Carmelita Jeter competes in the Women's 100 metres heats during Day Two of the 14th IAAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013 at Luzhniki Stadium on Aug. 11, 2013 in Moscow, Russia.
Before there would be The Race, there was the embrace.
It came in some solitary corner of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, out of sight from the crowd gathered for the 2009 track and field world championships, removed from the 100-meter straightaway where Carmelita Jeter finished the final heat in third place. It was a rare moment of vulnerability and vincibility for “The Jet,” and she melted from world-class sprinter into an open spigot of tears and snot and regret. Had she not been sobbing in the arms of John Smith, her coach holding her together, she might have dissolved into a puddle of disappointment right there on the arena floor.
“You would think I would be happy with a bronze medal, but I cried because I failed,” Jeter said. “I cried because I did not listen to my coach. I cried because I thought I knew more than a man who has put several people on the top of the podium.”
Jeter had posted the fastest time of any runner in the first qualifying heat, the second-fastest in the quarterfinal and recorded a personal-best time (10.83 seconds) in the semis. She headed into a final field that included Shelly-Ann Fraser and Kerron Stewart, the Jamaican teammates who won the gold and silver medals, respectively, at the 2008 Olympics, and yet Jeter fully expected to win.
“These ladies have been here before,” Smith warned her before the final. “You need to execute.”
It was to those last words that Jeter felt like she had failed to listen. She did not execute. And she finished third, which felt unmistakably like a loss.
As she finished crying, she assured Smith she was ready to get back to work. She told her coach that she would make it up to him.
A month later, at the World Athletics Final in Thessaloniki, Greece, Jeter kept her word. With Fraser and Stewart in the two lanes immediately to her right, Jeter ran a 10.67 — a number as unfathomable as it was uncatchable.
“I didn’t just want to run well for myself, I wanted to run for the man that has put so much into me,” said Jeter, who, after that race, once again, cried with her coach. Only these were tears of triumph. Of shared accomplishment. “I told him, ‘That’s your world championship medal right there. But we’re not done.’ ”
Not even close. The following weekend, at the 2009 Shanghai Golden Grand Prix, with her devoted coach as always in her corner, Jeter won the final in 10.64 seconds. With the exception of Florence Griffith-Joyner, no woman has ever run 100 meters faster. No woman living on Planet Earth today has topped that time.
Eleven years later, Carmelita Jeter remains the Fastest Woman Alive.
It is an individual title — one of the most prestigious in the world of sports. But it is not an individual pursuit. You run your race alone, or your leg of a relay, but your journey to the world championships and the Olympic podium (three times during the 2012 London Games, in Jeter’s case) and track immortality is a team effort. No one is faster to acknowledge that than Jeter herself.
The Fastest Woman Alive didn’t have access to any of the benefits that many of her future USA Track & Field teammates grew up with. The track program at Bishop Montgomery wasn’t the same priority as the other interscholastic teams at Jeter’s high school in Los Angeles. Running for Cal State Dominguez Hills, a Division II school about a dozen miles down the road, just on the other side of the 405 and the 110, didn’t land her competitive and exposure opportunities at the Penn Relays or other prestigious national meets.
Throughout her development, her one advantage — beyond her natural athleticism and innate tenacity — was finding people who recognized and nurtured her potential before she saw it in herself.
There was Warren Edmondson, who brought her to Dominguez Hills even though she “didn’t handle (her) business in the classroom” in high school. Under his guidance, Jeter became the winningest runner in school history and its first student-athlete to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
There was Coach Smith, with whom she started training after failing to qualify for the 2008 Olympic team, despite having earned a bronze medal at the prior year’s world championships in Osaka, Japan. Through that partnership, “The Jet” found another gear.
There was even the woman who may have influenced the trajectory of Jeter’s life more than anyone. At one point after college, Jeter wanted to pursue a career with the Los Angeles Police Department and went so far as applying for a job.
“I’m sitting there with three detectives, minority women, and she says, ‘I can’t hire you. You’re perfect, but I can’t hire you.’ I asked, Why? And she said, ‘Because when you talk about track and field, you light up. When you talk about track and field, you glow. If you don’t make it, come back and I’ll walk you into the academy myself,’ ” said Jeter, who wishes she could have found the woman who didn’t hire her so she could thank her, maybe throw her a little Team USA gear. “This woman saw greatness in me that I hadn’t quite seen.”
These days, it is Jeter who is looking for that greatness, that potential, in young runners. She is still the Fastest Woman Alive, but she goes by a different title now, one that she might relish even more.
After three years on the coaching staff at Missouri State, Jeter moved to the University of Alabama back in August, where she will work with sprinters — on both the women’s track team and the men’s. She came to campus and immediately scheduled meetings with her student-athletes to discuss what their individual goals were for the season ahead and for their own track careers.
“Before we even start working out, I need to know where your mindset is. I need to know where you want to go, because then I know how to speak to you,” Jeter said. “We talk about all those things — I talk NCAAs, I talk SECs, I talk Olympic trials, I talk world championship trials. If someone doesn’t know from Day One where they’re going, they’re never going to get there. Your ethic has to start from Day One. You have to have a plan. We have to be on a mission.”
We have to be on a mission. Coach and athlete. Together.
Jeter shows up for work every day excited by the possibility of what she can help her student-athletes achieve. The spikes are on the other foot, now, and she gets to fill the sails of her works-in-progress with her own positivity, just as her coaches once did for her.
“I absolutely love seeing someone evolve. I love the progression, the steps, brick by brick,” said Jeter, who once wondered how Coach Smith could be “so freakin’ happy every day” he would ship up in the weight room; now, she gets it. “I love seeing someone lay the groundwork. You literally see their body language start to change, verbiage changes, mindset changes, swag changes. And then guess what? You see times drop.”
For Jeter, that remains the ultimate goal — the pursuit of greatness. Only now it’s someone else’s greatness. “The Jet” set her mark; Coach Jet wants to make her mark. The woman who created a legacy by running 10.64 dreams of coaching the next Fastest Woman Alive.
“To get that moment that Coach Smith had with me, only I get to have it with someone else . . . Wow,” Jeter said. “That’s going to be the highlight of my career.”