Feature Friday: Back on Rocky Top

NEW ORLEANS – Please pardon Tennessee junior Christian Coleman if his face didn’t show emotion after becoming the first man to sweep the 60 and 200 at the same NCAA indoor meet since 2002. Actually, the only telling gesture he made was clapping his hands together after winning both races.

That’s just not the kind of guy Coleman is. Justin Gatlin – the last man to accomplish that elusive sprint double 15 years ago – could tell you that.

“He’s unbothered,” said Gatlin, who was Coleman’s teammate at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games this past August. “He doesn’t get overly excited. He’s poker-faced. If you watched his interview after the races, the commentator (John Anderson) was more excited than he was.

“Christian knows what he can do. It wasn’t a fluke, a mistake or that he got lucky. He’s built to do great things and he carries himself with that confidence.”

Success snowballed for Coleman after he won the indoor 200-meter title last year in Birmingham, Alabama. Coleman finished runner-up to Jarrion Lawson in both sprint events outdoors, ran a PR in the 100 at the U.S. Olympic Trials (9.95) and helped Team USA record the fastest qualifying time in the 4×100 in Rio.

When Coleman stepped back on campus for the first fall practice – and the dreaded 300-meter grass repeats that came with it – Tennessee sprints coach Tim Hall knew he wasn’t molding the same athlete he had been the past two years.

“He worked out that day like he had never done before, like he knew great things were going to happen,” Hall said. “It was incredible. He was killing it and brought along his teammates at the same time. You could see them trying to match Christian’s work ethic.”

No one, however, could copy Coleman’s speed over 60 meters and 200 meters inside the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium earlier this month. Coleman ran faster than every man in collegiate history not named Leonard Myles-Mills and Wallace Spearmon. The Atlanta native tied Myles-Mills’ 18-year-old collegiate record in the 60 (6.45) and posted the largest margin of victory in meet history. He then finished one one-hundredth of a second shy of Spearmon’s standard in the 200 (20.11 to 20.10).

Cool-Man Strikes Twice Indoors

  60 Meters       200 Meters  
Name School Time   Name School Time
L. Myles-Mills BYU 6.45A   W. Spearmon Arkansas 20.10
C. Coleman Tennessee 6.45   C. Coleman Tennessee 20.11
M. Brunson Arizona State 6.46qA   T. Bromell Baylor 20.19
R. Baker TCU 6.47   W. Spearmon Arkansas 20.21q
4 tied   6.48   T. Bromell Baylor 20.23q

“It’s like a zone,” Coleman said in describing what it feels like to run those kinds of times. “I can’t really explain it. You don’t really come out of the zone until you cross the finish line. You can feel what a fast race feels like and if you’re on pace to run something fast, though.”

An ideal lane assignment buoyed Coleman in the longer sprint (It was actually the first time all season long that Coleman was in Lane 5), but ultimately both results came down to raw speed and his technique from start to finish.

“We’ve been harping on those first 3 to 4 steps out of the blocks to make them more ballistic,” Hall said. “There is so much room to improve there – and every sprinter will tell you that – but he was just about perfect in both races. I was even more impressed with how he finished both races – with his hips forward and great front-side mechanics.”

Perfection is borderline unobtainable, but for Coleman to accomplish the other goals he set for himself at the start of the year – complete the 100-200 double outdoors and break Ngoni Makusha’s collegiate record in the 100 of 9.89 – he must inch closer to that benchmark throughout the outdoor season, especially in Eugene, Oregon, come mid-June.

“Experience, like the kind I got in Rio, helped me a lot,” Coleman said. “I know for me to compete and hang with those guys – and to do what I want to do in the future – I had to step my game up a lot more and do the little things, like eat well and get treatment.”

Coleman certainly won’t be at a loss for motivation. He told Hall and Tennessee Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Beth Alford-Sullivan when he returned to Knoxville this past August that he wanted to dominate the NCAA sprint scene in 2017, so they’ll keep him true to his word. Coleman also changed the background on his iPhone so he’d see the numbers “9.88” every time answers a text or cycles through his pre-meet playlist featuring Future and Migos, among others.

But what about 19.68 or 19.85? The former would break Walter Dix’s 10-year-old collegiate outdoor record of 19.69 in the 200. The latter would eclipse Gatlin’s school record of 19.86 in the same event, which stood as the overall collegiate standard from 2002 to 2007.

“To see him run 20.11 indoors, he’s going to run 19-high to 19-mid outdoors: There’s no question about it," Gatlin said. "I want him to break all of the records – even mine. I’m like a proud brother, especially since he reps that ‘Power T’ and is putting it back on the map.

"You get goose bumps when you achieve something great like setting a record, and watching him [at NCAAs] gave me goose bumps as well. You’re able to watch a star being born. I’m just going to get my popcorn ready, sit back and enjoy the show.”