An interview with possibly the fastest player in the Bundesliga – no better location for that than the place where the fastest short-distance female athlete in the country pursues her high-speed passion. For the current edition of the Werks11 Magazine, we met up with Leon Bailey at the TSV Bayer 04 indoor athletics centre at the Fritz-Jacobi Sports ground in Manfort – and took the opportunity to introduce him to Germany's sprint star Gina Lückenkemper.
Away from the motorways, life may not appear to be any faster in Leverkusen than in any other city. But somehow it does. At least at certain times. Namely when many an athlete pulls on their shoes or boots under the Bayer Cross. Then we are among the fastest: Gina Lückenkemper and Leon Bailey both represent incredible speed with the cross on their chests. The first is fast in his football boots. The second is quick in her spikes. Both are only in their early twenties as they take the first steps on a promising sporting career. And they are already in the fast lane. So there are reasons enough to bring together the fastest player in the Bundesliga and the quickest sprinter in the country. The venue: the Fritz-Jacobi-Sports ground in Leverkusen-Manfort. Less than three kilometres away from the BayArena, the upcoming German hopeful is working on being faster than her international rivals. As a reminder: In last year's World Championships in London, the 21 year-old Westphalian produced a personal best over 100 metres with a time of 10.95 seconds – and that established her as the fastest German sprinter in 26 years as she beat the eleven second barrier.
Even if there was not to be sprint dual on the day, both athletes were clearly excited before the meeting – it was the first between Gina Lückenkemper and Leon Bailey. When the Werkself number nine came into the arena in his relaxed Jamaican manner and crossed the tartan track in her direction, the broad grin of the likeable and cheerful soul Gina Lückenkemper grew even broader. And the 20-year-old Werkself pro beamed with a happy smile too. There was great anticipation. What would the meeting with the friend of Jamaica's sprint legend Usain Bolt produce? – An insight into the rather unconventional methods that Germany's fastest woman does in addition to the usual sprint drills to maximise her motor skills and abilities.
That is why Lars Lienhart is back in the athletics arena again today. The 46-year-old renowned sports scientist works as a neuro–athletic coach and is counted amongst the multi-headed team of experts around Lückenkemper. The focus of the outside coach is – to put it simply – on the interaction of the nervous system and brain to enable athletes to make the most of their potential and energy. The man from Bonn also has a track record in other sports as, for example, when he work together with the Germany team ahead of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. The focus of the training on this Wednesday afternoon were the milliseconds after the starting gun for "one of Germany's slowest starters" (as Gina Lückenkemper describes herself). And particularly given the forthcoming athletics European Championships in Berlin in August of this year where the economic psychology student is aiming to win two medals. She wants to be even quicker – not just on her legs but also in her head. As speed also means being able to react as quickly as possible.
Lars Lienhart also had some drills and exercises for Leon Bailey on the day. Without a ball but instead with a Vision Capstick. For both athletes it was a question of watching and listening – and moving the body as fast as possible. In contrast to the wizard on the wing, such exercises have long been in the training repertoire for Gina Lückenkemper. However, the Jamaican demonstrated his talent in the 30-minute tests with huge potential in his movement. The neuro-athletic coach showed his approval: "Leon not only has a pronounced sense of rhythm, he also reacted with impressive speed to the acoustic stimuli. He was able coordinate, and at times correct, his vision quickly and with a target, which in reality was not as easy as it seemed. Overall, that indicates a strong adaptability – as they had to pick things up very quickly."
In fact – how quickly Leon Bailey is capable of learning has been impressively demonstrated in his first 14 months at Bayer 04. There is no doubt about his speed. Now he has a similar target to the sprinter Gina Lückenkemper – not just the ability to produce a high tempo over a short distance but also great stamina in the future.
We took the chance to interview Leon Bailey during the meeting…
Leon, unfortunately due to the risk of injury were unable to hold a sprint race with Gina Lückenkemper. do you think you would have had a chance over 100 metres against Germany's top female sprinter?
Bailey: I've really no idea as I've never been timed over 100 metres. As a teenager I only did 400 metre runs.
Nevertheless, you are considered to be one of the fastest sprinters in the Bundesliga.
