The inside track: Ryan Bailey’s journey to the top of athletics

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The rising US sprint star tells SPIKES the inspiring story of how track and field, and a kindly coach, took him from a life of gangs and petty crime to star in one of global sport’s most prestigious events.

Forget Usain Bolt. The biggest winner in last summer’s Olympic 100m final was, in many respects, the man who matched his 9.88 PB to take fifth. Take a bow Ryan Bailey.

Born in Portland, Oregon as the youngest of eight siblings, Bailey’s route to the top of the athletics world wasn’t easy. Caught up in the local gang culture and in trouble at school, his life was heading down a blind alley.

“In sixth and seventh grade I started hanging out with older kids at high school and they dragged me into the gangs,” says Bailey. “I don’t really want to talk too much about it but I got into stealing and fighting. When you are young you do some stupid things.”

It was at this time that his family life was also spiralling out of control.

“It got to a point where me and my mum lived in a car for six months. We had nowhere to go. We had no food to eat. It was a bad situation. I mainly remember not wanting to let my peers know what was going on. I didn’t have clean clothes. I was pretty sure everyone knew but they didn’t say anything.”

But while he was keeping quiet about his home life, it was his mouth that gave him the chance to get his life back on track.

“I was just standing by the record board at school,” he says. “I just started talking crap saying I could beat the school records [which were actually the state records]. I didn’t even know what a good time was for the 100m. The track coach, who was stood behind me, overheard me and said, ‘if you think you are so fast why don’t you come out and train?’”

Bailey characteristically rose to the challenge but came back down to earth with a thud. Borrowing a pair of spikes two-and-a-half sizes too small, he broke his toe. For him it was a minor setback, and on his return he matched big potential with enthusiasm.

“It gave me something to focus on. I’m a really competitive person and track is the most competitive sport out there. It gave me the chance to shine and get out of a lot of the crap I was dealing with.”

He was also fortunate to meet track coach John Parks, who took on the role of surrogate father: “I didn’t have a relationship with my father when I was younger and he filled that spot in my life,” says Bailey. “He helped with all sorts of life decisions and even bought my mum and I groceries if we didn’t have any food. He was much more than a track coach.”

It was a big show of faith from Parks, which Bailey repaid in full. He landed state sprint titles, and junior national collegiate titles to rise rapidly up the rankings. A series of injuries restricted his progress but last summer he made his first senior team in style, as part of the US Olympic 100m squad for London 2012, still aged just 23.

Now coached by John Smith in California, Bailey finished third in the US Olympic Trials, ran the anchor leg in USA’s Olympic silver medal winning 4x100m team, and matched his 9.88 PB twice in two days: in the first round and the final.

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For a young man with bucketloads of ambition it was a bittersweet experience.

“At the time I was disappointed because everyone wants to win a medal, but over time I thought I didn’t do too badly. I reacted well [out of the blocks], so didn’t run like complete s**t but it was a bad technical race for me.”

This season, Bailey plans to run more 200m races and even try the odd 400m. He hopes to run a sub-10 second 100m, sub-20s 200m and sub 45-second 400m: a feat Tyson Gay achieved in 2010. He also has some ambitious goals for the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.

“I want to make the 100m and 200m team in Moscow, and also run fast enough in the 400m to run both the 4x100m and 4x400m relay.”

His primary aim is to stay healthy, and not be distracted by Jamaican duo Bolt and Blake.

“I’ve got to focus on my own race and not worry about who is the lane next to me. All my good races [in 2012] were when those two weren’t in my race. When they were I’d have a horrible race because I was focusing on them, which would mess up the race.”

If he can do that successfully then 2013 could be a big year for Ryan Bailey. Motivation certainly won’t be a problem.

“I’ve been at a very low point in my life,” he says. “And I don’t want to go back.”