Ato Boldon considers the 100-meter dash the “sexy event” in track and field and is proud that he won four Olympic sprint medals — a record for any male athlete.
He was second in the 100-meter dash at the 2000 Olympics and third in the 200-meter dash. Four years earlier at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta he was third in both the 100 and 200. He also won four medals at the World Championships, including a gold in the 200 in 1997, and one Pan American Games medal.
Boldon retired with a personal best time of 9.86 seconds in the 100 and 19.77 seconds in the 200.
Boldon, 38, was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, to a Jamaican mother and Trinidadian father. He came to the United States when he was 14 and while playing soccer at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y, high school track and field coach Joe Trupiano noticed his sprinting abilities and steered him to a career in track.
At 18, Boldon represented Trinidad and Tobago in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, but did not qualify in the first round of either event. Boldon returned to the junior circuit, winning the 100 and 200 titles at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Athletics in Seoul to become the first double sprint champion in World Junior Championships history.
He was also an NCAA champion at UCLA in 1995 in the 200. He won the NCAA 100 in 1996 in the final race of his collegiate career, setting an NCAA meet record of 9.92 seconds that still stands. He held the collegiate 100 record of 9.90 from 1996 until it was broken by Travis Padgett (9.89) in 2008.
Boldon was seriously injured in a head-on crash with a drunk driver in July of 2002 and never again ran sub-10 seconds in the 100-meter dash or sub-20 seconds in the 200, something he had done on 37 separate occasions. The accident left Boldon with a serious hip injury, and curtailed his career.
He competed in his fourth Olympics in 2004 at Athens, but failed to advance out of the first round of the 100.
After retiring from his running career, he was an opposition senator in the Trinidad and Tobago parliament and is now an NBC-TV analyst for track and field.
He spent three days in Danville last week at the Maximum Velocity Track and Field Academy and shared these thoughts on a variety of subjects:
Question: When you look back on your record-setting career where only two men (Franie Fredericks and Carl Lewis) have won as many Olympic individual sprint medals (four) as you, are you disappointed that you didn’t win a gold medal?
Boldon: “It doesn’t eat at you, but sprinters by nature have to be perfectionists. That time has come and gone for me. When I get around a Kevin Young or Jackie Joyner-Kersee, I wonder if they feel any different having an Olympic gold medal. Of course, the answer is always no and no different feeling when your career over no matter what medals you have. I can’t really think about it or let it bother me.
“But you have to remember in sports and life, it’s not a question of looking at what you don’t have. It’s more important to look at what you do have. It’s not lost on me that there is nobody in history that can say they have more (Olympic sprint medals). There are two tied with me, but nobody can say they have more, and that is something I am very proud of and my country is very proud of.”
Question: What made you such a good sprinter, especially since you were a soccer player and not a track athlete as a youngster?
Boldon: “I was a soccer player up until my senior year of high school. I dabbled a little bit in track and field when I first moved from the Caribbean to New York, and then I went to San Jose, Calif. I was doing soccer primarily and track kind of feeling my way.
“I was on a really bad soccer team my senior year and the way it was explained to me was, ‘Don’t you want more control over the outcome?’ That was it for me. I wanted to know if I do all the work at least I can be responsible for what the end result is. I was discovered playing soccer in New York.
“I was 16 when I got discovered (for track) and by 18 I was in the Olympics. It helps that I ran for a very small country. That would not happen to an American 16- or 18-year-old runner. There is that one caveat. But it was a question of when I talked to the guy who discovered me he said if I saw what he saw on the soccer field, you could see it.
“It’s like somebody had to see Usian Bolt playing cricket somewhere in Jamaica and know what he should be doing. A lot of times you hear athletes talk about that, especially if they get discovered out of another sport, that somebody had to see it and that’s what happened to me. My high school coach in New York saw it and said, ‘Trust me, you are a sprinter.’”
Question: You career has been so diversified, talk about politics and other things you have done and how you were able to do all this?
Boldon: “I was raised by parents who did not believe in limiting their children. My mother’s philosophy is raising children is like flying a kite. If you hold the strings too tightly, they do nothing interesting.
“My mother allowed me a little bit of free rein to try things and be involved in a lot of different things. I am not quite 40 yet, and I have been a politician, I have been a world champion sprinter, I have been an Olympic medalist, I am a private pilot. That is my philosophy on life, and I try to share that with the kids I talk to all around the planet. Don’t just focus on that one thing. You are going to like you life a lot more if you have several different interests.
“I coach football players now. I have an entire business which is based on getting the top college players ready for the combine. Pat Peterson is my top client. The lesson in that is do not be afraid to try things. A lot of kids I talk to don’t think they will be good at something. So you are not going to try? Never?
The first day when those football combine guys thought about hiring me and gave me a presentation, I told them they did not need me. They said they did and said, ‘Trust me, with that short 40-(yard-dash) at the combine that everybody has to run, which can make a difference between first and third round, we need you more because you are going to be the difference and teach those guys how to be efficient running.’ I had to listen.”
Question: What is it like working with Lexington native Tom Hammond on NBC?
