The Story Behind Jaylen Slade's Breakthrough Campaign

* IMG Academy's Jaylen Slade competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

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This is part one of a three-part series where we focus on three brilliant athletes from the spring season: Jaylen Slade, Hobbs Kessler and Erriyon Knighton. All three of these superstar athletes changed high school track in various ways in 2021. Our first profile will focus on Slade. 

"Jaylen is so coachable. He's such a great kid. To work with him on a daily basis, he's fun, he laughs. He doesn't take anything too seriously. He brings his A game all the time." -- Dwight Thomas

By Cory Mull - MileSplit

Dwight Thomas was watching from below the portable track in Boston at the adidas Boost Boston Games in May when Jaylen Slade, his junior athlete at IMG Academy, got beat by two highly-rated high school sprinters. 

Until then, Slade hadn't lost a major race to his fellow peers since he was a freshman at Chapel Hill (GA) High School in 2019 -- when he was second to Michael Gupton at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor Freshman Boys 100m final. 

That meant Slade had been unbeaten over the 2021 indoor season; he even set a new national record in the 200m against his high school foes at the American Track League. He had beaten Trayvon Bromell -- who would go on to become the U.S. champion in the 100m at the Trials -- in the 200m in March. 

Furthermore, Slade had been lights out just 21 days prior, scorching the track with wind-assisted efforts of 10.03 and 10.04 in the 100m. 

Somehow, though, this race in May crossed his wires. Despite running in Lane 3 and having Kevar Williams to his right and Connor Washington to his left, Slade ran 10.47 and finished third. Meanwhile, Erriyon Knighton, another high school junior featuring in just his third pro race, won the adidas Future Stars men's 100m in 10.16; he would go on to make his first Olympic team in June. 

Thomas wasn't really disappointed. He knew this race was a teachable moment. After all, Slade was still just 17 years old. He was not a professional just yet. 

"It didn't go according to plan," Thomas said. "Coming back competing against high schoolers, he lowered his intensity and let his guard down.

"I told him, 'Even when you're running a 10th-grader or you're running an Olympic Champion, get out of the blocks. Execute.' It's one of those things. It's maturity level. He has to take every single one of his races seriously, as if it's his last race." 

Perhaps it's the losses, though, that put Slade's historic year into context. Some might look at the Georgia native and think he's a readymade superstar in waiting. 

That still might be the case.

But losses and bad races happen to even the best of high school athletes. Slade wasn't immune to having an off day. At least Thomas was there to remind him that all good things come to those who wait.

And really, the full scope of Slade's outdoor campaign was pretty jaw-dropping: He ran the fourth-fastest wind-legal 100m time in high school history in 10.09; that same month, in May, he ran the fourth-fastest 200m in history with a wind-legal performance of 20.20. Earlier, Slade had run those wind-assisted times of 10.03 and 10.04. 

Before Knighton achieved the remarkable feat of sub-20 in the 200m at the Olympic Trials in June, hitting 19.84 on the clock and setting a new World U20 record, Slade was right there, too. In fact, he very well could have done the same thing.

By next year, Slade could be breaking 10 seconds in the 100m and 20 seconds in the 200m. But with talent comes pressure. And with pressure comes competition. 

"He's getting all these records and accolades and Olympic standards," Thomas said. "He's MileSplit50 No. 1 and in the top 50 (Slade would finish No. 2 on the season). Now that's the thing. It's about staying on top. That's the hard part."

Those historic efforts in May gained Slade entry into exclusive company at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June. And while that journey did not go to plan, either, it didn't take away from what all he accomplished in 2021. 

Slade achieved all of this success far earlier than anyone could have expected. Along with Knighton, who turned pro in January, Slade is the most promising high school sprinter since Anthony Schwartz and maybe the most electric since Matthew Boling or Bromell.

He's an athlete capable of one day making a World Championship or Olympic team. 

"Him and Erriyon have this thing going on," Thomas said. "Both of them are 17 and are challenging themselves each day." 

