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From Golden Arches to Gold Medal: Boris Berian’s Unlikely Road To World Champion

The 23-year-old is on top of the world in a sport he was hardly even doing two years ago.

Stories like Boris Berian’s just don’t happen—not outside of movies, anyway. It’s something that Disney probably wouldn’t even touch. Because after his gold-medal-winning performance in the 800m on Saturday night at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Ore., Berian is a world champion in a sport he was hardly even doing two years ago. What was he doing instead? Flipping burgers at a McDonald’s restaurant.

What did it take to get from the Golden Arches to a gold medal?

“Working my a** off,” Berian said frankly after the race—a thrilling four laps around the 200m banked oval that the 23-year-old led wire to wire.

Nothing you’d ever hear in a Disney movie, but it’s a blunt assessment of what it really takes when you’re given a second chance.

After winning Colorado state titles in the 400 and 800 in high school, Berian appeared to be a prodigy ready to bloom at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colo., a small Division II school with an amazing legacy of middle-distance and distance running. But the scholastic side of college wasn’t his thing. He dropped out after a couple of years and tried to train on his own, trying to keep hold of a dream that was slipping away.

And just as in a too-good-to-be-true story, it was a phone call that began to change his fortune. Brenda Martinez, a world championships bronze medalist in the 800, and her husband, Carlos Handler, were setting up the Big Bear Track Club, a nonprofit in Big Bear, Calif., in accordance with the “live high, train low” philosophy (they train in Los Angeles) and invited Berian to join the team.

Martinez’s legendary coach, Joe Vigil, who spent decades coaching at Adams State, told Handler to keep an eye on Berian. Berian gave his two-week notice at the Colorado Springs McDonald’s he was working at and off he went to Big Bear in December of 2014.

He took to the training instantly, and his previous 800m personal best of 1:48:93 began to plummet quickly. His big breakthrough came in the Adidas Grand Prix in New York City last spring, an IAAF Diamond League event, where he ran 1:43:84, losing to reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder David Rudisha by less than a second.

Berian missed making the U.S. team for last year’s outdoor world championships but continued to train hard, and had a hugely successful 2016 indoor season. But his race in Portland on Saturday night was truly jaw-dropping. Berian jumped out to an early lead, buoyed by an informed, track-crazy crowd that no doubt knows his story. Things got tense on the backstretch of the bell lap, when Antoine Gakeme of Burundi ate into Berian’s lead. But the American responded accordingly around the final turn and held his nerve.

The 8,000-plus sellout crowd packed close to the track in this low-ceilinged, makeshift arena at Portland’s Convention Center went nuts.

“The home crowd kept me going,” Berian said after the race. “It got me gold.”

And of course, in this Olympic year, the story’s not over—in fact, it may have just begun. Berian took home $40,000 for the win, but has still not signed a shoe deal (the Big Bear Track Club is sponsored by New Balance). Not that he’s concerned. He said he’s letting his agent, Hawi Keflezighi, handle that. “I’ll just keep racing,” he said.

If he keeps that up, he’ll be seeing a lot more green in his future, and perhaps even some Olympic rings. But it’s safe to say he’s seen the last of burgers for a long, long time.