Former Kentucky high school track star Casey Combest was once among the fastest men in the world. His 60-meter run time in 1999 still stands as the state record. He won back-to-back 100-meter Class 3A state championships for Owensboro in 1997 and 1998.
Throughout the commonwealth, Combest was the one everyone chased. But it wasn’t other sprinters who eventually ran him down. It was injuries, and worse, his own bad decisions that led to a 2000 drug trafficking conviction for which he was pardoned by then-Gov. Steve Beshear in 2015.
A once promising career ended prematurely. But his son’s is just beginning, and already 12-year-old King Combest, running this weekend in the USATF Region 5 Junior Olympic Championships at the University of Louisville, is showing signs of elite speed and top-end potential.
“He’s a lot faster than I was at 12 years old; he’s a lot stronger too,” Casey said. “Mentally, I would say that he wants to win more than your average 12-year-old.”
The Henderson, Kentucky, native was one of the fastest sprinters in the world in his heyday. On top of setting national high school records, he helped Team USA win a silver medal in the 400-meter relay at the World Junior Championships, and won the 2000 junior college championship in the 60 meters as a freshman at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama.
But, after dropping out of school and returning home, he was arrested for selling marijuana and served 60 days in prison. Once the younger Combest showed the capability to be an even greater athlete than his father, Casey took precautionary steps to make sure his son didn’t repeat his mistakes.
Casey and King moved from Henderson to Owensboro, in the hopes of escaping the same trappings that derailed Casey’s career.
“I just thought (Owensboro) would be a great place for King to go to because it’s a sports town, there’s good people and he’s got a great support from family and friends,” the older Combest said.
King showed an interest in track as soon as he was eligible to run, according to his father, participating in a local meet once he was old enough, and impressing his old man in the process.
“That’s when we knew he had the sprint gene,” Casey said. “Track is real big in our family, so from the time he’s been old enough to talk, he’s been around track. When the opportunity came up (to run), we said this is a family deal here, you got to put it on these boys. It just took a life of its own after that.”
Said King: “My dad, I heard about all his (track) stuff, what he’d been doing and I started doing it. I started beating everybody and I got used to it.”
Just this year, King ran the fastest time for a 12-year-old in Kentucky in the 100, 12.89 seconds, beating his previous best times this year of 13.08 and 13.02 (which were also the fastest times in his age group in Kentucky).
The family track affair goes beyond just King and his dad. King’s mother, Nisha Green, also ran track in high school, and his grandfather, Keith Combest, was a two-time state champion in the 400. Though Casey, who in 1999 clocked a blistering 6.57 seconds in the 60 meters, recognizes his son inherited the “sprint gene,” he hopes that the family’s history of abbreviated athletic careers is not passed on.
“We know that the speed is there,” Casey reiterated. “It’s like a race horse, you know that the pedigree is there, we just got to bring it along slow, craft it, mold it, and I believe he’ll be the hottest thing in the ballroom.
“He’s the third charm, and we’re hoping he goes to college, that’s our goal for King. (My dad) got my mom pregnant and he went to the railroad, and I got messed up on drugs. With (King), we’re just trying to take it slow and get him on course to college, so he can be a good person, have a good life.”
The plan to take it slow seems ironic, but the father-son duo is determined to meet the goals they’ve set for King as efficiently as possible. One of those objectives is for King to break 13 seconds at this weekend’s meet.
“Obviously there’s going to be some great competition there, but our goal this year was just to break 13 seconds,” Casey said. “We’re on course to try and run 10 seconds at just 14 years old and be the first kid in state history to win the championship in the seventh grade in the 100 meters. As long as he gets 13 seconds (I don’t care) if he comes in dead last. We’re running against the clock. We’re shooting for goals.”
Being the son of a world-class sprinter on top of always chasing personal bests could place a lot of pressure on a kid King’s age. King shrugs off the mounting expectations though, and runs without a worry in the world.
“It don’t make me nervous, I like to run like my dad, and I like to beat records,” King said simply.
“I tell King all the time, no matter what happens, win lose or draw, I love you,” his dad added. “You’re my son and I’ll back you up until the day I die. I don’t want him to feel no pressure, the only pressure he (feels) is what he puts on himself.”
Although he does not feel pressure to be like his dad, King’s competitive nature drives him to work hard during training. Casey calls his son the “hardest working 12-year-old in the country” and says that King does 500 situps every night before bed.
Track isn’t the only sport King plays, either. He has a passion for football, and even dreams of playing for the University of Alabama or at the University of Miami.
“I love football. It’s competitive, you can hit people and I like to run,” he said. “I get in the motion and I love it.”
No matter what King decides to do in life, his dad promises to be right there beside him, supporting him every step of the way.
“I’m happy with him just being my son, whether he ran track or not,” Casey said. “The most important thing I want King Combest to know, is that his father loved him, no matter what because I know he gives me all the energy he’s got on a daily basis.”