A Journey Of Hurdles

Austin Hollimon will return to Princeton a different man. Not as triumphant as he might have imagined, but without regret of taking a year off to pursue his Olympic dream.

Known best as a 400-meter runner in Ivy circles (or ovals, your pick), Hollimon’s pursuit came in an event we’ve never seen him compete as a collegian — the 400-meter hurdles. But after a year-long commitment to distance strength, flexibility, raw speed, bounding and weights, we will definitely see it come the outdoor season as he pursues an NCAA title en route to his training for Rio.

“Track became a full time job,” said the Decatur, Ga., native said of his absence from the Heps’ scene. “It was undoubtedly the happiest, most disciplined time of my life. I became a vegetarian, not because I decided to, but just listening to my body resulted in a lack of meat. I cut out Facebook, went to bed early, spent more time reading the Bible and in meditation with the Lord.”

The dye was cast in June 2011 when he visited a friend of his high school (and hurdle) coach Napoleon Cobb. The friend was a sports psychologist who talked to Hollimon about the necessity of precision in not just his physical training, but his mind and spirit as well. It didn’t take long for Hollimon to carve out his plan, which included leaving Princeton — where he’d starred and earned titles — for a year.

His plan was ambitious — open in 50, run 49 in April, 48 in May and 47 in June. To put that in a Heps’ context, no one has run under 50 seconds as an Ivy Leaguer in 25 years (when Randy Cox did it for Penn in 1987). And the all-time record for the League is 49.24 (converted from yards) by a two-time NCAA champion — the late Bruce Collins, also of Penn.

Hollimon takes control of his story:

“My first race opened in 50.61 after tripping over the eighth hurdle. I literally left seconds on the table in that race. The plan was intact. My second race was fantastic through seven hurdles and then I lost aggression, finishing in 50.9 after walking over the last three hurdles. My coach and I got to the drawing board and concluded that I would HAVE to remain aggressive, that if I would continue to do so our plan would remain intact. The very next week I had the best race I’ve ever had. Covering the distance between my hurdles in 3.6-3.9 seconds on pace to finish in 47 until I clipped the seventh hurdle and fell. I got up and finished, but the heartbreak had become trying.

“I was okay after that race and so the very next week I drove out to Clemson, S.C., with my father where I was in control of the race again winning by a second … until I hit the seventh hurdle. The winner went 50.3. I was devastated, I had all the potential in the world, but could not finish a race. What was worse is that after the Clemson race, I came up limping, I had an ankle swollen to the size of a knee with less than a month to go until the Olympic Trials. At that moment I hadn’t run well enough to qualify for the Trials, but faith held me in check as my family  and my Coach were not worried. 

“Somehow, we had convinced one of Atlanta’s best sports physical therapists — Dr. Keith Evans — to work with us. I began seeing him every morning at 7 am and miraculously on June 1st I was well enough to race. The race where I qualified for the Trials was full of Georgia’s record holders. Superstars who had garnered all the press in high school and here I was four years later completely over-looked running against them. The announcer  at this race did not even call my name. Against Johnny Dutch and Georgia’s hurdling all-stars I finished second. The time 50.4 was way off where I was capable, but it  was good enough to get there. At this race,  I had the opportunity to have world recordholder Kevin Young interview me. We talked for an hour about hurdling and I was inspired, heading out to the Trials.  

“At the Olympic trials, my story has been well documented. Leading my race until sure enough hurdle No. 7 bit me and I fell, but I have learned so much about the race this won’t be happening again. Feeling the love of complete strangers who supported the mere prospect I might represent their nation was actually tremendously inspiring, as an American. My friends and family were the absolute best, but even Delta Airlines, who had left my bags in New York, had someone personally drive my bags from Portland to Eugene because they did not want to hinder me in anyway from making the team!

“The experience of going for the U.S. Olympic Trials is one I will always remember. It was here where my resilience and faith were tested and for anything else I do in my life, this season away from Princeton taught me the power of belief and that when I pray asking ‘Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done’ that my life is less in my hands than I once thought and that all things do ultimately work together for good.”

So Hollimon will be back in Black & Orange and on the Tiger roster following exams in late January. “We have the best locker room culture in all the years I have been at Princeton and while the rest of the league is certainly bored with us winning triple crowns, the men are hungry,” he said.

But it isn’t just about winning a title for Hollimon.

“I’ve missed the League very much,” he said. “Looking forward to competing again with my friends from all over the League and my teammates.”

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