NEW YORK • There is not a lot of rhyme or reason to the chosen pursuits of the children born to the world’s great athletes.
Bronny James, Lebron’s eldest son, is a top basketball prospect, but the children of tennis greats Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf never showed much interest in the sport.
Then there is Cameron Burrell, who won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship 100m in 2018. His best time is 9.93sec, making him one of the fastest sprinters in the world.
His father, Leroy, is an Olympic gold medallist and the former world-record holder in the 100m. His mother, Michelle Finn-Burrell, has a sprint relay gold medal from the 1992 Olympics too.
His aunt Dawn Burrell was an Olympic long jumper, and one of his godfathers is also a sprinter of some renown – Carl Lewis.
Now comes the hard part, because while it is certainly not easy to be among the very few to run 100m in less than 10 seconds, competing in the shadow of Olympic legends who happen to be in the family may be even more difficult.
Also, the past two years, since Cameron completed his college career, have been filled with nagging injuries, periods of sagging confidence, logistical hassles, disappointing races, and now an Olympics delayed a year by a pandemic.
“I run just as fast as most pros and well enough to be ranked and make national teams, I just don’t do it often enough,” he said.
So where does the 26-year-old turn to for guidance? Lewis and Leroy are his coaches. If they are on the road, his mother fills in.
All of them have high expectations for him, given what he has already accomplished.
“It’s a difficult burden for him to carry, but it’s his job, and he has to do it somehow,” Leroy said.
Michelle added: “The other part, though, is balancing the work and overthinking. He has to want it for himself, not for me, not for Leroy.”
After sprinting became his calling, Burrell chose the University of Houston, the school his father and Lewis helped turn into a speed mecca in the 1980s, and where his father has coached for 22 years. Lewis became an assistant coach there in 2014.
Since college, Burrell and several of his teammates have continued to train as part of a professional group that his father and Lewis set up so the best runners could stay in Houston and work out together.
For Burrell, the transition to professional running has not gone as smoothly as it has for some of his peers.
He struggled to adjust to new challenges – being alone while competing in Japan for two weeks, or having the airline lose his athletic bag and clothes on a trip to a competition in England. He has blue-chip sponsors – Red Bull and Nike – but knows he must perform at the highest level to keep them.
“New levels, new devils”, he said.
Others his age have had better results. Christian Coleman, a college rival who is 18 months younger, won 100m gold at the world championships in Doha last year. Burrell did not make that national team.
Lewis said: “I told him he has to take any concerns he has about making the Olympic team off the table. I said, ‘If you run the time you have already run, you have made it’.”
Sprinting 100m seems like it should be the simplest event in sports, an all-out burst. It is not.
“It’s about managing speeding up and slowing down for 90m,” Lewis said.
Elite sprinters do not reach top speed until about the 50m mark, and they can only stay at top speed for 10m or so. The margin for error is minuscule.
Leroy said there are some things his son could improve on to become a consistent sub-10sec runner.
He needs more confidence in his start and to better maintain his stride length and frequency through the finish. He needs to balance his weaker left side with his stronger right. He could relax and enjoy the pursuit of his dream a little more, too, his father said, though the sports actuarial tables say he is just about to reach his athletic prime.
“He could have done anything he wanted, and he chose to run,” Leroy said of his son. “He’s got to really go get it this year.”