How does the mom of Usain Bolt help the world’s fastest man keep his cool?
We say things that will make him laugh,” said Jennifer Bolt as her sprinter star offspring faces down what just may be his last Olympics.
At nearly 30, Bolt has six Olympic gold medals from the Beijing and London Olympics. Though he withdrew July 1 from Jamaica’s national meet with a slight tear in his left hamstring, the world record holder in the 100- and 200-meter dash proved his fitness July 22 in the 200 at the London Anniversary Games and deemed himself good to go for Rio.
A few days before the London event, his mom visited New York and said in an interview that she wasn’t worried, having long ago learned that calming her own nerves was the best way to soothe Usain.
“I know he’s going to get well and everything will be OK for the games,” said the soft-spoken Jennifer, who has been cheering him on since his speed first surfaced around 12 or 13.
“I tell him just stay focused, remember God, remember to pray and read your Bible,” she said.
Usain has come back from injuries before, including left hamstring problems. When it happened in 2004 at what was supposed to be his first Olympics, in Athens, he didn’t make it past the first round. He was just 17.
“It was a bit scary because we didn’t really understand and know what it was,” Jennifer said. “He had wanted so much to be at the Olympics and he just couldn’t make it.”
Jennifer and Usain’s dad, Wellesley, live in the same village along Jamaica’s northern coast where they ran a general store during his youth. They’ve been helping him, Jennifer said, “not get nervous” since 2002, when at age 15 he debuted at the World Junior Championships in Kingston.
He won the 200-meter _ and that was the beginning for the 6-foot-5 sprinter, who had never been away from his parents or his modest village of Sherwood Content in Trelawny Parish before he left for Kingston to train professionally.
At 12, when he earned a scholarship to attend a high school known for turning out strong athletes, it all clicked for Jennifer. Bolt loved cricket and football growing up but he has said he settled on track because he was good at it.
As a child, she said, “he could not keep still. Even in the bed, you could see him tossing. When he started high school, that’s when we see that he’s really competitive.”
Over the years, Jennifer said, she has realized her best approach is to remain strong when her son falters.
“I learn to cope with it. I cannot feel down when I have to support him. I just pray and hope that everything will be good,” she said. “I know that he still depends on his mother.”
“I can remember in 2002 for the world championships. At the time he was 15 and before the games he didn’t want to go. And he cries, and I had to try to comfort him, encourage him to go out and do his best because he didn’t feel that he could have done it,” she said. “I was really, really, really nervous and, you know, my legs shake. My heart beat.”
“The crowd was behind him. From then I don’t feel that nervous,” she said.
The scene plays out a bit in “The Boy Who Learned to Fly ,” a new short animated film produced by Gatorade and based on Usain’s life. The advice her animated self gives to her jittery teen before the 2002 junior worlds: “You can always go fast when you keep it light.”
Norman Peart, who handles finances for Usain, has been a mentor since he was 15. Peart accompanied him to Kingston when Usain first left home to train. Usain lived with him, and later his wife and kids, for three years.
There’s a saying in Jamaica that fits Usain perfectly, said Peart, 13 years his senior.
“We say, you have to have crocodile skin to handle the pressure, and he does,” he said.
So how do the two think the ebullient Usain’s retirement, maybe in the next year or so, will play out? Jennifer thinks he’d make a great TV analyst.
“He’d put a little vibes to the sports,” she laughed of her son’s reputation for his trademark “lightning bolt,” his love of flashing huge smiles and his party spirit.
Peart thinks the same of Usain’s future.
“I can see him as an analyst. And he’ll do stuff with Puma for years to come for sure,” said Peart of one of Usain’s biggest endorsement deals.
But before that: “The first thing he’ll do is take a little break. He’d love some time for himself.’