By his own admission, he has been a wanderer all his life, determined since childhood to chart his own course through the world.
So Bob Kersee, who has guided athletes to nearly 70 Olympic and World Championships gold medals, on some of the biggest moments of his career has chosen to follow a path not to parade his vindication in front of his critics or bask in glory, but to find a place of peace.
When Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, one of his current superstars, first broke the 400-meter hurdles world record at the 2021 Olympic Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Kersee was a block away walking through a pioneer cemetery in the dark, retracing the steps of another restless soul, the late Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who often chased his own Olympic dreams past the same ghosts.
When McLaughlin-Levrone lowered the world record again weeks later in capturing the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, Kersee was back at his hotel doing laundry, having left her after warm-ups as she walked with her fellow competitors from the practice track to the Olympic Stadium, his work complete. He was looking for a place to eat when she lowered the record yet again at the USA Track & Field Championships last June.
And when McLaughlin-Levrone broke the world record for a fourth time in 14 months, running a Beamon-esue 50.68 seconds at the World Championships in Eugene, Kersee was watching from his hotel room nearly 2 miles from the track.
Still, each time McLaughlin settled into the starting blocks, Kersee’s presence was undeniable.
“He’s trained them well enough to know if you do everything he says and you execute the plan he has given you that the end result will be that world record or that first place or that gold medal,” said Valerie Brisco, the 400 and 200 meter champion at the 1984 Olympic Games, Kersee’s first Olympic gold medalist.
“It’s for his own sanity,” Brisco continued, referring to Kersee’s race-day preference. “He’s still nervous. I think it’s easier for him to be away from the noise, people. It’s easier for him to remove himself from the atmosphere and see them on TV and go, ‘Yeah, that’s what I needed to see.’”
For 40 years, through 10 now going on 11 Olympic cycles, Kersee and the world have grown accustomed to seeing his athletes capturing Olympic and World titles and smashing world and American records.
“He’s on the Mount Rushmore (of coaching),” said Ato Boldon, a world champion sprinter and now an analyst for NBC Sports.
Kersee-coached athletes have won 43 Olympic medals, 28 of them gold, and 55 World Championships medals, 40 gold. Athletes coached by Kersee currently hold four individual world records – the 35-year-old 100 (10.49 seconds) and 200 (21.34) marks belonging to Florence Griffith-Joyner, Kersee’s late sister-in-law, McLaughlin’s 400 hurdles standard and the heptathlon record (7,291 points) set by Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Bobby’s wife, also in 1988. Allyson Felix, the seven-time Olympic, 14-time World champion coached by Kersee, was also a part of the U.S. 4×100-meter relay whose victorious time at the 2012 Olympic Games (40.82) remains the world record.
“There’s no greater coach,” said Gail Devers, who won two Olympic 100 meter titles under Kersee’s tutelage.
Now at 69, Kersee’s influence on the sport has never been greater.
His current Los Angeles-based training group includes not only McLaughlin-Levrone but Athing Mu, the 20-year-old Olympic and World 800-meter champion, Keni Harrison, the former world record holder in the 100 meter hurdles and Jenna Prandini, an Olympic and Worlds medalist sprinter.
As much as anything, this weekend’s Los Angeles Grand Prix at Drake Stadium on the UCLA campus, billed justifiably as the most star-studded track meet in Southern California since the 1984 Olympic Games, is the result of Kersee’s vision. It was Kersee who lobbied officials at USA Track & Field, the sport’s national governing body, to place a meet in Los Angeles as a way of re-establishing the city’s profile in the sport – and perhaps securing a stop on the Diamond League circuit – as well as kickstarting interest in the sport locally at the grassroots level.
“An opportunity to build track and field back to where it was in its heyday,” he said.
Kersee, in a series of recent interviews, also acknowledged that he has been forced to take stock of his life in recent years.
He spent nearly a month in March 2019 in a St. Louis-area hospital with pancreatitis. He is still coming to terms with the death of hurdler Greg Foster at 64 in February after a seven-year battle with amyloidosis, a rare disease that causes the buildup of the protein amyloid in vital organs. Foster was Kersee’s first World champion, winning the 1983 gold medal in the 110-meter high hurdles, and one of Kersee’s closest friends.
