THIS YEAR HAS BEEN an education for Jaylen Slade (IMG Academy, Bradenton, Florida), who has won our HS Indoor AOY honors after a season that saw him take down the national record in his prime event, the 200, with a 20.62.
As a frosh at Chapel Hill High (Douglasville, Georgia), Slade had hit bests of 10.51 (plus a windy 10.22) and 21.03. He won State titles in both sprints, and also took 7th in the triple jump, where he went 47-6.
Last year, as a soph, he stopped playing football and had hoped to concentrate on the sprints. That ambition was stunted by the pandemic; he hit an indoor 21.41 in January and an outdoor 10.60 in March, but little else.
In the fall he moved to the private board school IMG, where he started working with 3-time Jamaican Olympian Dwight Thomas, who himself ran 10.00 and 20.32 in a pro career that saw him World Rank No. 4 in the 100 in ’05.
Says Slade, “He told me about the body, how the body works, basically everything about track & field.”
Recounts Thomas, “He was coming along very nicely when I met him. He had some rough edges. I wanted him to understand the sport a little bit more and understand what acceleration is versus velocity. Just kind of teach him along the way, you know? Because when you go from this level to the collegiate level, you’re going to hear those terms thrown out by your coaches. You want to have a little of the vocabulary.
“I kinda broke down the whole sprint mechanics, body mechanics, you know from my previous coaches, Lance Brauman, Brooks Johnson, whom I worked with over my pro career.”
Turns out that Slade is more than an eager learner, according to Thomas. “I think he’s going to go far just from his personality. You can see how extroverted he is. He just loves to talk about track. He had a great upbringing from his family. They did a fantastic job with him.”
The results have come fast this year, leading Slade to judge, “I’m excited with what I did during the indoor season.” At the Virginia Showcase he nailed 300 in 32.77, the No. 2 time ever. A few weeks later at the East Coast Invitational he blitzed 200 in 20.97, along with a rare 400 in 47.84.
Then, he traveled to Fayetteville to run in a special HS 200 at the American Track League IV meet. Fast track, fast legs, what could go wrong? He messed up his start. “A lot of people were shocked because I stumbled out of the blocks and they thought there was a chance of me not making it,” he says. “You know, I stumbled, but I have that mentality to go out there and finish the race.”
He did just that in 20.62, nipping by 0.01 the ’16 best set by a certain Noah Lyles. “It was our goal to accomplish that,” he says.
Slade followed up a week later with a 60 win at the adidas Indoor Nationals in a list-leading 6.68 PR (with another national leader, 6.24, en route at 55m).
The hard part for Slade is not the running — that’s dessert for him. But being at IMG means being away from his family. “It’s a big change,” he says. “I call them like twice a week. The communication has fallen a little bit, but they can’t come out here because we’re still in a bubble with the COVID circling around.”
A longtime baseball player as a kid, Slade gave that up when he moved to a school that didn’t have a team. That’s when he found football and became a bit of a middle school star. His speed on the field caught the eye of track coach Wynne Lougher: “He was like, ‘Why don’t you come out here and try track?’ But I wasn’t really into running like that.”
It didn’t take him long to realize he did like it after all. “I had people behind me who supported me and helped me out. I actually started thinking to myself that I was really good at it.”
That brings Slade’s story to another life-changing conversation, one that happened in January with his current coach, Thomas, after he had run his 20.97.
“He came to me and said, ‘Hey, I think we have a chance to go to the Olympic Trials,’” says Slade, who is only 17. He was instantly sold on the idea, and has a March meet coming up where he will see how close he can get to the 20.24 standard.
“We’re going to try to attempt 100, but our goal is really based off of 200. In the 100 [this season], we hope to consistently run 10.2 and lower. In the 200, we’re definitely trying to break the national record [20.09, set by Lyles at the ’16 OT]. That’s the goal.”
Explains Thomas, “The goal is to get to the Olympic Trials, just to get there and participate, and whatever happens, whatever transpires, let it be. There’s no Junior Championships this year. By the time the next Olympics come around in 2024 he’ll be 21. So the goal is just to get his feet wet, just to get a chance to compete with some of the people he looks up to.”
With various high-profile prep stars having gone pro early, Slade says he isn’t really interested in that route. “I still want to have that college experience,” he insists. “I still want to go for collegiate records and stuff like that. That’s something that’s been on my mind for the longest time.”
Another side of that is that while Slade hopes to be in track for the long haul, he has serious plans for the other side of athletics with plans to study for the ministry as well as business.
For now, though, the young man is all about speed. “I’m hungry to be the fastest one,” he says.