There is not a lot of rhyme or reason to the chosen pursuits of the children born to world’s great athletes.
Bronny James, Lebron’s eldest son, is a top basketball prospect, but the children of tennis greats Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, who have 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them, never showed much interest in the sport.
Then there is Cameron Burrell, who won the N.C.A.A. championship at 100 meters in 2018. His best time is 9.93, making him one of the fastest sprinters in the world.
Cameron’s father, Leroy, is an Olympic gold medalist and the former world-record holder in the 100 meters. His mother, Michelle Finn-Burrell, has a sprint relay gold medal from the 1992 Olympics, too. His aunt Dawn was an Olympic long jumper, and one of his godfathers is also a sprinter of some renown — Carl Lewis.
Now comes the hard part, because while it is certainly not easy to be among the very few to run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds, competing in the shadow of Olympic legends who happen to be in the family may be even more difficult. Also, the past two years, since Cameron completed his college career, have been filled with nagging injuries, periods of sagging confidence, logistical hassles, disappointing races, and now an Olympics delayed a year by a pandemic that has upset the structure and routine of an athlete who very much craves both.
“I run just as fast as most pros and well enough to be ranked and make national teams, I just don’t do it often enough,” Cameron Burrell said recently.
So where does Cameron, 26, turn for guidance? Lewis, whose feet appeared to float as he ran, and Leroy Burrell, the ultimate power sprinter, are his coaches. If they are on the road, Cameron’s mother fills in.
All of them have high expectations for Cameron, given what he has already accomplished.
“It’s a difficult burden for him to carry, but it’s his job, and he has to do it somehow,” Leroy Burrell said.
“No one will work harder and listen and learn more than Cameron,” Lewis said in a recent interview. “The other part, though, is balancing the work and overthinking.”
“He has to want it for himself, not for me, not for Leroy,” his mother said.
Everywhere Cameron Burrell turns at home, there is another incredibly fast gold medalist with an answer.
The Burrells never advertised their athletic accomplishments to their three children. They don’t have a trophy case in their living room in suburban Houston. Their gold medals were stored in a safe deposit box.
One afternoon when their boys were young, Cameron and his brothers, were rummaging around the garage and found a bag filled with Team U.S.A. uniforms. “What is this stuff?” they asked.
Cameron Burrell played all the usual sports growing up. In soccer, he could kick-and-chase, and often score, at will. In youth football, the coach quickly figured out how fast he was and designed the whole offense around him, even though he was inexperienced. He got tackled a lot.
“We didn’t like that,” Leroy Burrell said.
By middle school, Cameron was excelling in summer track meets. In high school, sprinting became his calling. He liked the accountability of a singular pursuit. He chose the University of Houston, the school his father and Lewis helped turn into a speed Mecca in the 1980s, and where his father has coached for 22 years. Lewis became an assistant coach there in 2014.
At Houston, Michelle said, Leroy asked his son to call him “coach” rather than “dad” during practices, because if two athletes asked for his attention at once and one yelled “dad,” Leroy knew where he would turn first. Cameron did not know how he felt about that. Leroy was his coach, but he was also his father.
Then Lewis came on board early in Cameron’s college career. That helped. Lewis had known Cameron since birth. Now Leroy could be dad first and coach second, while Lewis could be coach first and godfather second. Cameron could decide when he needed a coach and when he needed a father.
After one N.C.A.A. indoor championship at which Cameron felt he underperformed, he sought the counsel and comfort of his parents rather than Lewis.
“He went to his parents for that kind of support,” Lewis said.
Since college, Cameron and several of his teammates have continued to train as part of a professional group that Burrell and Lewis set up so their best runners could stay in Houston and work out together. In addition to Burrell, the group includes Elijah Hall, a specialist at 200 meters; Mario Burke, another sub-10-second sprinter, and Kahmari Montgomery, the 2018 national champion at 400 meters.
For Burrell, the transition to professional running has not gone as smoothly as it has for some of his peers. He struggled to adjust to new challenges — being alone while competing in Japan for two weeks, or having the airline lose his athletic bag and clothes on a trip to a competition in England. He has blue chip sponsors — Red Bull, Nike — but knows he must perform at the highest level to keep them
“New levels, new devils,” he said.
Others his age have had better results. Christian Coleman, a college rival who is 18 months younger than Burrell, won the gold medal in the 100 meters at the World Athletics Championships in Doha in 2019. Cameron did not make that national team.
“I told him he has to take any concerns he has about making the Olympic team off the table,” Lewis said. “I said, ‘If you run the time you have already run, you have made it.’”
Sprinting 100 meters seems like it should be the simplest event in sports, an all-out burst. It isn’t.
“It’s about managing speeding up and slowing down for 90 meters,” Lewis said. “Every off-season your body forgets how to do it, and then it takes some races to get back into the rhythm.”
Elite sprinters do not reach top speed until about the 50 meter mark, and they can only stay at top speed for 10 meters or so. The margin for error is minuscule. Fractions of a second make the difference between triumph and 11th place.
Leroy Burrell said there are a handful of things his son could do slightly better, even 1 or 2 percent better, to become that consistent performer who runs under 10 seconds in every race. He needs more confidence in his start and to better maintain his stride length and frequency through the finish. He needs to balance his weaker left side with his stronger right. He could relax and enjoy the pursuit of his dream a little more, too, his father said, though the sports actuarial tables say he is just about to reach his athletic prime.
“He could have done anything he wanted, and he chose to run,” Leroy said of his son. “He’s got to really go get it this year.”
This year, though, there have been very few races. For months, as coronavirus rates spiked in Houston and their home track at the University of Houston remained closed, Cameron and his teammates struggled to find places to train. They ran mostly on their own on concrete and grass and stairs, and used their own weights and bars and dumbbells. Cameron also jumped a lot of rope and did yoga and tried not to worry about the Tokyo Olympics, which organizers postponed in March until 2021.
“This is bigger than track, this is a worldwide crisis,” he said. “I’m looking at the bigger picture here.”
His parents (so that means his main coach) kept their distance for much of the summer. Leroy Burrell, who is 53, said it would not make preparing for next year any easier, especially for Cameron, who has always liked schedules and order.
“Cameron is the kid who never had to be told to clean his room,” his mother said. “He is the kid who always wore a smock when he painted.”
Now he is the kid trying to find that middle ground between living up to a family legacy and building his own, between taking all the fatherly wisdom he can get, and working with his dad as he would any other coach.
“I never felt like I had to chase my dad’s legacy or beat his time or match his accomplishments,” Burrell said. “A father and son can be a father and son. We have two completely different upbringings and stories.”