Meet the 12-year-old girl who might very well be the next Usain Bolt
SPANISH TOWN, Jamaica -- On the campus of St. Jago High School sits Brianna Lyston, a somewhat shy 12-year-old in seventh grade, who answers each question by starting with "Miss" and whose eyes smile even when she's not speaking.
In the past two weeks, Lyston has caused the school located 30 minutes west of Kingston to be flooded with journalists from as far as Europe and Asia, after she broke the 200-meter record at Jamaica's legendary Champs -- a five-day annual meet at the National Stadium -- by running a 23.72. It was the first time a girl has run under 24 seconds in her class (age 10-12) since that race started in 1972. And just to add to it, she also won the 100m finals and broke another record in the 4x100m with her St. Jago teammates.
Lyston reflects on the moment with the ease of someone who knew they were capable of accomplishing an unimaginable task. "I didn't plan to break any records," Lyston said. "I just followed my coach's instructions."
But her coach, Keilando Goburn, always believed it might be possible. "Based on the numbers that she was giving us in training, I even said it to her father," Goburn said. "But to be honest with you, I didn't expect it in the prelims, and I didn't expect her to make it look so easy."
Immediately after her epic run, comparisons were made to Usain Bolt -- just that other dynamo who hails from the country known as the "sprint factory." When Bolt won the world junior championships in Kingston at age 15, it was clear he would become one of the greats as he matured. For Bolt, the world juniors is still his favorite race.
"I was really just happy I won," Bolt said. "Making my parents, school and country proud was just a great feeling. That race is still my greatest race in my book, especially since I was able to win in front of my home crowd."
Since Bolt's dominance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the international media has been attending Champs in droves, broadcasting the results worldwide. Everyone is searching for Bolt's heir, given his stated intention to retire after the world championships in August.
Hubert Lawrence, a track and field analyst and author of "Champs 100: A Century of Jamaican High School Athletics, 1910-2010," doesn't dispute Lyston's talent, but he thinks a safer comparison would be to Aleen Bailey and Melaine Walker, who both competed in her class at Champs and became Olympic medalists. That said, Lawrence said she's in good hands with Goburn and that she has the tools to develop into a world-class sprinter as she grows.
"She's far superior than anybody who has run at girls' Champs, and we're talking since 1957," Lawrence said, referencing the year girls started competing at the event. "When you look at her, she's pretty efficient in terms of running technique. The hope is that she'll get good body maturity, get stronger and therefore faster and is trained well."
Hope is perhaps what makes Lyston most similar to Bolt. Very few people know the pressures of hope in athletics as well as Norman Peart, Bolt's business manager, who played a crucial role in his development.
When Bolt was 15, Bolt's high school principal asked Peart to help tutor him and become a mentor. Eventually Bolt's parents allowed him to move with Peart from the western part of the island to Kingston. For three years, Bolt lived with Peart, a tax auditor who oversaw his academic, athletic and social life.
"People need to understand that once you spot a special talent like that, you have to put a system in place -- a structure around that athlete that's a very tight structure," Peart said. "What she needs is mentoring and to focus on what can she achieve from this sport. Her parents and coach are key to her now, and if there's someone who can be there to mentor her, so she's not exploited along the way.
"It's important that it's all about her welfare and money doesn't get involved. Her well-being is paramount."
More than 200 schools in Jamaica send teams to Champs, and current track stars Veronica Campbell-Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson and Omar McLeod have all competed there. The National Stadium's crowd of 35,000 is the biggest stage many of the athletes ever compete on, but for some it'll be the preparation they need for bigger glories.
Bolt and Yohan Blake -- who shares the record with Tyson Gay as the fastest men ever not named Bolt -- have also left enduring legacies at Champs. Bolt's 200m record from 2003 still stands at 20.25, and Blake's 100m record of 10.34 stood for eight years until 2014 when Raheem Chambers, another St. Jago standout, broke it.
"Back in Champs, I was dynamite," said Blake, also a St. Jago alum. "When I went there in the first year, I didn't do much. I came in fifth and made some finals, but then I got serious and started to dominate. It was electric. It sets you for the big stage -- the Olympics and world championships -- and for the person I am today."
Kerron Stewart, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, agrees. "I think the platform set for Champs is just amazing," Stewart said. "Now the world can actually see why Jamaican athletes are so good because we have the foundation from high school and even lower."
As for Bolt? "It's the greatest show on earth in our book," Bolt said. "People are either tuned into their television or at the stadium. We're able to showcase to the world where it all starts."
And while Lyston might have become famous at Champs, her mother, Latoya Bennett, was the first to spot her potential.
"Basically, she was born with that talent so I just groomed her," Bennett said. "I always watched her run at our sports day [in primary school], and I just knew she had it."
So when Bennett, a St. Jago alum herself and former track athlete, was introduced to Goburn at one parish meet when Lyston was just 7, she assured him her daughter would follow suit to the school.
But it wasn't until 2014 that Goburn actually took Lyston's talent seriously when she represented Jamaica at a meet in Trinidad & Tobago. She ran the 300m with a time of 42.41 -- a second faster than the winning time recorded for the boys. "That's when I started paying real attention to her," Goburn said. "I said, 'This girl is the real deal.'"
At this stage, it's about her doing what she loves and not stressing her.-- Usain Bolt
It's also around that time that Blake noticed Lyston. "I knew of Brianna from primary school and I've been watching her," Blake said. "But I didn't know that's how good she was. I was just thinking, she's a regular runner and she'll get better as time goes by."
Blake, however, stresses that the adults around Lyston should remember to train her for her age. "In Jamaica we say 'don't force ripe' -- don't push her too much. Just let her live her life, enjoy it ... because she's just 12, she's a baby."
And as for the man she's getting compared to?
"I would recommend to everyone to just let her enjoy what she's doing now and not start treating her like she's a professional athlete," Bolt said. "At this stage, it's about her doing what she loves and not stressing her."
Lyston jokes with her parents that she didn't inherit her sprinting talent from them -- though she gives in that it might be from her mother's side. She sits between them at St. Jago and looks to each for guidance when she's not sure what to say. Her parents and her two siblings have been caught up in this whirlwind of attention while trying to figure out how to guide her.
"One of the things that interested me about her is that she knows she's talented, but yet she works very hard," Goburn said. "Normally the talented ones, they tend to slack off in training. But I have to give her parents credit, because her father is here even for the training 80 percent of the time. And her mom is very stern, so there's little to no room for her to have any problems since she's well-grounded.
"And we're hoping and praying that things will stay like this. For her to be that next great, I mean both parents have a big role to play."
Her father, Tyrone, wears a baseball cap and sits quietly, listening. His daughter's accomplishments overwhelm him. "Words can't explain," he said. "She always makes me feel proud."