The “Batman” of track and field has a whole team of Robins. Bershawn Jackson founded Run U Xpress, a youth club based in Wake Forest, North Carolina, last November.
“You don’t find too many Olympians that go around hanging out with kids on a daily basis,” said Jackson, the 400-meter hurdler who acquired his nickname as a kid. “They say, ‘Coach Batman, you’re the best. Coach Batman, you’re going to do it.’ I preach to them about winning. I preach to them about work ethic. I preach to them about competing.
“If they can have faith in me, why can’t I have faith in myself?”
Jackson, 32, credits the Run U Xpress youngsters — who include one of his three children — with making him a superhero on the track again.
Going into the 2015 IAAF World Championships, which start Saturday in Beijing, Jackson has four of the top six times in the world this year, including the fastest: 48.09 seconds at a Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar, on May 15.
Competing at his seventh world championships, he’s trying to become the first male athlete to win gold medals on the track 10 years apart (Sergei Bubka won every pole vault crown at worlds from 1983-97).
Jackson ran his personal best of 47.30 to win the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, then captured the bronze medal at both the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and 2009 World Championships in Berlin.
In his most recent world championships appearance two years ago in Moscow, Jackson had to be carted off the track when he pulled his hamstring in the semifinals and collapsed. A year later, Jackson fell to the track again due to a groin injury in the finals at the 2014 U.S. championships
“People love a comeback story,” he said. “I get that question asked a lot – ‘You haven’t won in 10 years…?” I have medals since then, but in track and field, if you’re not first, you’re last. That would be amazing just to show kids that you’re not always going to be on top, but persevering is where it’s at.
“Felix Sanchez came back after eight years to win the Olympic Games (in 2004 and 2012) and I’ve seen Angelo Taylor do it (in 2000 and 2008), so why not Batman?”
Jackson’s three teammates could spoil his perfect ending. Training partner Johnny Dutch owns the other two fastest times in the top six. They have been a dynamic duo in their event. Dutch, the 2014 national champion, handed Jackson his only defeat of the year, winning the Prefontaine Classic on May 30 by edging him 48.20 to 48.22. At nationals in June, Jackson turned the tables to win his fifth U.S. outdoor title, tying him with Edwin Moses and Arky Erwin.
They’re joined in Beijing by Kerron Clement, the 2007 and 2009 world champion, and Michael Tinsley, the reigning world and Olympic silver medalist who had a bye into Beijing thanks to winning the 2014 Diamond League title.
Nicholas Bett of Kenya, who ran 48.29 at altitude on Aug. 1, Kariem Hussein of Switzerland (48.45) and Javier Culson of Puerto Rico (48.48), who ranked No. 1 last year, could avert a U.S. sweep.
Jackson will compete on the same Bird’s Nest track on which he won his Olympic bronze, but he does not have pleasant memories there.
“Out of all my races, that may be the only race I choked,” he said with a laugh. “I should have won, no doubt about it.”
At the very least, Jackson said it should have been a dogfight between him and Taylor in the last 50 meters, traditionally the strongest part of Jackson’s race.
“I messed up big time,” he said. “You go into a race, you’ve got so many thoughts going in your head. It was my first Olympic Games, I was nervous. If I go out too hard I’m going to die. If I go out too slow, I’m going to be too far behind.
“I was in the best shape of my life. I won Helsinki in ’05 and I was three times stronger and faster in Beijing.”
After the gun went off, Jackson said he “just went to sleep on the backstretch. I blew it. I was upset because after the race I wasn’t tired. I felt like in that Olympic moment, they should have carried me off the track. I should have left it all out there.”
He resolved to come back in 2012 and rectify his mistake. Jackson had a great season going into the U.S. trials and felt confident. The final featured four of the top eight hurdlers in the world and one would have to be shut out. It was Jackson, who blamed a freaky sequence of events that haunted him for the next two years.
He was in third coming down the homestretch when Taylor crashed Jackson’s eighth hurdle. Jackson went high to avoid hitting it, breaking his momentum.
“When you break the momentum late in the race, it’s hard to regain it, especially for a short hurdler,” said Jackson, who is 5-foot-7.
