'Bolt the footballer' ready to learn, grow and silence critics
“I don’t want to be treated as the world’s fastest man, I want to be treated as a footballer, because that’s what I want to be.”
He’s often considered one of the most flamboyant, charismatic and self-confident athletes to ever grace the world of sport but Usain Bolt cut a humble and modest figure during his opening press conference as a Central Coast Mariners triallist.
The fact that a triallist is giving an introductory press conference outlines how impossible it is to fly below the radar when you’re one of the most iconic athletes of the 21st Century.
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Bolt is used to operating in a fast-paced world and it will not be long until his football dreams become reality. Head coach Mike Mulvey admitted he expects the Jamaican sprint star to be ready to play some part when the Mariners face a Central Coast representatives side on Friday 31 August at Central Coast Stadium.
While the eight-time Olympic gold medallist has a clear vision to achieve his ambitions, he was quick to emphasise how his entire focus right now is about learning and getting better day-by-day.
“It’s just like track and field,” Bolt said in his opening remarks. “The first day of training is always the roughest one. You can tell how much work you need to put in, what you need to do, but it felt okay.
“I know it’s going to take time and hard work, but I’m ready to work.”
“I don’t know what to expect, I'll learn as much as possible. I told the coach from the start, I’m here with a blank slate. I’m here to learn and to get better and that’s my focus.
“The coach has explained there won't be any special treatment. They'll treat me just like a footballer should be treated. I want to be treated as one of the boys. I want to be treated as a footballer, because that's what I want to be.”
Straight in the deep end
“I don’t know,” was Bolt’s response when asked when he’ll run out for the first time in a Mariners jersey.
“I’m just going to put the work in. It’s the coach’s decision if he wants to see me for 5, 10, 20 minutes or if he’ll wait until another time.”
Mulvey was not so vague, admitting that the Mariners match against a Central Coast representative side is one he has earmarked to see what Bolt is capable of.
“Whether he plays [on Saturday], probably not,” said Mulvey. “Maybe on the 31st, we’ve got a game here. I think he’ll be ready for that.”
“This isn’t a case of 'we’ve got to make a decision today or the next day'. I’m excited Usain has chosen our club to further his ambition. If it takes 12 months – I’ll say that out loud – I’m happy for him to be here.”
Ready to prove the doubters wrong
Running out at Central Coast Stadium on his 32nd birthday, Bolt took part in some skills drills before going through a rigorous cardio session. You do not become such a decorated athlete without being well prepared so it wasn’t a complete shock to the system.
Bolt revealed he had been putting in some practice with former Bolton Wanderers winger, Ricardo ‘Bibi’ Gardner, who is now the coach of Jamaican outfit Harbour View. Bolt was honest about how much more progress he needs to make, but had a clear message for the critics who doubt his intentions.
“I’m here,” Bolt stated with a laugh. “For me people are always going to say what they want to say. I always proved them wrong.
“It’s just another moment for me to prove people wrong.”
“I’m not setting any standards, I’m just working and pushing myself. That’s my focus, I don’t care what people say.”
The Australian dream
Bolt revealed he received interest from lower divisions clubs in France and Spain but, with concerns about adapting to a new language as well as a new sport, he only had eyes for the Mariners.
“Australia is somewhere I enjoy coming,“ Bolt said. “If you’ve followed my career, I’ve come to Australia a lot. The Mariners decided to give me an opportunity and I’m very grateful for it. I’m only here to make them proud and make myself proud, and do my best.”
Getting to know a new group of teammates is what is inspiring Bolt the most. When reflecting on his own track and field career, it's those moments shared with teammates which he cherishes.
“My all-time best moments is running the 4x1[100m relay team]. I enjoy running with my teammates,” Bolt said. “For me to come into a team now, it’s just wonderful, there’s going to be a lot of banter, a lot of fun.
“I’m learning the rules right now, there’s a lot of fines and the captain is really strict on that and I’m looking forward to it, I know it’s going to be fun and I’m going to enjoy the journey.”
It will be a mountain to climb for Bolt to get up to speed, but he believes there is plenty he can bring to the table. Regarding what position we’ll expect to see Bolt run out in – that will all be coach Mulvey’s call.
“As you see over the years I’m very cool under pressure,” Bolt said.
“My ability to understand very quickly and to learn the game… I think I see the game very well. I have to work on the basic skills. I think I’m very good at controlling but there’s things that I need to learn and that’s why I’m here.”
A big decision for Mulvey
Bolt explained that his football experience goes back to junior school, where he started as a goalkeeper. His size meant he was naturally drawn to playing at centre back but, as he got quicker, he was moved into more attacking positions in high school.
“I’ve expressed that I’m ok on the wing,” Bolt explains. “That I’m good at centre forward but, at the end of the day, he is the coach and he’ll determine where I’ll play and what formation.”
Mulvey has a lot to consider when hatching a plan to lift the Mariners from rock bottom on the Hyundai A-League ladder in 2017-18. One thing he emphasises is that Bolt is far from a distraction.
“You don’t lower your training standards when Usain Bolt walks in the door”
“This guy’s a winner,” Mulvey said. “Eight gold medals in the Olympics. You don’t just do that by having great ability. You do that by having great mental capacity. If he can pass on a little bit of that to my players. This could be great for any of our young lads that we’ve signed.
“We’ve signed three players from the local NPL, they are coming into their first training session with Usain. They are thinking how much can I learn from this guy, how much can he take me on my journey.
“We’ve recruited some very good individual players with a great mentality and he only adds to it with his presence here.”
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Bolt packs a lot of personality into that 6’5 frame, but Mulvey reinforces his desire to fit in with his teammates.
“He’s one of the lads,” Mulvey added. “He doesn’t get any special treatment because that’s how a team works. Any team that wins something are all together, there is no special treatment and you all understand what is required.”
On first impressions, it seems that the Mariners have discovered an understated side of Bolt which has never been side before.
Have the Mariners tamed one of sport’s greatest showmen and unearthed a hard-worker who wants to play his part, help the team and keep his head down?
That seems to be the case – until he’s asked if we’ll ever see his famous ‘lightning bolt’ pose in yellow and navy.
“You’ll definitely see that!” Bolt laughs. “That’s my signature. That won’t change.”