Cravont Charleston: can a sprinter without a shoe sponsor become world champion?

Cravont Charleston: can a sprinter without a shoe sponsor become world champion?
Cravont Charleston: can a sprinter without a shoe sponsor become world champion?

He thought he had finished fourth. Premature cheers of “Coleman!” and “Lyles!” echoed around Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon last month. But Cravont Charleston, the 25-year-old without a shoe sponsor, ultimately pipped former world champions Christian Coleman and Noah Lyles to secure the 100m title in 9.95 seconds in his US championships debut.

“I always knew I could win,” Charleston quipped. “[My coach Allen] Johnson said to me, ‘I told you so.’”

On a muggy evening a few weeks after his victory, Charleston was in an Uber en route to a mani-pedi – when you have feet that move as fast as his do they need TLC. He was in Houston for a relay camp before the track world championships, which start on Saturday in Budapest. He was also thinking about the reaction to his victory, which sealed him a place on Team USA for the 100m.

“I inspire you? I never think how I could influence others,” he says of a DM he had received after his victory. “I was just doing me. If I can inspire others to have patience and perseverance, I’m all for it.”

His progress could have been written by Hemingway – it happened gradually, then suddenly. He had never won an college or US championship before his victory in Eugene. In 2021 he failed to advance out of the qualifying rounds at the US Olympic Trials. Then in 2022, at the age of 24, he ran sub-10 for the first time. This year, he has broken that barrier four times and set a new personal best of 9.90. He had the fourth-best time by an American and seventh-best in the world this year heading into the US championships. His recent success at the US championships as well as a fourth-place finish at the Diamond League race in Chorzow, Poland, show he could well come home from Budapest with a medal.

US track and field has started to recognize the need to reinvigorate its fanbase in a crowded sports market before the 2028 LA Olympics. And Charleston seems to understand the importance of connecting with track fans. But he is still adjusting to his phone blowing up with interview requests and social media activity. “Hey it’s part of the job,” he says, returning to his messages.

He is the first US 100m champion without a shoe deal since 2012 when Justin Gatlin won the title. Among the most recent 22 US men’s champions in the event, 19 were sponsored by Nike or Adidas. Currently Charleston is supported by Tracksmith’s Amateur Support program, which has helped him with gear, race fees and travel expenses, but he is holding out for the right sponsorship deal, even if that means waiting until after the world championships.

“I’m looking for someone who I can be comfortable with,” he says. “Issues come up where it’s hard to be yourself. They’re not helping you progress in your career. It’s not all about money. I want to be where I fit best.”

Charleston values something money can’t usually buy: a supportive coach-athlete relationship. He met Johnson, who won gold at the 1996 Olympics in the 110m hurdles, as a freshman on the team at North Carolina State when Johnson was the assistant coach. They have worked together for seven years.

“It’s nice to have someone who’s been where you’re trying to get to,” Charleston said. “[Johnson] can navigate you.”

Now, Charleston drives 90 miles most days to train with Johnson. After he graduated with a degree in sports management in 2021, he moved home to Charlotte while Johnson took the head coaching job at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.

Charleston sees his 100m national title as a milestone they reached together. “It was a lot for the both of us,” he says. “We took a moment to realize where we were. I told him, ‘I appreciate you.’”

After the race, Johnson said Charleston’s victory was no surprise. “I’ve been expecting this [win] since he was a freshman in college,” Johnson said.

Charleston is only an overnight success to those who didn’t pay attention. His high school track coach, Donald Littlejohn, knew Charleston had talent. Littlejohn says Charleston has always been disciplined rather than a gregarious entertainer like his competitor Noah Lyles, who is set to play a lead role in an upcoming track and field documentary series on Netflix.

When Charleston was a high school senior, Littlejohn, who was also his football coach, asked him if he wanted to train over spring break. Charleston decided to forego beach week with friends, and instead worked out with Littlejohn every day. A few months later he became the North Carolina 100m state champion. He continued his success at NC State where he accrued two All-American honors and five ACC titles.

“He’s shocking people now, shocked people then,” says Littlejohn. “But he’s always been working when no one is looking.”

The pandemic meant Charleston could not train with a coach. But he said he had been coached so well that he didn’t need Johnson with him at every moment. He believes the time prompted him to self-reflect and focus on technique.

And Charleston’s journey has not been without personal challenges. He lost his father in 2021, something which deeply affected him. He was injured shortly afterwards and said he broke down emotionally.

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“I had no direction,” he says. “Continuing on was hard but that year I ran for [my father].”

Charleston credits his mother, siblings and members of his church with helping him get through what he said felt like a blur.

“It never gets easier but you learn how to manage,” he says. “We’re all going through the same thing and we can persevere together. Seeing how strong they are helps me.”

When Charleston returned to practice the following season, he hit times on the track he had never hit before. He covered distances he could never cover before.

“I came back stronger, like a different athlete,” he said. “My coach was like, ‘Who are you? Where’s the old Cravont?’”

In Budapest, Charleston will be up against the reigning world champion, Fred Kerley, who will also compete for Team USA – he did not race the 100m in Eugene, having secured automatic entry after his win in last year’s final – along with Lyles, Coleman, and the rest of the world’s fastest men.

Those who have followed Charleston closest aren’t worried.

“He’ll go faster, [than at the US championships],” Danny Peebles, who worked as a volunteer coach for NC State’s track and field team during Charleston’s first two years there, told the Wolfpacker. “I won’t be surprised if he comes home as a world champion.”

In the last three world championships, the US champion has gone on to become the world champion. Gatlin won in 2017, Coleman in 2019 and Kerley in 2022. Charleston says he will be grateful to make the top three but admits he wants to win the whole thing.

“I have big shoes to fill,” Charleston says.

Whose shoes? For now, he is content with the ones he owns.

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