You have to consider, though, The Year Of Slade has been less than a year in the making. 

Slade arrived at IMG Academy in August of 2020 from Chapel Hill, where he had developed into one of Georgia's best sprinters even as a freshman. 

"I told him, 'Even when you're running a 10th-grader or you're running an Olympic Champion, get out of the blocks. Execute.' It's one of those things. It's maturity level. He has to take every single one of his races seriously, as if it's his last race." 

Slade ran the fastest wind-legal 200m time in the country for freshmen in 2019, going 21.03, and had the fastest wind-assisted 100m time, hitting 10.22 on the clock at the GHSA 4A Section. He would finish with two state titles in the 100m and 200m and two more at those distances at the Georgia Meet of Champions. 

Then came his transfer. Once in Florida, Slade's breakthrough was almost instantaneous.

Even more, the fit with Thomas couldn't have been better. 

While the 40-year-old had been an Olympian with Jamaica and made three Olympic Games and reached six World Championships, his biggest influence may have come from the fact that he was a high school star, too. 

Thomas had run for Calabar High School in the late 90s and had reached various World U20 Championship competitions and faced intense pressure to succeed. He even still holds the NSAF Outdoor Nationals 100m meet record of 10.14 from 2000. 

Thomas himself was a very accomplished 200m runner, having reached the Olympics in 2000 in Sydney in the event; he reached the quarterfinals with a time of 20.58. As a professional, his 100m best was a 9.9 (+2.3) and a 10.00 (+0.1).

After 14 years racing professionally, though, Thomas started to changed directions and moved into coaching. He worked first with Windmere Prep in Orlando before arriving at IMG Academy three years ago. 

Thomas had worked with some quality athletes in his first few years at IMG. But Slade offered a blank slate for a potential superstar. 

"Jaylen is so coachable," Thomas said. "He's such a great kid. To work with him on a daily basis, he's fun, he laughs. He doesn't take anything too seriously. He brings his A game all the time." 

It didn't take long for Slade to excel indoors. 

In January, he dropped the No. 2 time at 300m all-time, going 32.77 seconds. At the East Coast Invitational in February, Slade followed with a personal best 20.97 in the 200m.

A few weeks later, competing on national television, he dropped a high school national record of 20.62 seconds. In doing so, Slade surpassed Noah Lyles' former mark of 20.63, which was previously set in 2016. Then, a week later, he would go on to win a national title at adidas Indoor Nationals in the 60m.

"For me, that was great to see," Thomas said. "That told me how fit he was." 

From indoor, though, the pair determined that Slade's ultimate goal should be the Trials. All the work that Slade and Thomas had put forth in the 60m over the indoor season would funnel into the 100m by outdoor. 

"Our goals shifted," Thomas said. "Once we thought about getting to the Trials, we believed the season could get extended into June. 

The fortunate part for Slade was, of course, his schedule. Unlike the Georgia high school track and field season -- which required postseason qualifying and more than a handful of races for most athletes -- he could just focus on the races on his calendar. 

And in truth, there weren't many.

Slade raced just twice at 200m and four times at 100m before the Trials. 

"We had to pick certain meets and be tedious with it, who we will compete against." 

Slade largely gained experience competing against some of the best sprinters in the World in 2021. 

"Racing in those races,  you will get this high intensity," Thomas said. that was the strategy." 

Of course, we shouldn't forget about the Trials. Perhaps there should be a note on this. In some ways, it was a disappointing show, all things considered -- the promise, the hope, the expectations. 

Slade slipped during his 100m heat and ran a forgettable 200m all together. He didn't make it past the preliminaries in either race. 

But maybe that was another teachable moment, only of the highest order. 

"I told him before he went to the Trials," Thomas said. "Let's just go. Have fun and go. In three years time, you'll be 20-21, and that will be your time. That's how we look at it. Don't put any pressure on your shoulders. Just go in there and have fun."