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Asafa Powell

Breaking records, staying focused

By Gail Wood

Before he would become the world’s fastest man …

Before he would break the world record in the 100 meters …

And before he would become so famous he couldn’t walk the streets of his hometown in Jamaica without being mobbed by autograph seekers …

Asafa Powell, the youngest of six brothers, would have to make a choice between careers. Between running and engineering. Between training six days a week or studying in college. Between the rigors of an athlete’s life or the disciplines of a student.

To the delight of his countrymen, Powell would choose running. At age 21, he left college in Kingston to become the world’s fastest man.

“I was wanting to go into engineering,” says Powell, 25. “I was going to work on cars. But I was running and training so much, I had to make a choice because I didn’t have time for both.”

Powell, who has broken the world record in the 100 meters four times, is among the favorites for Olympic gold in China.

When Powell broke the world record for the first time in June 2005 with a time of 9.77, he became only the fourth non-American since 1912 to hold the 100-meter world record. He joined Donovan Bailey of Canada (1996), Armin Harry of West Germany (1960) and Percy Williams of Canada (1930).

In 2006, Powell matched his record twice and broke it again in September 2007, running a 9.74 in Italy. But with a time of 9.72, fellow Jamaican Usain Bolt broke Powell’s record in May 2008 in New York.

In his career, Powell has run 100 meters under 10 seconds 33 times. By some accounts, he’s Jamaica’s most famous son. Yet Powell’s friends say the fame and wealth that running has brought him haven’t changed Asafa, a friendly, soft-spoken man quick with a smile.

“He’s as humble a world record holder as there’s ever been,” says Paul Doyle, Powell’s agent and friend. “He gets pulled in a lot of directions. It’s difficult for him at times. But he hasn’t let it go to his head.”

Raised in a Christian home — both his parents pastor the church he grew up in — Powell understands the value of humility and the frailty of pride.

As a child he attended church every Sunday and studied the Bible. Plus, he says, he has people who have prayed for him for years.

“You have to give God thanks,” Powell says. “He’s the One carrying me day by day. I have to glorify Him.”

Unlike many Caribbean athletes, Powell hasn’t trained in the United States, choosing instead to remain in Jamaica. His decision was influenced by tragedies.

In 2002, Powell’s second-oldest brother was shot and killed while driving a taxi in New York. The following year another brother died of a heart attack while playing soccer in Georgia. His brothers’ deaths came at a time when Powell was considering living in America.

Solidifying his decision were his own feelings that he’d be better off at home and his mother’s request to do so.

So, Powell remained in Jamaica, accompanying his church choir on guitar or drums on the Sunday mornings he’s not racing somewhere around the world.

Powell was inspired to run track by his 11th grade P.E. teacher, Mrs. Fraser. Until then, soccer had been his favorite sport.

In his high school yearbook, Powell wrote that he’d one day be the world’s fastest man.

“I didn’t know what else to write,” says Powell. “I was the fastest guy in school.”

After high school, Powell wasn’t sure of his potential but knew he had running genes. His brother Donovan, who is 10 years older than Asafa, reached the semifinals in the 100 meters at the 1999 world championships.

“He showed me a few ropes,” Powell says. “He told me what to expect.”

Finishing fifth at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and not winning the 2008 world championships when he was favored to win both, Powell has found carrying the banner of world-record holder challenging.

But Powell isn’t running just for himself.

“Asafa has 4 million people from his country counting on him,” Doyle says. “He doesn’t want to let them down.”

“I don’t know,” Powell said when asked to identify his favorite sports moment. But he quickly responded when asked about his favorite Bible verse.

“Philippians 4:13,” he says. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Prayer, Powell says, is to a Christian’s life what running is to an athlete — imperative. Though he trains six times a week, beginning with a three-hour morning workout at 6 a.m. and another two hours in the afternoon, prayer and Bible study are daily commitments.

“Prayer is what keeps us going,” Powell says.

GAIL WOOD is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.

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