RIO DE JANEIRO – Kerron Clement didn’t just wrap himself in any American flag when he took his victory lap after winning the men’s 400-meter hurdles Thursday morning.
It was the Clement family flag, handed to him by his mother, Claudette, who was in the stands at Olympic Stadium.
“Before we left, I told her to bring the flag,” Clement said, “because I knew I was going to win.”
Clement, 30, won the silver medal in the event at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and waited eight long years – through surgery, injuries and burnout – to upgrade to the gold at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
He was so confident that in January he made a space in his cabinet at home in Gainesville, Florida, where he keeps his medals. As a place-saver, Clement wrote in pen on paper: “Gold medal 2016.”
“I just believed in myself and trusted my fitness,” he said. “And I just came out here with one mindset – to get that gold medal – and nothing was going to stop me.”
Clement ran a season-best time of 47.73 seconds, giving Team USA its 19th gold medal in the event. He is the first Olympic medalist in the 400-meter hurdles to come back and win a gold.
Clement held off a surging Boniface Mucheru Tumuti of Kenya, who set a national record of 47.78, with Yasmani Copello of Turkey third, also in a national record of 47.92.
“I was just sprinting for my life,” Clement said.
Tumuti, who dedicated his first Olympic medal to his daughter born last week, said, “I missed the gold by a whisker.”
Not so fast, said Clement.
Did he think Tumuti would catch him? “Oh, definitely not!” he said.
The top five finishers eclipsed the fastest time in the world this year of 48.10, set by Johnny Dutch, who did not qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.
Four years ago, Clement made the final at the London 2012 Olympic Games, but placed last while teammate Michael Tinsley won the silver. Tinsley did not advance past the heats in Rio.
“I’m going to Rio for redemption,” Clement said after coming from behind to win the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field.
When he won his silver medal in 2008, Clement was part of a U.S. sweep, with Angelo Taylor taking the gold and Bershawn Jackson the bronze. Taylor was the 2000 Olympic champion, but Clement came in as reigning world champion – a title he defended in 2009.
On Thursday, Clement, 30, was the lone Team USA hope. His path became easier when one of his top rivals, Javier Culson of Puerto Rico, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, false-started and left the track with his head in his hands.
Clement, the fastest qualifier from the semifinals with a time of 48.26, got off to a good start and was squarely in the lead by the final turn. With Tumuti gaining. Clement reached the 10th hurdle in first, then came home.
“I knew off the last hurdle I had the fastest speed out of anyone in the field,” said Clement, who broke Michael Johnson’s world indoor 400-meter record in 2005, running a mark of 44.57 that still stands.
But Clement also knew the final stretch would be tough and he could feel the lactic acid in his legs the last 50 meters.
“I felt like diving, like the girl from the Bahamas (Shaunae Miller, who beat Allyson Felix for gold in the women’s 400-meter),” Clement said. “But I dug down deeper to get that win and to get my first individual gold medal. It is a surreal feeling.”
Clement, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and moved to the United States when he was 13, already had a gold medal in the 4x400-meter relay from the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Although he is not listed in the relay pool, he could run on the 4x400-meter team in Rio, as he did in 2008 and at the 2007 and 2009 world championships, winning gold in all three.
With 41 total medals – including a gold-medal streak from 1984-2000 – the United States is the undisputed powerhouse in the 400-meter hurdles. Great Britain is the next best country with eight medals, winning two golds to match the Dominican Republic.
Yet Clement had to leave the event and come back to it to rediscover the success he once had. After the 2013 world championships, Clement took a break from the 400 hurdles and just focused on the 400-meter.
“Mentally, I was depleted,” he said. He went on vacation to the Dominican Republic and took his mind off track. He told his friends not to even talk about it.
Clement was ready to try again after a year.
“When I came back, I found a new love for the hurdles,” he said. “I said, Oh my God, I missed the hurdles.”
He finished fourth at the 2015 world championships and his time Thursday was faster than the time he ran to win the Olympic silver of 47.98 when he was 22.
“As I’m older, I became wiser in the hurdles,” said Clement, whose personal best is 47.24 from the 2005 world championships. “I think when I was younger, I just used to run and make silly mistakes. I’m loving it again and have new goals for the second chapter of my career, which is now.”
After Rio, he plans to run some Diamond League meets and “finish my fairy tale season.”
Clement can see himself doing this all again in four years.
“I’m still young,” he said.
Who knows, Clement may even make space in his cabinet with a sign saying, “Gold medal 2020.”