the Jamaican national 200 meter record held for 30 years by Donald Quarrie. Success! (Today he holds the 13 fastest 200 meters ever run.) At the 2007 world championships he won two silver medals. Relative Failure. Then in May 2008 he sets a world record in the 100 meters (9.72) at Icahn stadium in NYC. Success! Bolt’s early career is a back and forth between being the greatest and being just beneath the greatest…a recipe for continued improvement and rising confidence.

Dominates Beijing Olympics (despite eating McNuggets before the 100 meter final)
Dominates London Olympics
Dominates Rio Olympics

How did he stay on top?

Hard, grueling work (of course) but maintaining a distance of easy humility. People get caught up in his poses and showmanship…

Usain-Bolt pose

But Bolt as been described by family and close friends as laid back and relaxed. He describes himself as lazy. His headmaster said that all the poses after races wasn’t arrogance, it was just him being who he was. He likes to party and dance. He doesn’t let things bother him past a certain point. But behind all the laid back humour is a fire, an intensity, a steady desire…

Being able to relax and control yourself before a race (especially one that lasts 9-10 seconds) while maintaining an inner intensity is paramount for success in sprinting. Here’s a video of Bolt I took 1.5 years ago when I saw him run in NYC (Icahn stadium):

Look how relaxed he is! One reporter called him “hammily cool.” You must have this attitude if you are to remain on top. Also, at the stadium I noticed more Jamaicans than any other group of people…Bolt has always had his country enthusiastically behind him.

Bolt is also a catholic. He crosses himself before each race.

“I want to thank God for everything he has done for me because without him none of this wouldn’t [sic] be possible.”-Bolt

Bolt displays gratitude. Right after his last Olympic gold he thanked all his fans on Twitter.

I don’t think anything great can be accomplished without an underlying sense of gratitude.

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The Fosbury Flop (a lesson for Artists and Entrepreneurs)

Meet Dick Fosbury…1968 gold medalist in the high jump:


While growing up, Dick Fosbury was a mediocre athlete. He failed to make it on to his school’s football and basketball teams, so he became a high jumper on the track team. At the time (early 1960s) high jumpers were clearing bars using methods such as the scissors jump:


The Western Roll


And the straddle technique:

ADN-ZB Mittelstädt 5.3.77 Berlin: DDR-Leichtathletikmeisterschaften in der Dynamo-Sporthalle. Höhepunkt des ersten Tages der Meisterschaften war der Hochsprung der Männer. Hier stellte Rolf Beilschmidt (SC Motor Jena) als Sieger mit 2,25 Metern die von dem Jenaer kürzlich erzielte DDR-Bestleistung ein.

In his sophomore year of high school, Dick failed to complete jumps of 5 feet (the qualifying height for many high school track meets) using the straddle technique.

So he began to experiment with other forms of high jumping. 

But even while practicing high jump seriously and using the upright scissors technique, he was not particularly good. He was only able to clear a height of 5 foot 4, well below an Olympic standard.

At a Rotary meet they raised the bar to 5 feet 6 inches. Dick was frustrated and nervous. He’d knew he’d have to do something different. He attempted a variation of the scissors technique, lifting his hips up and pulling his shoulders back. That day he cleared 5’10. But he looked strange.

Because he looked so strange, coaches wondered if he was breaking some rule. But they discovered that high jump rules stipulate only that competitors may only jump off one foot at takeoff: there is no rule governing how a competitor crosses the bar, so long as he or she goes over it.

A revolution was born.

So Dick gradually adapted his technique to make himself more comfortable with his jumps and to get more height out of them. He began leaping over the bar by pushing himself back first, a bizarre technique that necessitated landing on his neck, looking like a corpse pushed out a window.

Of course there were doubters and haters. Spectators referred to Fosbury’s early attempts as an airborne seizure. Newspapers ran semi-disdainful headlines: “World’s Laziest High Jumper” “Fosbury Flops over the bar” (name origin), and comments concerning how he looked like a fish flopping in a boat.

Even when Dick began college, his coach, Berny Wagner, believed that Fosbury would eventually achieve greater results using the western roll (see above) and convinced him to continue practicing the old technique through his freshman year.

It is difficult to break tradition. Teachers sometimes don’t know what’s best for their students.

However, in his first meet of the season his sophomore year, Dick cleared 6 feet 10 inches using his flop method, shattering the school record. The superior results were too much for tradition. The coach let Dick continue with his flop.

Over the next few years Dick continued to refine his technique (developing a curved, J-shaped approach, adjusting point of take-off as the bar was raised, etc.) In 1968 he won the gold medal and set an Olympic and American Record (7 ft 4¼ in.) Now all elite high-jumpers use the Fosbury Flop. Here it is:

Fosbury Flop

The “secret” behind Fosbury’s technique (which even he didn’t know at the time) was a physics idea known as “the center of mass.”

For every object we can locate the average position for all of its mass by taking into account how the mass is spread around the object.

With the old methods of jumping, the jumper’s center of mass was located on their body, so they had to make sure they applied enough upward force to have this center of mass clear the bar.

western vs. straddle

But with the Fosbury Flop, the jumper’s center of mass is located below their body, so they don’t need to apply as much upward force to clear the bar.

fos center

What’s important to know is that Fosbury didn’t know the physics. He just wanted to clear the bar. The physics explanation was an after-thought.

Lesson applied to Art and Business:

Clarify in your mind the end-goal: the emotion you want to convey, the product you want to create, the experience you want to communicate, the service you want to offer…then within a framework of rules…do whatever you can, harness your frustration and experiment, forget the doubters, remember that even your mentors can be stuck in a stagnating groove, adapt yourself and do what feels comfortable…as long as you clear the bar.

Life is a game filled with games. Don’t take for granted how people, even the ones you look up to, are playing it.

Because sometimes you gotta be willing to look like a corpse falling out a window to get what you want.


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