“People expect me to stand up here and be strong and I’m not,” Kersee said, referring to his speaking at Foster’s memorial. “This is a best friend, beyond an athlete, that I’m getting ready to lose.”
Kersee also admits to struggling with mental health issues.
“I’ll be honest, I have a therapist,” said Kersee, who splits time between Los Angeles and his wife’s hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois. “I believe in mental health. I preach mental toughness and dealing with things. Dealing with emotions, dealing with depression. I stopped drinking. I have not had a drink in over five years. I know as a coach I can’t help other people if I’m not going to help myself. So I think in terms of me, dealing with my mental health, dealing with my well-being and body and being able to motivate and have the energy to complete the mission I’m on in this sport in terms of enjoying coaching world-class athletes, I had to do that much.”
And in an attempt to communicate with his new galaxy of young stars, Kersee is on the same social media he not so long ago referred to as “Instaface,” “tweeter,” and “Tick Tack.”
“I can tell you that a few years ago a lot of people in the industry were sort of ready to push him out to pasture,” Boldon said. “So it’s kind of funny for me to see him going on Tik Tok and stuff on social media. It’s almost like his answer to the people who thought a few years ago that maybe it was time for him to get out because he was past his expiration date.”
Joyner-Kersee laughs at the suggestion that her husband has changed or mellowed.
“I think he’s the same,” she said “and because the person that we all see in private don’t get to see that, the fun, the soft, the sensitive person, everyone just sees the coach, but the other side of him has always been that way which for us, even as his wife, I see all different sides.”
Kersee first lept into America’s living rooms at the 1984 Olympic Games. Brisco had just completed a victory lap around the Coliseum after winning the 400 for her first gold medal and was celebrating with her husband Alvin Hooks, an NFL player, and her young son Alvin Jr. when Kersee jumped on Brisco, sending them crashing to the ground.
“It looks like her husband is not the only one who can play football,” O.J. Simpson, who was working as an analyst for ABC Sports, said of the scene.
Kersee then embraced Alvin Hooks.
“I told you!” Kersee shouted to Hooks. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“What you don’t see on TV,” Brisco said recently, laughing “is security people and national guardsmen chasing after him with machine guns.”
Kersee and his athletes were a step ahead the entire Olympics, winning six gold medals and taking another four silver medals.
Kersee-coached athletes won seven gold medals four years later in Seoul.
“Practice is putting deposits in the bank. You can’t go and make a withdrawal if you didn’t put anything in,” Devers said. “And we put a lot in. If you’re with Bob Kersee’s camp, you’re going to put a lot in the bank. So when you go to track meet you have a black card and it’s time to spend.”
Kersee, however, has his critics, who take issue with the often in-your-face coaching style of a man who paid his way through Long Beach State by working the graveyard shift at local youth detention centers and prisons.
“He is crazy,” Brisco said laughing “Without a doubt.”
“Everybody can’t be coached by Bobby, I will say that,” Devers said. “It takes a certain person to take him for what he is. But understand anything he’s saying to you, it’s for you.”
Devers recalled her first day on the UCLA campus
“I didn’t know who Bob Kersee was,” she said. “I was 17 years old. I had no clue who Bob Kersee was. Had no clue. So when I first met him he was yelling at Jackie, cursing her out and I was like, ‘OK, OK, this is going to be my next four years.’”
During a meet in Indianapolis, Kersee was caught by television cameras yelling at Joyner-Kersee. The next day the couple was in the airport waiting for a flight back to St. Louis when they were approached by an elderly woman.
“You’ve got the same initials, BK, like Bobby Knight and I don’t like him and I don’t like you,” Kersee recalled the woman saying. “And I said, ‘OK, mam, I understand.’”
After a training session at West Los Angeles College this week, Kersee said, “I’m softer on one side but I still use my old school methods from time to time.
“You can’t grab them by the facemask anymore.”
Just two days earlier Harrison had gotten an earful of old school.
“I just raised my voice Tuesday with what I did not like with Keni Harrison over the hurdles,” Kersee said. “I told her, ‘Let me tell you one goddamn thing this (expletive) ain’t going to work with me.