Bailey: I might be quicker on the football pitch but if you put me on the running track with a real sprinter then I wouldn't have much of a chance. My sprinting ability definitely isn't worth comparing with a lot of people in Jamaica. (he laughs)
A look at sporting history reveals that they have been a succession of absolute top sprinters from your homeland Jamaica for decades. How do you explain that?
Bailey: Athletics is very important in Jamaica with almost all the children doing athletics. That's also the emphasis in schools. For example, there are regularly big championships where girls and boys from different schools compete in a range of disciplines. And there are incredibly fast 14-year-olds who can already run 100 metres under eleven seconds – that's really mad.
Do you have an explanation why Jamaicans are often so fast?
Bailey: Yes! Jamaica is an island but also quite hilly – and there aren't really any flat roads. That means Jamaicans – almost without noticing it – are continually running up and down mountains. Our genes have adapted to circumstances that are different from people from other regions. And you can't underestimate our diet. Whether that's yams, pumpkins or bananas – Jamaicans only really eat home-grown fruit and vegetables. And in terms of nutrients, that makes a huge difference in comparison to mass-produced goods.
How important is speed to you personally?
Bailey: I like fast cars and perhaps I can run fast but otherwise speed isn't that important to me. It's not the case that everything has to be fast in my life.
Apart from your sprinting ability, you've shown what you can do in your still young career with dribbling at pace and the ability to finish. Which quality is most important to you?
Bailey: The ability to finish without doubt. You can be quick as you like and dribble as much as you want to but failing to score doesn't win any games. Goals are simply the most important thing in football. And no club in the world wants a player who can dribble but doesn't score or provide assists. That's why I want to keep on working to improve my service to team-mates and score more often.
But doesn't speed really help you?
Bailey: Of course, that's obvious: If I can run quicker than my opponent then I'll get past him quicker. But it's not enough just to be quick – you have to ration speed and use it at the right moments. But it is true that football is a fast game and speed and liveliness are important for a lot of things – whether that's dribbling or receiving a pass from a team-mate.
The application of your strengths worked out really well for you in the first half of the season: Your goals and assists made a significant contribution to the success of the Werkself and, at the same time, you became one of the shooting stars in European football. How hard is it to handle the hype that's accompanied your undisputed impressive performances this season?
Bailey: It's definitely not always easy – neither on nor off the pitch. I try to focus and not to think about it much. Especially when I'm not playing football. My family has really helped me to switch off and talk or think about other things – they are my base and absolutely important to me. Regardless of how good or how bad the situation is, whether I'm going through good or bad phases, my family is always there for me with their support.
You touched on it: The first months after you joined the Werkself at the end of January 2017 was not so easy for you. What's your assessment of your time at Bayer 04 to date?
Bailey: Well, let's put it this way: As a 19 year-old going abroad brings a couple of difficulties due to a lack of experience – I don't think that just applies to me. When I came here at the start of the second half of the season last year, the team was not in good form and the whole club was going through a difficult phase – that's not a secret. In a situation like that, it's difficult and tough for any player and particularly so when you join a new club. In short, it wasn't a situation that made it easy to get off to a flying start. My family showed great confidence in me at that time. Nevertheless, I had my focus from the start on the new season. And after the new start in the summer there was a completely different atmosphere amongst the team in comparison to the previous year; everybody was fully motivated from the start. You could feel that all over the club and it did my confidence a lot of good. Today there is a completely different atmosphere. On top of that, it was an advantage to me that I'd settled in better in the meantime and was able to do the whole pre-season in the summer with the team.
Since then you have developed into a regular starter and, at the latest, with your performances in the second half of the season made it clear to all the critics why Bayer 04 were determined to sign you in the winter of 2017. The season is coming to an end now. What are your targets with the Werkself?
Bailey: Unfortunately we were knocked out of the cup. But we all share the big target of picking up as many points as possible from the remaining league games to play in the Champions League next season. We definitely want to measure ourselves against the top European teams.
And what are your personal targets?
Bailey: I'd like to help the team and do my part in making sure we're successful in the end. I want to score as many goals as possible and provide assists whenever I can. But the most important thing is for us to win as a team.
