Christian Coleman runs so fast his shoelaces can’t always keep up.
When the University of Tennessee junior won the 100-meter at the Southeastern Conference Championships, his left shoelace was dangling next to him.
“I didn’t notice it until afterwards when my shoelace kept flopping on the ground,” said Coleman, a 2016 Olympic 4x100-meter team member, who clocked 9.97 seconds. His laces managed to stay tied as he won the 200-meter in an equally blazing 19.98 seconds – making Coleman the first collegian to post wind-legal times under 10 seconds in the 100 and under 20 seconds in the 200 on the same day.
“I’ve been trying to figure out some new techniques for tying my shoes,” he said. “Now it’s double-knotted, then I tie it down again, so that should be fine.
Coleman hopes to put a bow on his collegiate season at this week’s NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which began today in Eugene, Oregon. He’s the favorite in the 100 and 200 after sweeping the 60 and 200 indoor titles in March. Coleman will also run a leg on Tennessee’s 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter teams at the NCAA meet, competing in all four semifinals in a span of 3 hours and 16 minutes.
He’s definitely the man to beat. Coleman won the 60 by a NCAA indoor championships record margin of 0.09 seconds. His time of 6.45 seconds is tied for first all-time in the college ranks and his 200 time of 20.11 seconds ranks second.
This outdoor season, Coleman is undefeated in the 100 and 200. At the NCAA Regionals earlier this month, he ran 19.85 into a headwind in the 200, the world-leading time this year and the second-fastest ever in college. Coleman also broke the Volunteers’ school record, eclipsing Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin’s time of 19.86.
Coleman is trying to equal Gatlin’s unprecedented feat of sweeping the two indoor and two outdoor sprint titles, which the five-time Olympic medalist accomplished in 2002.
Coleman said the two sprinters – who are 14 years apart – got to know each other at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and have continued to talk. With Gatlin now 35 years old and his time on the world stage running out, Coleman is one of the youngsters taking the baton.
“He’s been giving me a lot of advice throughout the season about what to expect coming into this season,” Coleman said. “I’ve accomplished a lot of things that he’s accomplished and he went through the same type of experiences. He’s been telling me to stay focused and how to handle the pressure and how to handle the target being on your back.”
After the NCAAs, Coleman will decide whether or not to skip his senior year and turn pro in advance of the USATF Outdoor Championships June 22-25 in Sacramento, California. The meet is the qualifier for the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London this August.
“I’m just focused on the rest of the collegiate season and afterwards I’ll focus in on that,” Coleman said. “My goal is always whatever race I’m in just to come out on top.”
Coleman was recently named the SEC Outdoor Runner of the Year and is the only runner in history on all four men’s sprinting collegiate Top-10 lists. He also ranks No. 1 on the IAAF top list in the 60 and 200 indoors, No. 1 in the 200 outdoors with three of the top 10 times, and is in the top five in the 100.
But it’s Coleman’s time in the 40-yard dash – which is not an Olympic or NCAA event – which really turned heads. The 40 is the distance aspiring NFL players run to show off their speed.
After Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross broke the NFL combine record with a time of 4.22 seconds, he challenged Olympic champion Usain Bolt of Jamaica to a race.
Bolt laughed it off, but Coleman put Ross in his place. Less than a week after the NCAA indoors, Coleman was still resting his tired legs when the Tennessee marketing department asked him to run a 40. He obliged with a blistering 4.12 seconds.
After the video was posted on social media, it attracted more than 3.3 million views on Facebook and was picked up by the Olympic Channel.
“It was pretty cool,” Coleman said. “I got a lot of publicity for it, and a lot of people were trying to tell me I should give football a shot again. For me it was just something fun to do.”
How fast could he go if he trained for the 40? “You never know,” Coleman said. “I think I would definitely be able to knock a couple of tenths off what I ran. But that’s not really my focus right now.”
His focus is on winning his first NCAA and U.S. outdoor titles in the 100 and 200. Last summer, Coleman earned a spot on Team USA by placing sixth at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field in the 100, posting a personal best of 9.95 seconds in the semifinals.
In Rio, Coleman ran the second leg in the preliminaries of the 4x100 relay.
This was actually the second Olympic Games for the Atlanta native.
“I wasn’t running, but I was there in 1996,” Coleman said of the Atlanta Games. “I was only 4 or 5 months old. I have a picture where I’m in a stroller in a little Olympic jacket at the Olympic park.”
Coleman was 4 years old when he realized he was a fast kid. He ran on relay teams with 5- and 6-year-olds, but remembers, “I couldn’t go to state because I was too young.”
But while he eventually made it to Junior Olympics, Coleman was smaller than some of his competitors. “When I got to middle school, I kind of matured slower than a lot of other kids did,” he said. “At around 13 or 14, a lot of people are fully grown and have full beards and I was still like a little kid out there trying to compete.
“I was always kind of fast, but I just wasn’t on the same maturity level as far as body growth.”
Coleman hit a growth spurt his junior and senior year of high school and he said, “I caught back up.”
While he loved track, he had another love: football. “I wasn’t just a football guy that ran track, and I wasn’t just a track guy that played football,” he said. “I took both of them seriously.”
But football took precedence when Coleman transferred from Westlake High School, a Class 7-A athletic power, to Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School, a Class A school.
Coleman hoped to boost his football prospects as a wide receiver and cornerback, but at 5-foot-9 and about 160 pounds, he only had offers from smaller colleges in football.
Tennessee wanted him for track, and Coleman worked his way to a full scholarship. He progressed from a 10.3 sprinter in the 100 to 9.95.
With reminders of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, such as the stadium and cauldron, Coleman couldn’t help but be motivated. “It was always everybody’s hopes and dreams of making it that far,” he said. “When I actually did make it, it was an honor and I was blessed. I just wanted to soak up everything I could and take in the moment.”
Coleman said he watched and learned how elite athletes trained. “Everybody there takes care of their body and everybody handles their business,” he said. “I got to see how serious it is, and then at the same time, being able to make it that far, racing the best people in the world gave me a lot of confidence coming into this collegiate season.”
While he said his start and acceleration are strengths, Coleman has been working on finishing races. “I’ve just got to keep on fine-tuning the little things and I’ll be able to compete with the top guys,” he said.
To make it to make it to the next level, though, Coleman knows he’ll have to make some changes as a pro. That includes his diet.
Eating more vegetables, Coleman said, “is definitely tough. It’s probably tougher for athletes, just because some people might figure if you eat something unhealthy, then you go out and practice and run it off.
“But for athletes, it’s even more important to focus on your diet to try to get every advantage you can.”
That means sacrificing one of his great joys: Watermelon Sour Patch Kids. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to just stop eating them cold turkey,” Coleman said, “but I’ll have to limit the amount I eat for sure.”
It won’t be easy. “Well, they come in a bag,” he said with a laugh, “and the bag’s not really re-sealable, so if you open it, you gotta eat the bag. But I don’t necessarily eat them every day.”
If Coleman does qualify for worlds in the 100 or 200, he could get a chance to race Bolt, who has announced that London will be his last major competition.
“Hopefully I can make it that far, and be in a round beside him,” Coleman said. “That would be a crazy experience. That would be a blessing.”
And hopefully his shoes will stay tied.