By Tim Layden
October 14, 2012

NEW YORK -- Nobody plays the character of Usain Bolt quite like Usain Bolt. The grand (planned) gestures. The baritone. The playfulness that turns deadly serious for a little less than 10 seconds, or a little less than 20. The ability to make the transcendent look not just easy, but joyful. The pure, unmistakable Jamaican-ness of it all. His press conferences are theater. Who else gets away clean with a casual utterance like "Bask in my glory,'' as Bolt commanded after winning the 200 meters, his second individual gold medal of the London Olympics?

That cartoon persona was on display Saturday night in Bolt's two cameos on Saturday Night Live, first debate fact-checking and actor playing Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, after he claimed to have won the 100 meters at the London Olympics (Bolt, wearing a yellow Jamaican warmup with a product-placing Puma logo, corrected Ryan: "You weren't even there") and later as a white-haired interloper on the trippy soap opera "The Californians'' exquisitely overreacting with the rest of the cast.

And it was easy to imagine Bolt, 26, slipping into a long, comfortable life playing himself for the world and letting his track legacy stand. But that doesn't appear to be the plan, at least not for another four years. Eight hours before Bolt taped SNL, I talked with him in the lobby lounge of a hotel in the Meatpacking district of lower Manhattan. The last time Bolt had been widely seen in public, it was on the last night of the Olympic Games, when he anchored Jamaica's gold medal 4x100 relay by torching poor Ryan Bailey of the U.S. on the anchor leg. There he was, mimicking British distance runner Mo Farah's signature "Mo-Bot'' pose and leading the Olympic Stadium in singing God Save the Queen, when Farah received his medal.

He followed that by mailing in two victories in Europe and has since taken off a solid six weeks from training -- no running, no lifting. Vacation in Australia and New Zealand and then promotional time in Japan before flying to the U.S. "Six weeks, totally shut down,'' said Bolt, leaning forward in a hipster chair made for a body half the size of Bolt's. "Surprisingly, I haven't gained any weight. I tried my [business] suit on last night and it was loose, man. I was working out hard when I was tailored for it, but now....'' Bolt shook out his arms as if to demonstrate his sudden loss of tone.

Bolt was scheduled to return to Jamaica on Sunday and to meet with his longtime coach, Glen Mills, in the middle of the week, before resuming training for the 2013 outdoor season. In that meeting, Bolt and Mills, as is their custom, will lay out their plans for the upcoming year. They will set goals and establish strategy. They will argue a little, but in the end, Bolt will largely -- if not entirely -- acquiesce to Mills's wishes. It's possible that in this case they will postpone some prickly decisions (keep reading). Both men will give ground.

But in our conversation, Bolt made this much clear: He wants three more gold medals in Rio De Janeiro in 2016. He wants to break his 100- and 200-meter world records, possibly this season. He would also like to try long jumping, but neither Mills nor Bolt's manager, Ricky Simms, is crazy about that idea. He might also try a major 400-meter race; Mills likes that idea, but Bolt doesn't. Most of all, Bolt promises a more mature, disciplined approach to not just training, but to caring for his balky lower balk, which could have cost him the 2012 Olympics.

Start back in late June, at the Jamaican Olympic Trials. While only the track world was watching, Bolt was beaten by training partner Yohan Blake in both the 100 and 200, soundly in the latter. "What happened in Kingston?'' says Bolt. "I got comfortable. I ran a couple of 9.7s in Europe, so I'm confident, I'm in shape. I just got too relaxed. I backed off a few days on my back work and my core training. I mean I was out there every day, but I just wasn't working on everything I had to work on.'' (Bolt has scoliosis, and has suffered back problems regularly throughout his career). "The back never bothers me in training,'' he says. "But when you push yourself to the limit in competition, that's when it's a problem.''

Still he wrote off the 100-meter loss to a plodding start that he blames in part on getting distracted by Nesta Carter in an adjacent lane. Bolt expected to come back and win the 200. But he was not only beaten in that race, he lost ground in the final 50 meters, which he said couldn't happen. "After that race, I was panicking a little,'' says Bolt. "Like: 'What just happened?' I went to my coach, and he said, 'Don't worry. We're going to cancel this next race [in Monaco before the Olympics]. We're going to work on your back every day. You're going to surprise yourself. Watch.'''

Bolt ran 9.63 to win the 100 meters, his second-fastest time ever (behind his world record of 9.58 in Berlin at the 2009 world championships). He won the 200 in 19.32, matching Michael Johnson's winning time from 1996 as fourth-fastest in history. He declared himself a legend. It was all good. Except that even in the final half of the 200 meters, Bolt felt his back locking up. So every plan going forward involves beating back the injuries that will otherwise be more frequent and more disabling.

"It's going to be harder, for sure,'' says Bolt. "I'm older. My coach says my peak should be at 27, but I have to make sure to keep my back in check. I'm going to get somebody to work on it all the time. I have to stay really focused on it. I don't want it to happen again.''

