This 15-Year-Old Could Be America’s Next Great Sprinter

Kayla Davis competes in the 400 meter during the USA Track & Field U20 Outdoor Championships at Ansin Sports Complex on June 22, 2019, in Miramar, Florida.

Source Mark Brown/Getty

Why you should care

Because Kayla Davis could be suiting up for the U.S. in the next Olympics.

Katina Davis knew, maybe even as early as the moment she gave birth to her daughter, that Kayla would be fast.

And, in a sense, it was no surprise to anyone: Katina had earned a track scholarship to the University of Iowa, and her husband, Jeremy, earned a basketball scholarship to UNC Greensboro.

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Kayla at 7 years old won 1st place in the 100-meter at the JO National 2011 in Wichita, Kansas.

Source Mark Brown/Getty

But how fast? That answer would reveal itself when Kayla was 7 years old, one Sunday afternoon in Katina’s hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Katina recalls the family had just left church with her father and made a stop at a friend’s house that had a dog — a medium lab and bull terrier mix that wasn’t shy about chasing people.

Kayla, clad in nice church clothes and shoes, was horsing around with her brother and cousins when the dog locked eyes on her. She took off, easily outrunning the dog across the yard — losing her shoes in the process — and leaping through the window of a parked truck. “Looking at her from that day, you just saw that there was a God-given natural talent there,” recalls Katina, a supply chain specialist for engineering company Bosch Rexroth in Charlotte.

Kayla has been running ever since — and beating everybody in the process.

Kayla sees herself turning professional by 17, while still keeping her aspirations of being a dentist on the table.

Now a rising sophomore at Providence Day School in Charlotte, the lanky 15-year-old has shined on the track, albeit with a running form she once described as “all over the place.”

Last month, Kayla, who is coached by her parents and trains locally with Run U Xpress, won the Under-20 Pan American 400 Gold Medal in Costa Rica; the event featured athletes from more than 30 countries in North and South America. It hardly mattered to her that she ran with — and against — seasoned pros.

 

“It’s not intimidating at all,” says Kayla. “Since I did [USA Track & Field] Indoor Championships in February, I saw how older people run, and how the bar is set a lot higher than what it is when I’m running with people my age. I’ve learned to run with them, and run faster, and adapt to the changes.” 

When you’re Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medal winner who holds the national record for your home country (Trinidad and Tobago) in the 50, 60 and 200 meters, parents bumrush you on the regular to tell you that their kid is the next best thing.

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Kayla Davis (fifth runner from left) competes in the women’s 400-meter final during the USA Track & Field U20 Outdoor Championships.

So when a friend told Boldon that Kayla should be on his “must-see” list, the cynic in him rolled his eyes.

“The truth is that I have been coaching young girls for a while,” says Boldon, who trains runners at the state-of-the-art Ansin Sports Complex in Miramar, Florida. When “Kayla came down here with me and pretty much handled my girls, one of which is Briana Williams, who kept the world under-18 record for 100 meters this year, I went to her mother and said, ‘Do you understand what you have here?’”

Boldon got the sense that Katina wanted him to downplay his enthusiasm — and maybe her daughter’s ceiling. As a student of the game, she knew Kayla had a ways to go before she was to be anointed ‘the chosen one.’

“Well, that’s why they came to me,” says Boldon, the lead track and field analyst for NBC Sports Group. When Kayla’s mother kept talking about things to improve, Boldon kept coming back to her unusual gifts for her 5-foot-10 height, not unlike the 6-foot-5 Usain Bolt, who himself faced skepticism for his “turnover” speed between each stride. It turned out OK for the eight-time Olympic gold medalist. “Well, Kayla has all of that,” Boldon says. “And once I started to realize that, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be record-breaking. This could be world-beating.’”

Fixing her flaws has been a process, and Kayla — who is currently on break and won’t compete in a meet again until January — has become a master of her craft.

She lays out her 400-meter strategy like a track and field analyst:

“I try to stay in my drive phase for about 50 meters before I come up and go into a stride. I keep the same pace I had in my drive phase, but I relax and I’m not going as hard, but it’s an uptempo speed. And then when I get to about 120, depending on who I’m running against, I start to actually kick at the very end.”

Then, in the last 100, she says, “I try to make sure I swing my arms the same way as I did in the beginning because I know I’m tired and my arms will get lazy and I’ll start running slow. But I had to learn to keep swinging my arms, and my legs will move with my arms in the very end.”

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Kayla with her parents, Katina and Jeremy, and her brother, Jesiah, at the 2019 Pan American U20 Championships in Costa Rica.

Her parents, who got married in 2009 after attending the DMX and Jay-Z Hard Knock Life tour, are mindful of the dangers of moving their teenager along too fast, even if her development calls for it. She’s still only 15, after all — and sometimes shows a hint of that vulnerability in the form of tears, usually before a big meet. When that happens, there’s a mother-daughter routine: Katina hugs her, they pray together and she tells her daughter: “If you walk off the track and you know that you have given everything in you to compete, nobody else’s response matters.”

Of her parent-coaches, Kayla admits that her dad, who works at Lowe’s Home Improvement headquarters, is the tougher one. (“We get into it sometimes,” she says.) 

Ask her to look into her crystal ball, and Kayla sees herself turning professional by 17, while still keeping her aspirations of being a dentist on the table. She also has her sights on competing in an IAAF World Athletics Championships, the Super Bowl of track and field.

In Boldon’s crystal ball, he can see Tokyo.

“I told her mother last year that this young lady could make the Olympic team for the United States in 2020,” Boldon raves. He points out that a 50-second time in the 400 meters should make the team, and Kayla is already hitting 51.1. “She is capable of running 50.” 

And she won’t even have to do it in church clothes.

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