“So that’s a side of me,” he said. “I mean I’m going to get my point across. I have settled down. A lot of that is that I used to work at youth authority. I used to work at CDC. I used to work in the prisons, so you can’t walk into the prisons being Mother Teresa. And then I did find myself carrying a little bit too much of that to the track. I had to calm myself down and say wait a minute you’re not working with a warden. So that side of me calmed down a bit, but at the same time I think that I’m not out to try to belittle my athletes, but there is a point there where if they’re not giving me what I want and they’re screwing up, if told them, like if my Mom said Bobby ,‘Come on, it’s your time to empty the trash,’ and I go out and play with Herman Blake and I come back and walk through the door and I hear, ‘Robert Dale,’ I know I forgot to empty the trash. I don’t even have to ask. I know I’m in trouble. I did something wrong. So that’s the difference in coaching. I’m going to try and be Bobby when I can, but if the Robert Dale side of me comes out that’s on you.”
Many in the sport thought the Robert Dale side would scare Felix, a quiet, deeply religious Los Angeles high school phenomenon, away from Kersee before she joined the training group at age 18 after the 2004 Olympic Games.
Kersee brought Brisco on board to help with Felix.
“I was kind of the buffer of stuff,” Brisco said. “So he would get out of hand, and I’d go, ‘OK Bobby that’s enough. Mr. Kersee that’s enough.’ That old Bobby would creep in and he’d go, ‘Oh, I’m gone, Valerie has got you.’”
Felix, in addition to becoming the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history with 11 medals, would also become a transitional figure in Kersee’s career, bridging the gap between his original training group that starred at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and his current collection of stars.
“I think that’s a very appropriate analogy,” Boldon said. “Those of us who know Allyson when she made that switch to Bobby went, ‘Oooh, OK.’ Like we can’t see it, but we’d like to see it. And then it worked and then it thrived and then I think you realized that Allyson’s personality is sort of exactly what Bobby needed and Bobby was what Allyson needed and it fit. They were an odd couple but you can’t argue with the results.
“Sometimes people forget that what has gotten Bobby here is real knowledge and really good instincts. So they look at his camp and go nobody is entrusting his career to him and maybe it’s his coaching, his personality. Bobby has a very unique personality and maybe these kids today don’t want to deal with it. Then two of the biggest names in the sport go, ‘That’s where I’m heading.’”
But it wasn’t just Kersee’s results that attracted McLaughlin-Levrone and Mu to him.
“Man, what attracted me to Bobby? I’d seen him out on the track at UCLA,” said McLaughlin-Levrone, who after leaving the University of Kentucky after her freshman year, trained under Joanna Hayes, another Kersee-coached Olympic hurdle champion, in Los Angeles, the two groups often training at the same time at Drake Stadium.“He talked to me from time to time, but there was one day in particular I was having just a really rough day. And he wasn’t my coach at the time. But he came over and he saw me going through it and handed me this emotion wheel and it starts with these very simple emotions and it works its way out to very complex words. And he said, ‘I want you to have this because I have a hard time expressing myself too,’ and I think for me to see him care about me as a person and what I was going through and want to be able to communicate that I was like, you run so much better when someone cares about you as a person first. And I knew his track history, knew he was a great coach and I was like, combine those two things I think we have a hit.”
McLaughlin-Levrone was asked what word she landed on?
“Overwhelmed,” she said.
It was the summer of 2020 and she was both frustrated after finishing second at the World Championships in Doha the previous fall and struggling to find her way through the pandemic.
“Just trying to figure out what I was doing wrong and how to fix it,” she said. “All of it was really getting to me.”
The answer she decided was to switch to Kersee’s camp. A year later she was the Olympic champion and world record holder.
Mu followed her boyfriend Brandon Miller, a half-miler who had signed up for Kersee’s group, to Los Angeles from College Station where they had attended Texas A&M. She soon joined the group as well last fall. Harrison and Prandini joined around the same time.
“Realistically, I think we kind started off not questioning each other but really schooling one another in terms of our thoughts and what have you,” Kersee said of Mu. “And we had a mini-camp in Arizona and I think that went really well and I think that was a breakthrough for the both of us and we checked back to our September numbers to where we were pretty much right on pace. We knew that we were getting the work done and we were accomplishing what our capabilities are.”
Said Mu, “He’s a very smart person. I didn’t know how smart until I got here. Just all the credibility from all the great athletes that he’s coached. That’s a great affirmation for me. I’ve heard a little bit of crazy stories but I have not received any of that since I’ve been here. I think he’s changed for the better of his athletes.”
