Olympics 2021: Trayvon Bromell is off to a rocky start in the 100 meters, but comebacks are his thing

Trayvon Bromell can't explain why he struggled in the first round of Saturday's 100 meters in Tokyo, but he has experience rallying from adversity. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

If Trayvon Bromell is going to complete his improbable road to redemption, he'll have to figure out what went wrong in the first round of the 100 meters at the Tokyo Olympics. The gold-medal favorite finished fourth in his heat Saturday and barely squeaked into the semifinals with a sluggish time of 10.05 seconds.

Perhaps this will turn out to be yet another speed bump on his inspirational path to success. Bromwell, 26, overcame a tough childhood in St. Petersburg, Florida, and a string of injuries to become the first high school athlete to run the 100 under 10 seconds. He made the 2016 Olympic team in Rio, only to suffer more injuries that required surgery to his foot and, worse yet, his Achilles -- the kiss of death for a world-class sprinter.

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However, Bromell managed to train his way back into top form this year and clocked the best two times in the world, 9.77 and 9.80. Coming into Tokyo -- and with Usain Bolt retired -- the title of Fastest Man in the World was considered Bromell's for the taking.

But on Saturday night in Tokyo, running in Lane 7, Bromell started slow and was left behind at about the 60-meter mark. He finished well behind Enoch Adegoke of Nigeria, who finished at 9.98. Femo Ogunode of Qatar was second in the heat in 10.02, and Zharnel Hughes of Great Britain was third in 10.04.

Asked what went wrong, Bromell told NBC, "Honestly, I don't even know.

"I definitely don't think my form was any good. My knee drive while running wasn't up. Honestly, I don't even know. All I can say is my form wasn't where it needed to be."

A few minutes later, he told reporters at Olympic Stadium, "Shoot, I was calm. Honestly, I have no words for it. It don't look like I actually pushed myself, and that is going to be the thing my coach is mad about."

But the name of the game in the early rounds is survive and advance -- and save energy. The top three finishers in each first-round heat advanced to the semifinals Sunday, plus the next three fastest times. Bromell didn't look good, but he was able to move on.

Andre de Grasse of Canada led the first round with a time of 9.91, and Lamont Marcel Jacobs of Italy clocked 9.94. Americans Fred Kerley, who ran 9.97, and Ronnie Baker, who won his heat in 10.03, also advanced. The semifinals begin Sunday at 6:15 a.m. ET, and the finals are at 8:50 a.m.

It would be foolish to count Bromell out, given the path of his life so far. "I've always been the person who has put myself as the underdog," he told The Associated Press.

Growing up, his single mother struggled just to keep the lights on in their apartment. His neighborhood, he said, was filled with violence and incidents of police brutality. He injured both knees, cracked a hip and had scoliosis before graduating high school. In training camp for the Rio Games, he aggravated a bone spur in his foot and finished eighth in the finals in 10.06. Then Bromell tried to gut his way through the 100-meter relay but had to be helped off the track, and the U.S. team was disqualified for a bad handoff.

The two surgeries didn't seem to help, and Bromell has spoken about wondering if he would ever be able to return. But he began making progress after switching coaches to Rana Reider, who administered workouts so grueling, Bromell says he sometimes had trouble remembering what happened. By the start of this year, he was running faster than ever: 9.77 in June, which is the seventh-fastest time ever, and then 9.80 to win the Olympic trials.

Bromell is probably the first 100-meter athlete to return to world-class form after Achilles surgery, said orthopedic surgeon Timothy S. Johnson of the National Sports Medicine Institute.

"It's an incredibly rare feat, and his mental capacity to go through all that must also be incredible," Johnson said.

The last American man to win gold in the Olympic 100 was Justin Gatlin in 2004. Then came the Reign of Bolt -- three consecutive Olympic victories in the 100 and 200 for the Jamaican superstar, and a bag full of world records that culminated in an unfathomable 9.58 in the 100.

That record probably won't be approached in Tokyo, but with athletes noticing how fast the Olympic Stadium track is, plus the advances in shoe technology, it might take 9.8 -- or below -- to win. In the women's 100, Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica ran the second-fastest time ever Saturday, 10.61 seconds, to win gold and break Florence Griffith Joyner's Olympic record from 1988.

Bolt himself said recently that "Bromell is showing great promise" in the race to succeed him as Olympic champion. The next chapter in Bromell's already incredible journey will be written Sunday.