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USC’s Isaiah Jewett takes an anime approach to the 800m

Jul 30, 2021
John McGillen/USC Athletics

TOKYO – Ten days after becoming the NCAA champion at 800 meters, Isaiah Jewett pushed the pace at the U.S. Olympic track trials. He exhausted Donavan Brazier, the 800m American record holder, and clocked a personal best (1:43.85) to finish second behind Clayton Murphy, the 2016 Rio Olympic bronze medalist. With that, the USC Trojan made his first Olympic team.

Jewett quickly charmed the press. At his post-race media conference, his personality burst through the one-dimensional world of Zoom. He pulsed with electricity. He radiated glee. His excitement was immediately contagious.

And that was before someone mentioned anime.

At that point, Jewett’s enthusiasm – already near its limit – grew exponentially.

He isn’t just an avid fan of Japanese cartoons. He channels them when he runs. 

“Once that gun fired,” at trials, he said, “I was able to enter my world – my anime world that I wanted to live in that day to execute my race.

“I see a specific scene,” he explained. “It’s usually [something] that’s resonated with me, certain themes, how people surpass their limits.

“Then, when the race gets hard,” he said, “or when I get into the ‘pain game,’ the anime moment really draws itself to life."

Until now, Jewett had never been to Japan, the home of the art. Imagine, then, what he can do in his first race in Tokyo on Saturday morning when lines up to run the opening heat of the men’s 800.

“While I’m running, I get in a zone of being in that exact scene, I re-enact it, and I live through it. That’s what makes me push past the pain,” he said.

Japanese animation has helped him push past other types of pain, too.

Growing up in Inglewood, California, in the South Bay of Los Angeles, he had trouble reading. “For some reason, comic books were too much for me,” he said. “I had an eye problem and I think it was the colors. My mom gave me my first manga, in black and white. It was easier on my eyes. And it had cool characters popping out of the page.”

Jewett fell in love. “I started watching the shows and reading the books. Suddenly, my mom had a huge bill at the bookstore because I bought all the mangas in there.”

Jewett also took solace in running. The link was apparent right away.

“I was a young preemie who was actually on the cusp of dying,” he said. “I developed [physically] a lot later than everybody else but I wanted to beat my older sisters in something,” he said. “I wanted some respect because they never wanted to play with me.

“I started running because I was like, ‘I need to be faster than them.’ That could be like a superpower. I’ve always wanted a superpower.”

Then he had to prove it. “I was like, ‘If I make the Olympics, then I’m definitely faster than them. That’s something they never did!’ Since I was young, I’ve been following that dream.” 

But Jewett wasn’t a prodigy. He never made a Junior Olympic team.

“Anime gave me comfort when I felt defeated,” he said. “Anime gave me the fire to keep going. Because in anime, no one’s safe. The main character always loses. But the thing is, those characters lose and keep going, regardless of the failures. Those characters were exactly who I want to be like.”

In a way, anime is also what brought him to USC.

After running for UC Irvine in 2016 and 2017, Jewett said, “I was actually in a dark place. I still wanted to run, and felt I was running well, but that’s not good enough for me. I know there’s something else I should be doing as well.

“I kept getting lost in the college life. I was really down on myself,” he said.  

He decided to leave school altogether when, by chance, he ran into Quincy Watts, the USC track coach and 1992 Olympic gold medalist. Watts invited him to campus and introduced him to someone who quickly helped Jewett figured out his potential career path.

“He’s like: What do you love to do? What makes you happy?” Jewett recalled. “I’d tell him anime and he’s like, you know, there’s people that create it. I didn’t even THINK about that. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s something I could be totally into.’ At that moment, I thought: I gotta come to SC.”

USC distance coach Jebreh Harris proved to be another key influence, although at first, Jewett admits he stubbornly rejected the coach. In 2020, after the regular USC coach left, Jewett said, “I was scared not I’m not going to make the Olympics because I have to set up a new coach. I don’t want any new thing. I want to keep the same training. I shunned [coach Harris] so hard the first three weeks. But, like in anime, he still showed up every single day, wondering when I’m gonna run. And if I ran, he’s ready for me to give him a chance. He’s not going to judge me for anything I said to him before. Dang, I wish I would have trusted him sooner. I probably would have been a lot better, but I’m totally grateful that I did.”

Jewett continues to credit Watts for his success, too, explaining that in anime, “when the main character is down, they have one person who says the right word to show that the light is shining. When the person says the right words, the main character starts to light up. Coach Watts knows how to say the right words.”

Ultimately, Jewett said, anime isn’t just his guide to running. It’s his guide to life.

“The dialogue provides so much clarity. That’s why I find it easy to live my life now. I’ve had so much fun with manga and anime. I want to live something like it. I know it’s a cartoon, but why not? Why not be able to live something close?”