Kersee has always realized he’s not a good fit for everyone and over the years has turned down working with Olympians and world-class athletes who he didn’t think would work with his group or thrive with his approach.
“Bobby’s camp is not a democracy,” Boldon said. “I think a lot of younger kids (think), ‘Yeah, I’m going to go to Coach A or Coach B and I’m going to have 50 percent input’ and Bobby’s old school and old school coaches just don’t really care about some neophyte’s opinion. Boy or girl, ‘I’ve forgotten more about this sport than you know. So I’m the one who will be driving the car.’”
Kersee was asked how he knew whether an athlete could handle his methods?
“I think that’s a good point,” Kersee said. “Because this group, we talked about it over and over. When I was at UCLA (recruiting) I came into your house and if I was getting ready to coach your daughter my two things were, are you sure you want to come to UCLA? And are you sure you want to be coached by Bob Kersee?
“Before you make that decision please come to see Bob Kersee and come watch me coach and talk to other people about me coaching. But I also underlined that, just don’t allow somebody to scare you away from me because there’s going to be politics. ‘He’s not the person for you, blah, blah, blah.’ And I’ve never bad-mouthed another coach, another program.
“It comes down to am I the right coach for you and are you the right athlete for me? So once again I do Zoom calls with my group on Mondays and give them the opportunity as a group. We chat and go over certain situations but a lot of times I always re-interview with them because they’re my boss. I work at the pleasure of them. They’re the ones who want me, who hired me to get the job done. …
“So I think we have that understanding that I’m going to listen and respect them, but my job is to get the job done for them individually and collectively because you hired me. And if you hired me, let me do my job.”
And for Kersee that means guiding McLaughlin-Levrone and Mu to break the two oldest women’s world records at Olympic distances–-the 400 mark of 47.60 set by East Germany’s Marita Koch in 1985 and the 800 standard of 1 minute, 53.28 seconds held by Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia since 1983.
Kersee is also convinced that McLaughlin-Levrone will break 50 seconds in the 400 hurdles, a time unimaginable just two years ago.
“She was ready to break 50 when she broke 50,” Kersee said.
No woman has come within even a half-second of Koch’s world record since she set it. Only two women have even broken 48.5 this century.
“I don’t really want to give away the secrets of what I think she can do, but overall in terms of a 400 meters runner, I think the speed requirement and the strength requirement is needed” to break Koch’s world record, Kersee said.
“I look at Sydney, she has all that. She has the athletic talent of a Jackie, speed of a Florence. She’s at 50-point in the 400 hurdles, so she has the speed, the endurance and now a good amount of aerobic base work. I just think that she has the natural ability to run under 48 seconds.”
Boldon is just as convinced as Kersee.
“No question in my mind,” Boldon said. “Absolutely no question in my mind. It can be a two-prong question. Does he know how to get Sydney to 47.60? I believe yes. Now is she willing to go through that pain and trust him? I think the fact that she has been through the pain, she’s been through the drama and having to learn to hurdle with either foot and I think being a little shell shocked by some of his methods. Made her run indoors (in 2021) and she was getting last and second last until it finally clicked. I know there were a lot of people, because I heard them saying what is Bobby doing? Because she lost more in that indoor season than she’s probably lost in her entire career, but he knew what he was doing. And he had to figure out for her and he had to let her know that he was doing the right thing. And I think having been through that and now where her career is and that amazing record last year and how dominant she’s been, I think she goes to Bobby and he says, ‘Yeah, we have to run to LAX today’ and she goes, ‘What’s the pace?’ as opposed to, ‘Why the hell do we have to do that?’”
McLaughlin-Levrone has not only bought into Kersee’s approach, she embraces the challenge of chasing Koch’s record.
“I mean, it’s always been there for me for a long time,” she said. “It’s just looked like a number that’s impossible, to be honest, when you look at it. But when you really do the math and you start to see like different pieces of it kind of like click in practice. It’s like, ‘Oh, it is doable,’ and it’s just a matter of putting it together and making sure that all the pieces are right. It’s a very daunting number to look at, I’ll tell you that. But at the end of the day, I think if we can take the 400 hurdles to 50.6, I think 47.6 isn’t too far off.”
And how has working with Kersee made a record that has not only stood, but not even been threatened, for nearly 40 years less daunting?