What other 04 character traits apply to you?
Bailey: I'd say I'm very capable of being part of a team, driven and ambitious. And definitely a bit demanding. It was the same when I was a little boy.
What animal can you most identify with?
With a lion of course – Leon, the lion. (he laughs)
What do you like about lions?
Bailey: A lion has great spirit, he's a leader, is one who always want to win and lead the way. I like those characteristics and I want to be a leader – that applies both on and off the pitch. And my star sign is Leo too, that fits in really well.
At the age of 20, you've got to know quite a lot of countries: Before you came to Germany you played football and lived in Jamaica, Austria, Slovakia and Belgium. What image do you have of Germany now?
Bailey: I don't really know Germany that well yet. But I appreciate the country for its general conditions, structure and order. And there are really a lot of beautiful cities with really impressive buildings…
Is there something you really like about Leverkusen?
Bailey: The main thing I like is the club: Everything is very personal at Bayer 04 and that's great. In general, I like the friendliness of the people here and that goes for our fans too. I've already lived in a few countries and the people here have a very pleasant manner. Up to now, everyone's been very friendly to me.
You've been in Germany for over a year. How well are you getting on with learning the language?
Bailey: It's ok – I'm mainly working on speaking it. I understand nearly everything the coach says now and when other people are talking. I'm finding it pretty difficult to speak it myself. But I'm almost forced to speak German with Wendell, Charly (Charles Aránguiz, ed.) and other players because I can't speak Portuguese or Spanish at all and they don't speak very good English.
Do you have a favourite word in German?
Bailey: No, I wouldn't say so. But there are some words I use more often because I hear them a lot or I find them funny…
Bailey: Haha, for example I often say "Heftig, Digga." I heard it first from Karim (Karim Bellarabi, ed.) when he completely messed up a pass in a rondo that nobody could have got near to. (he laughs)
You are the third-youngest player in the Werkself squad this season. Does that affect you at all?
Bailey: It's difficult to say. I don't have any particular duties or have to do anything special in the team. Perhaps you can see it with me always being the first one in the middle of the rondos…
Is there something you particularly want to try and pick up from your older team-mates?
Bailey: I'm still young and I've still got a lot to learn from the daily commitment in training or team-specific matters. You can't learn experience. You have to pick it up yourself but experienced characters like a Stefan Kießling can be really helpful.
Which player do you have most to do with off the pitch?
Bailey: I get on really well with Benny Henrichs, we're close friends and we do a lot together – we go for meals together for eample.
It's noticeable that you talk a lot with assistant coach Nico Schneck. Can you describe your relationship?
Bailey: Nico is my brother! (he laughs) We really get on well with each other. We mostly talk about my performance – what was good and what areas I need to improve in. As a coach he sees it from outside and there you have a much better view of the game – his opinions are very important to me for that reason alone. But we talk about a lot of other things too and sometimes we have a laugh with each other. It's great when you have people around you who believe in you, talk you up but also those who are critical when things are going right and help you keep your feet on the ground. I completely value Nico, he has a really friendly way.
Nico Schneck's career is unusual to unique. He played in the fifth tier at his highest level and, as a 28-year-old student, he was assistant coach to Heiko Herrlich at Jahn Regensburg. Since last summer he has been part of the coaching set-up at at Bundesliga club. What's his special quality in the game?
Bailey: First of all, it doesn't matter at all which league my coach played in. It doesn't say anything about his professional qualities. And they are the most important elements in football now. I believe Nico has a very good understanding of football and you can see that in his match analyses for example. And I don't think you can tell he never played at the top level. To the contrary, I think he always exactly knows what he's talking about. I'm really happy he's my coach. And he sharpens my appreciation…
Bailey: If I watch the Champions League or other top games then I look much more at the finer details now compared with past. Details that perhaps aren't at all significant for the ordinary fan at first sight.
Do you mean on a tactical level?
Bailey: That too but I prefer to see what I can learn from watching other players. I look at how they receive the ball, the runs they make and how individual players move around the pitch. I particularly like watching Cristiano Ronaldo at the moment.
