Fred Curley didn’t know he was the fastest man in the world when he crossed the finish line at Hayward Field Saturday night. As in his life, he needed to wait and think.
A line of runners, three of them from the United States, finished the men’s 100 meters at the World Athletics Championships within a fraction of each other in a burst of speed as dusk fell on the stadium. Curly, dressed in a red and blue speed suit, bent down and studied the video board. Only when the number one appeared next to his name, in a time of 9.86 seconds, did he know that he had won the gold.
“I got the job done,” said Curley, a man as effective with his steps as with his words.
Curley, a former 400m specialist for whom none — recognition, gold medals, world championships — was predicted when she was growing up, raised her hands when the rest of the results were posted, revealing a medal slide for the Americans. Marvin Brice-Williams was second and Trayvon Bromell was third, both finishing in 9.88 seconds. Bracey-Williams confronted Bromell, his training partner, in an episode of Unscripted Joy.
“I don’t know what went through Marvin’s head,” Bromell said. “I know it’s an emotion.”
Reigning Olympic champion Lamont Marcel Jacobs of Italy withdrew from the competition before the semi-finals on Saturday. Jacobs was said to have a muscle injury. “I have to stop,” Jacobs said on Twitter.
Curley managed to turn Jacobs’ absence into a footnote.
Usually a nonchalant athlete, Curley showed his emotions after the win. He thought about his aunt, Virginia Kerley, watching at home in Texas and probably “the phone blowing up,” he said. She raised him from the age of 2, along with several of his siblings. At the time, Freddie’s father was in prison and his mother was “taking a wrong turn in life,” according to a first-person account she wrote for Spikes magazine in 2019. At one time, Virginia Curley had 13 children under her roof.
“If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” Curley said Saturday. “He actually gave his life for me and my brothers and my sisters and my cousins.”
He added: “I am grateful to him to win in life.”
Still, Curley wasn’t a top-tier recruit coming out of Taylor High School outside of Austin. He landed at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, where he worked through a hamstring injury as a freshman and finished a modest 11th in the 400-meter national junior college championships as a sophomore. But he always worked hard and never complained, said Chris Bean, his former coach at South Plains.
“He’s always been a great teammate,” said Beane, now the head girls coach at Anna High School outside Dallas. “I mean, he’d be willing to die on the track in the 4×400 for our team.”
With more practice, curling talent emerged. At Texas A&M, he was the NCAA champion in the 400 meters in 2017. Two years later, he was a bronze medalist at the World Championships.
His future seemed to be in the 400, but he started looking at shorter sprints during the pandemic. In some ways, Curley said he wanted to return to his roots as a sprinter and long jumper. Or, as he put it, “I’m back on my playground now.”
The track world was abuzz over his unorthodox decision. Going from 400 to 100 doesn’t quite compare to hanging up your steeplechase tops and throwing the hammer, but it’s not an easy transition either. 100 requires different skills and an updated approach to training. There’s a reason few athletes have ever been world-class in both disciplines.
But Kerley justified her move by winning a silver medal in the 100m at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics and has only continued to improve. At the U.S. championships last month, she ran 9.76 seconds in the semifinals, the third-fastest time ever by an American, before breaking away from a deep field in the final to win the title in 9.77 seconds in under two hours.
But while many sprinters fill reporters’ notebooks as prizefighters, Curley tends to keep his thoughts to himself. After winning the first round on Friday, he took no questions from reporters. When a reporter from the athletics website FloTrack asked him about Saturday’s plan, Curley looked over his shoulder and, without missing a beat, said:What did I tell you last?“
(It wasn’t immediately clear to anyone what Curley said the last time. After some detective work, FloTrack sneakerheads determined that Curley said, “See you”).
Bracey-Williams said Curley was more cheerful and talkative around friends and athletes.
“Contrary to popular belief, he’s not as stone-faced as you might think,” Bracey-Williams said. “He’s a funny guy. But when he comes out here, he’s all business.”
Curley’s competitive streak extends beyond the track. On Thursday, he played cornhole with Bricey-Williams in what looked like an Olympic final. Curley seems to compete in anything.
“Even if it’s drinking water,” Bricey-Williams said. “So you should come with him.”
There’s one subject that piques Curley’s interest in public speaking, and it’s a specific one – people who doubted he’d be any good in the 100m. As for how many of these people actually exist, who can say? But Curley used them, real or imagined, to make him stronger.
As for the future, Curley said he will compete in the 200 meters this week, and will be available for the 4x100m and 4x400m relays. (Stay tuned. Or, as he likes, “You’ll see.”)
Although he knows that winning the 100m world championship will change his life – “the future is bright,” he said – he is not going to limit himself or bow to conventional wisdom.
“In a few months,” he said, “I’ll probably do 400 again.”