“I think it’s understanding what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” said McLaughlin-Levrone. “A lot of coaches just teach you how to run fast. And then from there, it’s like you figure out the race plan. But if you understand the event, if you understand how to break it down piece by piece, you’re no longer just going out there running, hoping that you win, you’re executing a plan that’s in place. And you can go back in that plan and figure out why things didn’t go properly. And I think as an athlete, nothing gives me more confidence than having a plan and I think Bobby does a really good job of that.
“You know what you’re supposed to do you know what you’re supposed to execute. Same way like if you’re a football player and there’s certain play you know your role and what you’re supposed to do, and your coach can show you like, ‘No, you didn’t cut here, you’re supposed to go that way.’ You know, so Bobby can do the same thing.”
Mu said she has had an eye on the 800 world record since her Olympic victory in Tokyo. And while some in the sport have questioned Kersee’s insistence that she place more emphasis on the 1,500 in order to get stronger for the 800 and even said she is capable of winning the Olympic 800 and 1,500 gold medals, Mu said, “I think Bobby is preparing me to do something really incredible whether that is this year or next year.”
It won’t be in Los Angeles.
Kersee has long come under criticism for limiting his athletes racing, especially in U.S. meets. McLaughlin-Levrone and Mu were supposed to make their outdoor season debuts this weekend. Instead, Kersee is holding both out because of health issues – McLaughlin-Levrone’s training was slowed earlier this spring because of hamstring concerns, while Mu recently had COVID.
McLaughlin-Levrone instead will have her first race at the Diamond League’s Paris stop June 9. Mu will open at the New York Grand Prix June 24.
“I just look at the past two years and we’ve been very calculated in when we run and I think it’s yielded us great results,” McLaughlin-Levrone said. “Bobby always uses analogies and he’s like, ‘You don’t take the Ferrari out every day for a drive. You take it out when it needs to come out and it does its things and you put it back in the garage.’ So, your body can only be pushed to a certain level so much in your career. You only have so many races in your legs and I think we’re really strategic about which ones we choose to run. Obviously, I know the sport wants to see a little bit more and I think we’re trying to figure out how to do that in a safe way that we can still accomplish our goals and give them something to look forward to.”
Devers was recently asked what she thought she would find if her generation of Kersee athletes compared notes with Mu and McLaughlin-Levrone?
“I think we will have a lot of similar notes,” Devers said.
Indeed both generations frequently talked about a sense of family both within Kersee’s 80s group and the present squad.
“We were all family and friends,” Devers said. “All our kids call him Uncle Bobby.”
“Our relationship is still pretty fresh but just in the last eight months he’s been a real father and mentor because he’s been in the sport for so long and coached so many athletes and basically watching them grow, especially Allyson, and now Syd and now me,” Mu said. “And I think it’s nice to have someone who respects us and also wants to see us grow.
Said Brisco “They’re starting to genuinely like him. They believe in him because he believes in them more.”
It is Kersee’s belief in her that drives Brisco to the track every morning, now nearly 40 years he shouted at Alvin Hooks and the world, “Didn’t I tell you?”
“That’s family,” Brisco said when asked what she’s thinking when she gets out of her car. “Bobby is family. Bobby is part of my life, always has been, always will be. Bobby I always say has the best intentions, he’s really a genuine act. He is what he is and he does what he says he’s going to do and you know he’s a person you will always want in your corner because he’s always going to have your back.”
Kersee was just 14 before his mother Daphe died. The third of her seven children had been a handful.
“I can’t sit down,” he said. “I’ve been wandering all my life. So I used to get in trouble with my mama all the time, if I can’t see you, I’m in trouble because I’ll take off in a second.”
For more than 40 years, generations of athletes have always known where to find him.
A long time ago he blazed his own trail, past his ghosts, past his demons, past the doubters, away from the glare of a global spotlight, the path always returning this man, profane and loyal, Uncle Bobby and Robert Dale, home, to his family, to his own wheel of ever changing emotions and the oval’s truth.
After a recent training session he was the last person at the West LA track, stacking hurdles before he left.
He was asked how much longer he thought he would coach?
“Some of my athletes say they’re going to bury me in one of these lanes,” he said. “Probably as much as people hate me, they’ll put me in lane one because I’ll be stepped on the most.”