Bershawn “Batman” Jackson came to China with gold on his mind.
The 400-meter hurdler will take a bronze medal home to Raleigh instead. But Jackson took that medal gracefully Monday, especially since the only two men who beat him were Americans.
In the 1-2-3 sweep by the U.S. in the event, the “3” was occupied by a 5-foot-7, 154-pound athlete who earned his Batman nickname as a kid for two reasons.
First, his ears stuck out. Second, he flew so fluidly over the hurdles.
“It's a blessing,” Jackson kept saying Monday after he won the bronze in front of 91,000 people at the Bird's Nest stadium. “It's a blessing.”
And when you hear more of his story, you'll likely agree. Jackson, who grew up in one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods, overcame large odds to get to Beijing in the first place.
“He could still be on the streets of Miami, either hurting somebody or having somebody hurt him,” said George Williams, who coached Jackson in college at St. Augustine's in Raleigh and still coaches him today. “Instead, he's going back to school this fall to finish his degree, and he's got an Olympic medal.”
Jackson's mother, a painter, was working in Miami Monday, helping to paint a local hospital. His father was at work, too, in a warehouse. They couldn't come to Beijing. But as long as Tropical Storm Fay cooperated, they and Jackson's relatives were planning an Olympic party to watch the event on tape-delay.
Jackson had hoped they would be watching him win a gold medal at that party. But the day he had pointed to for years didn't work out exactly as he planned.
First of all, he drew Lane 7, an outside lane he doesn't like. Then he didn't leap over the fourth of 10 hurdles like he wanted to. That threw him off, and before long he had altered his steps. He jumped another hurdle off the wrong foot entirely. By the last few hurdles, he was clipping every one instead of clearing them cleanly.
“I tried too hard,” Jackson said. “I made so many mistakes because I wanted to win so bad.”
Instead, Jackson barely held off Jamaica's Danny McFarlane for the bronze, ensuring the U.S. sweep. Angelo Taylor won the race going away in 47.25 seconds. Kerron Clement was second in 47.98 and Jackson was third in 48.06.
Jackson was always small and fast. By the time he was a senior at Miami's Central High, he had made a world junior track team for the U.S. That was one of the most important events in his life, he said. It showed him that you could see the world on track and field's dime — if you were good enough.
“I realized track could get me out of the streets of Miami,” Jackson said.
Jackson was supposed to star at South Carolina on a track scholarship, according to Williams, but then didn't come through on his grades. He went back home to Miami. Then Williams got a call from an old high school buddy of his named Jesse Holt who was also one of Jackson's old coaches. Holt told Williams that Jackson was at loose ends and that he should take a look at him.
Williams — a legendary track coach who was the U.S. Olympic head track coach in 2004 — did take a look. Jackson ended up coming to St. Augustine's, a historically black college in Raleigh with an enrollment of about 1,600 students.
Jackson sat out one year to concentrate on school and then ran for two until he got good enough to turn pro. Williams helped negotiate Jackson's contract with Nike, he said, and one of the provisions is that Nike continues to pay for Jackson's schooling. Jackson said he has 13 hours left to take at St. Augustine's and hopes to finish up his degree in accounting this fall.
When I asked Jackson who he most wanted to show his medal to back in Raleigh, he said: “The people at St. Augustine's College. It's a small place, but I want to show them that no matter what school you come from, the sky is the limit. You can do anything you put your mind to.”
Jackson, 25, said he would definitely compete through the next Olympics — in 2012 in London. And Williams predicted a different color of medal for that Olympics. Said the coach: “We'll take this bronze now. But we'll be taking the gold in the future.”