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VICE Sports Q&A: Cameron Burrell on His Gold Medalist Father and His Own Olympic Dreams

With coaching from Olympic gold medalist Leroy Burrell and Carl Lewis, Houston junior Cameron Burrell is on track to make his own mark in the running world.

by Sarah Gearhart
Jul 1 2016, 2:33pm

Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Burrell understands his situation. That he's a standout sprinter and long jumper is not simply due to genetics, though it doesn't hurt that both of his parents are Olympic gold medalists: Leroy Burrell, who twice held the world record for the 100-meter dash, and Michelle Finn-Burrell, a member of the 4x100-meter relay at the 1992 Summer Olympics. Raw ability alone didn't get Cameron to this point in his career. It was also a dogged work ethic. He's aware of the sweat equity needed to become the best in the world.

Cameron, who just finished his junior year, competes for the University of Houston, his father's alma mater. Both men hold school records—Cameron for the 60-meter dash; Leroy for the 100-meter dash—but Carl Lewis, a nine-time Olympic gold medalist, is still king of the long jump; his record at Houston has remained untouched since 1981. To Cameron's good fortune, he's under both his father and Lewis's guidance for a third straight year as he works toward competing at Rio this summer and his ultimate goal of becoming an Olympic champion.

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So far, things are going according to plan. In early January, Cameron held the world's fastest time in the 60-meter dash. In May, when he clocked a personal best of 10.16 seconds in the 100-meter dash, he earned the opportunity to compete at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, taking place in Eugene, Oregon, which begin today and end on July 10. The next test for Cameron will come at the Trials on Saturday, in the first round of the 100-meter dash.

He hopes not to repeat his father's experience at the Trials 28 years ago. The elder Burrell was a collegiate athlete when he entered the 1988 Olympic Trials. He failed to make finals in the 100-meter dash and long jump. Leroy's Olympic dream would have to wait another four years, but he would go on to win a gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Although Cameron is under the tutelage of two sprinting legends, he's attempting to create his own story. He talked with VICE Sports leading into the most important race of his career.

VICE Sports: You're entering the Olympic Trials coming out of successful indoor and outdoor seasons. Earlier this year, you held the world's fastest time in the 60-meter dash. But compared to the top 10 entrants in the 100-meter dash at the Trials, including Justin Gatlin's 9.77, your personal record is off the best marks. Only three will advance to Rio. What's your mindset going into the first round?

Cameron Burrell: I'm really not scared. I've done the work and preparation. I don't worry too much about times because it's not a true reflection of what you've been doing. Sometimes it takes time to drop to the 9.9, 9.8 range. I'm on track to get to there. Just because I haven't done it doesn't mean I don't have the potential. I've been progressing in the 100 pretty much every week. If I execute at the Trials, I don't see any reason why I can't run with anybody in the world.

Do you have a preferred lane?

If I had to choose I'd say lane four because that's the fastest qualifying lane. In the 100 meters, it's pretty much a psychological thing. If you're in lane eight, you have everybody to the left of you. But everybody has to cover 100 meters. I don't think lanes really matter. It's just something people take more seriously than others, and I'm not one of those athletes. I can run out of any lane.

You competed against No. 2 top entrant Trayvon Bromell back in 2013 in the Dream 100 at the adidas Grand Prix. You won, and he placed fifth. He's once again the guy to beat. Have you studied your competition?

I don't study my competitors at all. I can't get too caught up in what everybody else is doing. I'll see the success of other athletes, but I can't really emulate what they're doing because I have a lot of things on my own plate.

Burrell and Carl Lewis at last year's USA Championships. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Have you studied footage of your father and Carl Lewis from their prime?

That I have done. Carl and my dad have some really good films and archives at the University of Houston. I've watched the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. My dad and Carl both broke the 100-meter world record. Carl won, and my dad got second. I watched the way my dad took his block starts and took control of the race early. I looked at the way Carl stayed relaxed until the middle of the race—even though he was behind, he was able to transition and finish strongly. I've been a pretty good starter over the years, but I'm working on my closing speed, and that's what Carl was a master of.

What's your father's advice to you about managing expectations at the highest level?

Take things one step at a time and be patient. Becoming a world-class athlete is definitely a process. Fix the little things and always be willing to learn. I wouldn't say I want to go out and run a really fast time without having the patience to learn what it takes to run that time. That's the biggest thing he tries to instill.

What have you discussed with him and Carl Lewis in preparation for the Trials?

We haven't really talked about everything that needs to happen there. We've just been going with the flow. The focus has been more on training and the technical aspects. The biggest thing is to be consistent with each round.

With Carl, he says if I fix certain things toward the last 30 meters of my race, I can make the final. And then from there, it's pretty much all heart. That's basically my plan going in—to make certain adjustments and just compete.

What goes through your mind before you step to the start line?

I'll talk to myself and mentally plan my race. I replay it over and over and think about the things I need to do—keep my arms bent, make sure I react well to the gun, breath, stay tall and relaxed—until I manifest them into existence. I'm probably the calmest guy in the field. I'm enjoying it too much to be nervous or anxious.

You've said in the past that you like performing under pressure. Why?

It's the rush and excitement. Being able to push myself and see what this body I've been given is really capable of. It's like a really fun experiment.

What are your expectations?

I want to be in the final for sure. I looked this up—it took 10.16, which is my personal best, to get into the final. There's a lot of dynamics that go in. Of course I wouldn't expect it to be the exact same, but I do need to go there prepared to run faster than my personal best.

I don't train for sixth or fourth place. I train to win. If I go into this meet with the mentality that these guys are better than me because they've run certain times or they've been doing this for so long, in my mind, I've already lost. I'm probably not the favorite, probably not even favored to make the final; statistically I'm not as fast as these guys, but regardless, I'm going to the Trials to win. If I never took that mentality to any other race I've had throughout my career, I never would have made it this far. If I don't believe in myself, what can I accomplish in the sport?

No matter the outcome, how do you intend to use this experience for what's next?

This will be the experience of a lifetime. It'll set me up to do very well in the future. No matter what happens, running with all of these guys that are at the top of the collegiate level and top in the world, I'll come back to UH for my senior year with more experience than anybody else. If I can run against the best guys in the world at the Olympic Trials, I definitely know that I can go anywhere in the world.

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