One of the rising stars among American 110m hurdlers is Howard University grad David Oliver, who currently trains in Orlando, Florida under the guidance of legendary track coach Brooks Johnson. Oliver, who graduated from Howard in 2004, has a career best of 13.20 that he ran in 2006. As of this writing, his most recent race was a 13.22 victory at the International Friendship and Freedom Games held at NC A&T University in Greensboro, NC on April 21st. Ranked 6th in the world in his specialty event in 2006, Oliver is looking to make a big splash in 2007. Shortly after his race in Greensboro, I had the chance to talk with Oliver about his athletic career and future goals.
A native of Denver, CO, Oliver began hurdling in 1998, during his sophomore year at Denver East High School. His first race took place in a shuttle-hurdle relay. Prior to that, his focus had been on the horizontal jumps. “The team needed another hurdler,” he explained, “so I gave it a shot. I was skying over the hurdles, but I was three-stepping. In the long jump the same day, I kept scratching. So my coach was like, ‘Maybe you can do something in the hurdles.’”
But Oliver hurt his hamstring and hip flexor and was out for the rest of the season. The following year, he put all of his energies into hurdling – both the 110s and the 300 meter intermediates. He finished his senior year with personal bests of 38.68 in the 300s and 14.24 in the 110s. The latter was good for third at the state championships, but not good enough to turn the heads of any major college programs. When he graduated, he still didn’t know where he would be going to school.
He had been doing his own footwork, writing letters to all the schools he was interested in. Howard was on the short list of colleges he had a strong desire to attend. He had family that lived right outside of Washington D.C. in northern Virginia, and he felt that an historically black university would be a good fit for him. His high school had been predominantly black, and he couldn’t see himself fitting in at traditional institutions like Colorado, Colorado State, Idaho, or Iowa. “The only African-Americans at those schools were athletes,” he said.
Nor did he want to go to a track powerhouse. He preferred to go to a program that he could help build. “I wanted to start a [winning] tradition,” he said. “Howard wasn’t known for track. The program wasn’t strong. The year before I got there, they only scored one point in the conference championships. I wanted to bring the program some recognition. I wasn’t getting any offers from any of the big schools. And I didn’t want to go to a junior college, although they were the only ones calling me back when I’d write to colleges.”
Another who called back was Michael Merritt at Howard, who promised that he’d come out to Denver and watch Oliver race. “He said,” Oliver recalled, “that if he liked what he saw, he’d give me a full scholarship. I told my mom that day that I’d be going to Howard, because I knew coach was gonna like what he saw.” He signed in the early part of June.
The 25-year-old Oliver looks back fondly on his days at Howard. Even though they had a “raggedy six-lane track,” he prospered there athletically and academically, winning four MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) championships in the 110 hurdles and graduating in 2004 with a marketing degree from the school of business. In Merritt he found a great mentor who provided the structure that an inner city kid needed. In his sophomore year, Oliver and another teammate started getting lazy and missing practices, but Coach Merritt was having none of that. “I’d won the conference champs my freshman year,” Oliver said, and my teammate came in third in the long jump, and we were both in the 4×100 and 4×400 relays. And those were the only events our team scored in my freshman year. So we were star players. But Coach was ready to kick us both off the team.”
Oliver took the wake-up call to heart. “In October,” he said, “we trained with him full-time, doing 400s and stuff, and it actually made me a better athlete. He showed me the steps I would have to take toward success, and how far he could take me in that environment. The credit for a lot of my early success goes to him. From freshman year to senior year, I owe a lot to him. From the beginning, he’s the only one who really wanted to give me a shot. He saw the potential in me even though I wasn’t running in the 13s in high school.”
Gradually, throughout his college years, Oliver kept getting better and better. From 2001 to 2004, his personal best dropped from 14.04 to 13.55. In his junior year of 2003, he finished fourth at the NCAA Outdoor National Championships in 13.60. He had come a long way, and had surpassed the achievements of many athletes who had been better than him in high school. “I didn’t want to be one of those people who was pretty good in high school and then never heard from again,” he said. “I didn’t wanna go down that path.” So he kept working on his speed, endurance, and technique until he was one of the best collegiate hurdlers in the nation.
Still, the thought of running professionally didn’t enter his mind until his senior year, when he met American record-holder Dominique Arnold at a meet in Penn State. Prior to then, he assumed that all a track athlete could do was run in college, maybe run in the Olympics, and then retire. “I never even paid attention to track and field,” he said, “until the 2000 Olympics” in Sydney, Australia. At the Penn State meet four years later, Arnold went out of his way to approach Oliver, mentioning that he had seen him on Madd Sports – a weekly show on the Black Entertainment Television channel – when Oliver had been featured as an up-and-coming athlete. A month later, at the USA Indoor National Championships, Arnold introduced Oliver to other top-ranked hurdlers like Larry Wade and Allen Johnson. That’s when Oliver began to realize “that I could do this after college. Arnold gave me an understanding of pro track in general. It’s different when you go to a major track program and you have pros at your school training all the time. Coming from a smaller program, I didn’t even know what questions to ask.”
So after finishing up at Howard, Oliver moved to Orlando to train with Brooks Johnson. Head of the program at Stanford from 1979-1992, Johnson served as the head coach of the women’s team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He will also be the relay coach for the 2008 Olympic team. Oliver enjoys training under Johnson for the same reasons he clicked with Coach Merritt. “Coming out of college,” he said, “I really needed a coach like Coach Johnson to instill even more of the discipline. He’s a no-nonsense kind of coach. With me being younger, not knowing anything, I needed a coach like that to show me the ropes. With Coach Johnson, it’s either his way or the highway. He tells me the blueprint and all I have to do is follow it.”