That is the general plan. Better health and a 100-200 double in Rio. (Bolt's double in London made him the first man in history to repeat in the Olympic 100 and 200). The specific plan is more complex. "Between now and Rio,'' says Simms, "we have to find challenges to keep him motivated and keep him getting out of his bed in the morning. There are a couple ways to do that. One, change to another event, like the long jump or the 400. Two, he's always had to train for the 100 meters while also taking care of endurance for the 200. What about running the 60 meters indoors and trying to get down to 9.4 in the 100 outdoors after that? Three, concentrate just on the 200 and not do all that start work for the 100. Try to take the 200 record under 19 seconds. Those are the discussions we will be having.''

Two years ago, Team Bolt was leaving the stadium in Ostrava when Bolt ran to the long jump pit, raced down the runway and took off. He hadn't long jumped since high school, but he was a good soccer and cricket player, a very good athlete. "His form was amazing, and he went far,'' says Simms. "Everybody watching was amazed.''

Bolt says, "We're going to talk about it. If I long jump, it's going to be during the year of the Commonwealth Games (2014), not when there are World Championships (2013 and 2015) or Olympics (2016). My coach doesn't want me to do it; he's worried about my knees.'' Simms, who represents long jumpers, says, "It seems like long jumpers are injured 50 percent of the time.''

Mills, on the other hand, has long been pushing Bolt to run the 400 meters, which was Bolt's first event, as a young teenager. Bolt has no affection for the pain that accompanies the quarter. When I suggested to him that he could easily run 43-point, Bolt grimaced and said, "I feel the pain just when you say that. But I know my coach wants me to try it and I don't like to go against my coach. Everything will be on the table.''

Simms adds, "If he runs the 400 meters, it's going to be in a one-off race, not in a worlds or Olympics situations, where he would have to run rounds. And think about it: The marquee event in track is the 100 meters. Who remembers the top three finishers in the long jump? Why give that up? But Usain has options, and that's a good thing.''

Simms is right about that: Those who wish to see Bolt try something different are mostly track purists, which comprise a small part of his base. Most of the world wants to see him run 100 meters and act crazy afterward. Most of the world just wants Bolt to entertain. (And the entire infrastructure of track needs him on the track; he is the only superstar in the game).

Taking new events off the table for a moment, it's intriguing to consider that Bolt has been hurt more often than not since crushing the 100 and 200 in both Beijing ('08) and Berlin ('09). "Three years, and I haven't had that year where I've had no problems, physically,'' says Bolt. "I just haven't had that. This year I want to take responsibility for keeping myself in shape so I can go for world records.''

There's another reason: "I never thought Yohan Blake would run 9.6 so soon [Blake ran 9.69 in 2012]. I never thought he would 19.2 [Blake ran 19.26 in 2011]. Those boys are coming up. And if they keep stepping up, it's going to be harder for me. I have to improve.''

Bolt does not soon expect competition from U.S. sprinters. Tyson Gay (U.S. record holder in the 100 at 9.69, but now 30)? "I just think Tyson has pushed himself too hard for too long in too many races,'' says Bolt. "Tyson was always just push, push, push, push. I train hard, but only as hard as necessary to get things done. Blake is like Tyson. My coach has to protect Blake from doing too much.'' Justin Gatlin (Olympic bronze medalist in 2012)? "No.'' Ryan Bailey? "People keep saying he's the one, but he's got a lot of work to do.''

Bolt views U.S. struggles as validation of his decision, nearly a decade ago, to turn down scholarships to U.S. colleges and remain in Jamaica. "First of all,'' he says. "I was a momma's boy. I wasn't going to leave. But if I did, they would have had me running one, two, four... probably 800. Too many races. That's what happens to U.S guys. They run too many races, then they get a contract, like X-Man (former LSU sprinter Xavier Carter). What happened to X-Man? He never ran fast after he got his contract.''

The U.S. sprinter whom Bolt respects least is Carl Lewis, who won nine Olympic gold medals from 1984-'96 and is regarded as one of the greatest Olympians ever. During the London Games, Lewis twice made comments that could be construed as suggesting that Bolt was using steroids. He did the same thing in 2008. Bolt melted down over Lewis in London, but promises not to do it again.

"You know I don't watch old school track,'' says Bolt. (It's true, he has always said this; his history starts with Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene). "So in London this guy Lewis starts talking and I know the name, but I don't know anything about him. I didn't even Google him until after the press conference. Seriously, this guy is sayng this about me after things that he did....?'' (Lewis was also accused of using steroids, but never tested positive; this is true of nearly all successful sprinters, with good reason).

"I've stopped fighting it,'' says Bolt. "Champions have been caught and now we're trying to dig out of that hole. I've learned to live with it.''

He had planned to spend the post-Olympic contemplating a distant future. "Life stuff,'' he says. "I wanted to work on my clothing line, because we need to sit down and see if that can really work as a business model.'' But suddenly the vacation was over and the early season is now upon him. There is a meeting this week in Kingston and after that the workouts begin. Soon it will be spring and summer. "I can already hear it,'' says Bolt. "The shouts of the fans. I can feel the races. Man, it's a joy.''

And on a fall morning far from the last Olympics and further yet from the next, it's fair to ask if perhaps the best of Bolt lies ahead.

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