Boldon: “That is actually a funny story because I have been working with him since 2007 and obviously (Lexington native) Tyson Gay has been a big part of a lot of our broadcasts. After about a year I said to Tom, ‘Why is it that you introduce Tyson Gay’s high school and not anybody else’s high school?’ He went, ‘Yeah, because I went to the same high school.’ Now I understand the Lafayette High School connection.
“But Tom is a pretty big deal everywhere. He is an amazing person and pretty much the best there is. Everybody knows Tom is a great guy, but I got a chance to see it firsthand. Tom gave me a lot of confidence by letting me be me.
Tom’s greatest gift in his job is that he adapts to whoever sits next to him. He will work with people in basketball, horse racing; he works with me. Everybody is different, but somehow Tom finds a way to just let the person who is doing the color analysis do their thing and he does his thing. It’s hard to describe, but he’s the best at it.”
Question: How much do you enjoy the TV work?
Boldon: “I don’t work because they say if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. I retired at 30, and even then I retired from being a world class sprinter. I have never had a job. I tell people that all the time, everything I have ever done I wake up in the morning and it is like, ‘Oh yes, I get to do ...’ and just fill in the blank.
“I woke up today and I get to change the form of 100 kids today. If you looked at my kids today before they started and what they look like now, it doesn’t look the same. That is the most rewarding thing I can do, even more than being on TV or winning a medal.
“If in 15 years from now and these kids are running at the U.S. Olympic trials and they say it turned around for me the day I worked with Ato Bolden in Danville, Ky., then I have accomplished something.
“I don’t feel like I work. Some days I say I am robbing NBC. I get to come out to the best meets in the world — the Olympic trials, the world champioinships, the Olympics — and I get to talk about something I really enjoy. The public seems to enjoy it and the critics seem to like me, and somebody writes me a check. You can’t get too more blessed than that.”
Question: How excited are you for the Olympics?
Boldon: “I try to not do that. I only look as far as the next meet. Last week when I was getting ready for the New York Adidas Grand Prix, I was focused on Tyson Gay, who has not run in 352 days, who was coming back from two surgeries in three years. I am only focused on the next event. So now I am focused on pouring everything I have into these kids and once that is done, I am looking forward to the Olympic Trials.
“I don’t look two and three meets ahead. I have enough time to be excited about the Olympics. I am certainly doing a good job about the countdown and know how long it is to the opening ceremonies and all that. But I don’t look forward in the same kind of way. I am anticipating it, but I am focusing on the next day’s event.”
Question: What are your expectations for Tyson Gay regarding his bid to make the Olympic team?
Boldon: “I feel like Tyson and I have kind of grown up together because my broadcast career started with his career at Arkansas. While he was doing great things at Arkansas, I was kind of figuring my way out in the broadcast world. Now he is kind of at the top of his field and I am on top of mine in terms of being a sprint analyst, and I can tell you that I did not expect Tyson Gay to look as good as he did in New York (last weekend).
Having said that, I went on the air and said I thought he would run 10 (seconds) flat (in the 100-meter dash) and he ran 10 flat and that was great. But in the back of my mind, I was like, ‘The surgeries, the layoff,’ I just wasn’t sure. It bothered me because I feel like Tyson makes the competition better. When we are talking about the trials and the Olympic Games, it is better to have the American record holder there. He is just such a great competitor and great guy.
“In terms of what I expect of him in the U.S. trials, I had Justin Gatlin winning until I saw Tyson in New York. I went back home and just submitted my picks to NBC.com and I went to Justin Gatlin and backspaced over that and put Gatlin second. I feel like Tyson has a point to prove even to the critics like me who don’t think he can come back after what he’s been through. That’s good. Every athlete has to find that kind of motivation and I feel like Tyson is going to win the Olympic trials.
“Now do I think he is going to win an Olympic gold medal? I am not so sure about that. But you never know. Bolt false started out of the 100-meter World Championship final. People get injured. All sorts of stuff happens. Will Tyson have a shot? I think if he stays healthy, yes he will. It will be good for him because even with his resume, he does not have an Olympic medal of any kind, not even a relay. I am eager to see him do well at the Olympics.”
Question: Do you think youngsters here realize how lucky they are to have Young, Joyner-Kersee, Dave Wottle, Francie Larrieu Smith and others here to instruct them?
Boldon: “They are young, but they will remember. I am here because of the people that are here. Kevin Young and Jackie Joyner-Kersee are my track idols. I chose the school (UCLA) I was going to attend because they were there.
“For kids, it can happen later. I have had people later send me a message on Twitter a year later, a month later saying, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realize I met Ato Boldon.’ For kids, they don’t have to get it immediately as long as some point you got an opportunity to get some insight from somebody who has been there and done that.”
Question: Since you are a basketball fan, what did you think of Kentucky winning the national championship?
Boldon: “I am a huge basketball fan, and Kentucky was great. I am not as big a college fan in all honesty as I am NBA, but I was just happy to see them there. It’s a good tie-in to the whole Tyson Gay thing. If you are having the Olympic final, you want the American record holder in it. It makes it a better competition.
“I always feel like when programs like Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke are having good seasons, it makes for a better college basketball season. Of course, UCLA is not doing so well, but it is a better college basketball season when Kentucky is having a good year and they had a great year which I am sure people in Kentucky liked a lot.”