He wound up fourth, missing the team by one spot. Jackson appealed and protested to no avail.
“I don’t think Angelo did it intentionally,” he said. “In a hurdles race, anything happens. As a professional hurdler, I’ve got to prepare for any obstacle I face, but that obstacle I just couldn’t overcome.
“I thought my career was over.”
While Jackson had accepted placing fourth in the 2004 Olympic Trials, the circumstances in 2012 gnawed at him.
“It bothered me to know that I worked so hard for that one moment and it got destroyed,” Jackson said. “I think a lot of my injuries and my mental aspects came from that moment.”
In 2013, he overtrained and got hurt time after time.
Jackson’s coach, George Williams, suggested he skip nationals and focus on 2014, but Jackson wanted to go. “I just knew I had courage and guts, and no matter what I was going to try to fight it out.”
He took third and went to Moscow for worlds, where the hamstring injury felled him.
In 2014, Jackson was hurt so much that he stopped training. He only went to the track for races, which worked until his groin pulled at Sacramento.
“I don’t know if it was bad karma,” Jackson said. “I think a lot had to do with my mental aspect. I was so bitter and angry. It’s like it took something from me.
“This year I had to let it go.”
Young track stars came to his rescue.
Wanting to support his daughter Shawnti, who is already a talented, nationally-ranked sprinter, Jackson founded Run U Xpress.
“The kids, they inspire me so much,” he said, “because regardless of the fact I didn’t make the team, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t winning, those kids admire and love me.”
He said coaching the team, which draws from the Raleigh/Durham area, took his mind off his track travails. There are 28 athletes ages 6 to 13, including 24 who qualified for the Junior Olympics.
“Instead of sitting home, having a pity party, I was training and interacting with kids,” said Jackson, who also has a daughter, Shari, and a son, B.J. “It gets to the point, where, ‘OK, what’s done is done. Do you keep living in the past or you can go out there and work your butt off and show that you’re still relevant?’”
He is also his kids’ soccer coach and basketball coach. “Anything they do, it could be a spelling bee, I’m in the mix,” Jackson said. “They call me ‘Super Dad.’ One thing I learned in life: You can lose money and get it back. You lose time, you’ll never see it again.”
Run U Xpress also reminds him of his roots. Jackson got his start with a summer track club in Miami, where teammates included Sanya Richards-Ross, Tiffany Ross-Williams and Walter Dix.
“I came from a poor situation,” he said. “Everything I got, I got on my own. I had to go out there and I had to think big and achieve. I grew up to survive. I’m the first guy in my family to get my college degree (at Saint Augustine’s).”
Although his coaches said he was too short, Jackson was determined to try the 400 hurdles, which he considered “something crazy and difficult.”
He managed to sneak into a race when he was 13 and won.
“The coach said, ‘Boy, I told you not to do the hurdles, but you’re good, so let’s try it again,’” he said.
He had a new event, and eventually a new nickname.
“Because I had big ears and I fly over the hurdles, they started calling me Batman,” Jackson said. “I thought it was an insult at first. I hated it.”
But while competing in track meets around Florida, he’d hear people chant, “Batman,” or point him out using the nickname. “It was a good thing,” Jackson said. “I was always that kid that got into fights all the time; I was never a bad kid, but I was a product of my environment. So to be known for something positive, I was like ‘Wow, I like this sport.’”
He embraces the nickname on his Twitter feed, describing himself, “I’m a souljah, a fighter, a winner, and I never been a pretender. I’m BATMAN!!!”
Jackson is also recognizable for his headband, which he started wearing in 1996 as a tribute to his uncle. Richard Jackson, a basketball player who always wore headbands, died of lung cancer. “He was one of my biggest supporters,” Jackson said. “Ever since then, I carry him with me every time I compete.”
Recently, he has been wearing a blue headband to honor William Allen, a coach on his track team who was diagnosed with colon cancer earlier this year and died less than three weeks later
As for what color he’ll wear at worlds, Jackson said, “I’m still debating.”
There’s no uncertainty about what he plans to do when the gun goes off. “Prove that Batman still can run,” Jackson said, “like he did when he was 22 years old.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.