x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Getting onto the right side of the tracks

Ryan Bailey, the US sprinter, escaped gang life and switched to sport, now he has joined Gay and Gatlin on the Olympic team.

Ryan Bailey, with his son Tyree, came third in the men’s 100-metre final at the US Olympic trials, and will compete alongside teammates Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay in London.
Ryan Bailey, with his son Tyree, came third in the men’s 100-metre final at the US Olympic trials, and will compete alongside teammates Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay in London.

Just a few years ago, Ryan Bailey was living out of a car with his mother, hanging out with gang members and failing in school.

He was once stabbed three times on a city bus and once had to endure a severe beating just to escape gang life.

Not exactly the typical path a sprinter takes to the Olympics.

Bailey, a 23-year-old American, looks back at those days and shakes his head in wonder, hardly believing how far he has come.

"It just seems so unbelievable I'm here," Bailey said. "I sit back and think, 'Wow, I could be like a couple of my friends - in jail or dead.' I could be right there with them. But I'm not."

At the US Olympic trials last month, very few knew of Bailey. He was simply the runner who finished third in the 100 metres, taking a back seat to Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.

Those two had the more compelling stories, with Gatlin securing his return to the Olympics after a four-year doping suspension and Gay taking second on a surgically repaired hip.

It turns out, Bailey has a pretty interesting tale, too.

While growing up in Oregon, he lived for stretches at a time in a white Suzuki Esteem with his mother, Debra Galban, who suffers from fibromyalgia and degenerative arthritis, making it difficult for her to work. His father was not around.

When he wasn't staying with one of his sisters, Bailey stretched out in the front seat, since the back of the car was crammed with their belongings.

One of his mother's most prized possessions was an Olympic coin she found. Bailey thinks it might have been from Dairy Queen, the restaurant chain, but it meant the world to her. That coin - with the Olympic rings carved on the back - became the embodiment of what her son could achieve.

"She said all the time, 'You're going to be there one day',"said Bailey, who is trying to get a passport for his mother so she can watch him race in London. "She always believed that."

First, though, he had to get his act straightened out.

And this was a big wake-up call: he was stabbed in the back and shoulder by a rival gang member in 2006. He was turning his back on an argument - trying to walk off the bus - when he was struck. Bailey was in the hospital for days.

Bailey was a bright pupil who struggled to pay attention in class at Douglas McKay High School in Salem, Oregon, in part because of attention deficit disorder. Instead, he played the role of class clown.

After a brief expulsion in his junior year, he began to see that school and sports were his way back on the right road.

Getting out of gang life was not easy, though. He could not simply walk away without repercussions. Beaten up to get into the gang, he had to take a far worse one to get out.

And then one day the pummelling arrived. Bailey was beaten so badly he had cuts over both eyes and his face was covered in blood. He trudged home and there, waiting for him, was his mother.

They hugged and cried. Happy tears, because he was now free to start a new chapter, one that included buckling down in the classroom. He said he even received the turnaround student of the year award in the district in his senior year.

"To me, that award was a pretty big deal," he said.

Given his size - 6ft 4ins (1.93m), 180 pounds (81.6kg) - Bailey was a natural on the football field and played several positions. Had his grades been better, he might have been looking at a football scholarship.

Track did not even enter the picture until his sophomore year. He was staring at the school's record board and boasting how he could easily break those marks.

Walking by just then was John Parks, the school's track coach at the time and the person who would serve as a father figure. Parks called Bailey on his bravado.

"He said, 'If you're so bad, come out and join the team'," Bailey said. "I was like, 'Yeah, whatever. I'll be there sometime.' I said that so he would leave me alone."

Only Parks would not let it go.

Especially not after Bailey showed up on the track one day to run a lap before lifting weights. Unbeknown to Bailey, Parks hit start on his stop watch to record the time.

Bailey finished in 51 seconds. Not bad for hardly going all out.

"He was smooth, like he was sliding on ice," said Parks, who turned over Bailey's training to John Smith after seven years and now plays more of a support role as his manager.

Eventually, Parks got Bailey to come out for the team and envisioned turning him into a decathlete. That is because before Usain Bolt, the world-record holder, came along, a sprinter that tall was hardly a common sight.

Bailey's sprinting career got off to an inauspicious start. Running in his first meeting and in spikes two sizes too small, Bailey broke his big toe, curtailing his season.

After a solid high school career, he attended Rend Lake College in Illinois, winning a junior college title in the 100m in 2009. That put him on the map in track circles, an up-and-comer to watch.

Then came the trials, when Bailey really burst on the scene.

"I keep hearing all the time, 'I can't believe you made the team'," said Bailey, whose son Tyree turns three in October. "I knew I was going to make it. I had no doubt."

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