Under Johnson’s guidance, Oliver has continued to progress up the hurdling ranks. Since 2004, his personal best has dropped from the 13.55 he ran as a senior at Howard to 13.20, which he ran in the summer of 2006. The 13.20 makes him the second-fastest 110m hurdler ever to come from an HBCU. Only Jack Pierce, a graduate of Morgan State in Baltimore, has run faster. Oliver feels proud to be able to say that he helped to develop the program at Howard. On a personal level, Oliver says that going to a black college enabled him to “come into my own. I learned the background and history of my ancestors and predecessors. People who attend major universities never learn the things I learned. Plus I have my degree in marketing, and people respect that.”
Thus far in 2007, Oliver is off to the best early season of his career. For the first time since turning pro, he has teammates to train with, and that has made all the difference in the world. Linnie Yarborough, formerly of Middle Tennessee, and Jacoby Dubose, who followed two years behind Oliver at Howard, are his regular training partners. The intensity level at practice is always high, and Oliver credits the addition of Yarborough and Dubose with being the reason why he is off to such a good start in ’07, noting that is has “made things a whole lot smoother and a whole lot easier.” Though he has yet to match his personal best of 13.20, he has run under 13.30 three times already this season, and the 13.22 he ran in the finals of the Freedom Games is currently the fastest time in the world this year. In that race he defeated two of America’s top sprint hurdlers – David Payne and USA Indoor 60m hurdle champion Ron Bramlett.
Competing at the first International Friendship and Freedom Games meant a lot to Oliver, as Coach Johnson helped to organize it. On his blog website, Oliver mentions that “the competition is in honor of four NC A&T freshmen, Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond, who started lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, February 1, 1960. The purpose of the meet is to bring attention to what is known as the “A&T Four” and the contribution they made to the civil rights movement in American. As someone who went to a Historically Black College/University, I feel honored to compete in this inaugural event and I hope it grows into becoming one of the finest track meets in the world.”
Even before the outdoor season started, Oliver knew it was going to go well. Indoors, he won the Tyson Invitational in Arkansas, and ran consistently in the 7.60 range. At the USA Indoor Championships, he finished third behind Bramlett and Payne, but still felt encouraged by his time of 7.57. “I thought I could’ve run in the 7.40s,” he said, “but I didn’t get my start together. Overall, my first five hurdles were getting better, and I knew that once outdoors hit, my last five would be together, because that’s always been the strongest part of my race.”
Despite the progress he has made, Oliver knows there is still much more room for improvement, and that it must come if he is to represent the US at this summer’s World Championships in Osaka and next summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing. “With the big meets on the horizon,” he said, “I want to be able to throw my name in the hat as a possible contender. All these fast times I’m running now are great and all, but all it’s doing is punching my ticket for a front-row seat at the action instead of watching on TV or the internet. At nationals, you have to be on your A-game for those three races (preliminaries, semis, and finals). Everything we do now is just warm-ups. You can’t make any world teams running in Greensboro or Gainesville or at practice.”
The next step in Oliver’s progression would be to run under 13.20, which would put him in rarefied air. Among active American hurdlers, only Arnold, Johnson, Terrence Trammell, and Aries Merritt have run that fast. By already running in the 13.20 range consistently, he has put himself in a position where it seems only a matter of time before he runs in the 13.10s. Still, Oliver emphasizes that it’s important to stay patient and keep working. “You can’t put a deadline on things,” he said. “You just gotta go train, and assimilate what you practiced into the meets.”
For Oliver, that work includes a lot of drills at slow speeds over 33 and 36-inch hurdles, “trying to clean up my technique.” Oliver doesn’t feel that he needs any major overhaul in his hurdling mechanics, but just steady doses of what he’s already doing to work out the minor flaws. “I need to work on my start to the first three hurdles, attack those hurdles a little more aggressively. That’ll be enough to get me down to the 13-flat range. I usually plateau and run at a certain level consistently, and then make a big drop. I don’t really want to drop too soon because I want to know how I got there. What’s cool is that everybody knows me now. They know they gotta run 13.1 or better to beat me. I know Allen and Terrence and those guys aren’t thinking about me yet, but I feel like I’m on my way to that level.”
David Oliver is a good example of the old adage that hard work pays off. In high school he set no records and had no colleges knocking down his door offering scholarships. Dyestat.com, the internet website devoted to high school track and field, had him on its rankings page for the boys 110 hurdles, but “my name was way down on the list,” Oliver recalls. “But you can’t look at any of those names and say any of them are better than me now.” At Howard he kept getting better, and now as a pro he is one of the best high hurdlers in the world.
The lesson Oliver learned from his first hurdle race – that shuttle relay as a sophomore in high school – is that in the hurdles, you can’t expect instant results. “It’s all up to you,” he said. “You just have to keep working hard at it. It’s gonna be frustrating, especially the 110s. You can’t go into it being scared to fall. Everybody falls. It happens to me and I’m sixth in the world. I fell last week in practice.”
Oliver’s advice for young hurdlers is to be sincere, and patient, in their desire to improve. “If your coach has you doing a certain drill,” he said, “find out why he has you doing it. Be a student of the game. You may not be hitting the times you want to hit, but it takes time to learn to do this right. You’ve gotta have integrity, and honor, because if you’re cheating the hurdles, you’re cheating yourself. And that carries over to the classroom. You can’t cheat on the SAT or ACT and get into college. You can’t cut corners.”
You got that right, D.O.
© 2007 Steve McGill
Click here to check out Oliver’s blog.