Kirani James sits in the lobby of Gorgas Library, the bill of his hat shielding his eyes, as people hurry by him without a moment’s hesitation.
James, 21, was a member of The University of Alabama’s track and field team from 2009-10. But his rise to fame came after winning gold medals in the men’s 400-meter at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, and the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The Olympic triumph was the first medal of any kind for his home country of Grenada.
Now, the reigning Olympic champion is back in Tuscaloosa as a part-time junior, majoring in general business, trying to complete his degree at the University. Fellow students don’t realize a professional athlete is taking a break between classes, just like them.
James likes it that way.
“It’s a nice, laid-back place where I can just sit back and relax, focus on what I have to do,” James said. “It’s just a good training environment and a good environment for me to grow in, in terms of my career and also as a person.”
Casey Jones, a tax analyst at the University, works with international students and has known James since he arrived at the Capstone.
She said James prefers to go unnoticed on campus. But when people talk to him, they never learn about his gold medal or athletic career.
“He’s always been very quiet, extremely humble, and he’s the exact same person before he went to London as he is right now,” Jones said. “He doesn’t have the big head; he’s not cocky. He truly is the exact same person.”
Jones and James met in 2010 during a routine tax analysis interview and have become close friends.
James was the first person to text her when former Alabama running back Trent Richardson was traded to the Indianapolis Colts, knowing Richardson was Jones’ starting running back on her fantasy football team.
Jones said it is his thoughtfulness and unselfish attitude that separates James from other athletes.
“Two days before he left to go to London my mom passed away, and he was my first phone call,” Jones said. “He’s getting ready to go compete for a gold medal at the Olympics, and he’s worried about me.”
In Tuscaloosa, and even the United States, James can escape the spotlight. But if he leaves the country, the international athlete can’t go many places without being recognized.
James is not taking a full load of classes because of contractual obligations with Nike. When he isn’t training, he’s traveling for the international apparel company, as his popularity has skyrocketed since the 2012 London games.
Kim Murphy, an administrative assistant for the University of Alabama track and field team, met James on his recruiting visit to Alabama. She said James is like a son to her and is proud of the global celebrity he has become – whether he likes it or not.
“It’s so funny because in Europe he’s kind of a rock star because track and field is so huge in Europe,” Murphy said. “So when he goes overseas and he runs, he’s got people wanting his autograph. They know him immediately.”
However, James’ most recent international race did not turn out the way he had hoped.
At the World Championships in Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 13, James looked to defend his 2011 world title and entered the race as a heavy favorite. But he finished in seventh place, as American LaShawn Merritt won the 400-meter race with a time of 43.74.
“It was something that eventually would have happened. It just happened on the biggest stage,” James said. “Sometimes you just don’t feel right. Sometimes you have to deal with certain stuff that you can’t hide and you can’t run away from – you just have to deal with it. It was a learning experience for me that I really took to heart.”
James finished the race with a time of 44.99, more than a second slower than Merritt’s winning time.
Harvey Glance trains James but also coached the Grenada product as Alabama’s head track and field coach. He was the coach of the Crimson Tide from 1997-2011.
Glance was on-hand at the World Championships and noticed something wrong with James before the race even began.
“He’s not one to make excuses, so I’ll say it for him: He certainly wasn’t 100 percent at the World Championships,” Glance said. “I think that was pretty obvious with the way he faded toward the end of the race. Anybody that has watched his historic career knows that he finishes much stronger than he starts.”
James is currently training for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, where he will represent Grenada. The event will take place July 23-Aug. 3.
He is training to erase his performance in Moscow and redeem himself in an event that is special to Grenadians; Grenada is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
A humble athlete, James would much rather talk about fantasy football – or anything else for that matter – than his athletic achievements. But get him started on his family or Grenada, and he can go on for hours.
Jones said James’ family and community back home drive him when he’s on the track.
“He wants to make his family and his country proud,” Jones said. “He wants, obviously, to win gold medals and win world championships. But at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to let the people that are important to him down.”