What do you find is special about him?
Bailey: It's simply crazy how hard he keeps working on his game. During his time at Manchester United he wasn't so good at headers and now he is one of the best in the world – because he has perfect timing and jumps much higher than others. But to get into a position to head the ball he makes a huge amount of movement long before he gets to the ball in the box: He makes four or five sprints – long, short or diagonal – in completely different directions to shake off his opponents and in that way he gets to the ball seconds earlier. Such things are plus points for a player. And regardless of the movements and runs he always has team-mates around him who want to help out. Because they know he's a help to them too. And that's how I think it should be in football.
How important do you think it is to have role models?
Bailey: I think it can help to look up to people.
Who did you look up to when you were young?
Bailey: At home, to my father of course. And in football to Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry.
What skills of the two impressed you?
Bailey: Thierry Henry was a machine back then: You felt nobody could stop him and he would always score when he was in front of goal and he wanted to help his team. The same goes for Ronaldinho. But now both have ended their careers so I'll have to find others to look up to. Cristiano Ronaldo is definitely one of them.
People say you used to have a poster of Arjen Robben in your room...
Bailey: Yes, that's right. I was nine or ten at the time. And it was in hanging up in my room for a long time. But I don't actually remember why. Arjen Robben is a great player and he was always a bit of a role model for me. The poster was probably there just because it had something to do with football. (he laughs)
Today, you are a role model for lots of young people. What motivates you? What makes you strong?
Bailey: There are lots of things that motivate me to get up every day and give me the strength to carry on working hard. For example, my mother who wants me to be the best player in the world at some point. But I'm also equally motivated by being able to live a privileged life now and there are definitely one or two people in the world who look up to me and would be happy to live my life – with all my chances and possibilities.
How important is it to you to be successful?
Bailey: First of all, it's great to be successful of course. But personal success alone doesn't make me happy. I need the right environment to even start to feel success. For me, success is all about motivating others, sharing joy and happiness and giving back love that you receive from others. The most important thing is to keep both feet on the ground and never forget where you come from.
You've often said how important your family is to you. What else do you really like off the pitch?
Bailey:(deliberates for a long time) I don't know – playing football is the most important thing for me. (he laughs)
And what would have happened to you if you didn't manage to become a professional footballer?
Bailey: I'd probably still be at school, carrying on my education – I'd try to go my own way and start a company. That would be exciting somehow. My backup-plan always was and is managing my own company and being in a position to give other people work. Even though I can't say what field it would be in. Let's see, perhaps I'll do that after my football career.
Is there something you especially miss from your home country Jamaica?
Bailey: To be honest, it's the food. We have so many tasty dishes in Jamaica. So I try to cook like that. Even though I can't get back there very often, I'd like to feel at home and therefore I try to cook traditional food from back home.
What hobbies do you have?
Bailey: If it fits in with training then I like city breaks. But most of the time I get together with my brothers and friends to chill out and play Fifa.
Do you have a favourite team?
Bailey: Yes, I always play as Real Madrid. That just suits my style of play.
Wouldn't it be tempting to play as yourself?
Bailey: No. I did do it when I was at Genk but never again after that. That's not my cup of tea – even though I can't say why.
What dreams in the game have you still got?
Bailey: That question is easy to answer: I'd like to stay fit, develop as quickly as possible, play football at the highest level and win titles. To put it simply, I want to achieve the maximum possible success. And if the people still have a good word for me and my life then that would be a dream.
Are you afraid of failing?
Bailey: Of course, but I try not to think about that. It's important to always be positive in life, believe in good and blank out all that is bad and negative.
You often post photos on Instagram with sprint legend Usain Bolt. How do you know him and what's your relationship?
Bailey: Well, we are Jamaicans and we met years ago back in the home country and we got on pretty well. We often meet up when we're in Jamaica.
He managed to be the best in his discipline. You'd like to achieve the very same. Do you ever ask him for career tips?
Bailey: No, I don't. He does give me tips but without me asking for them. Of course, they aren't football related but it's more about helping me to keep going well for a long time. For example, he told me never to lose my focus.
Interview by Jens Kopke