Kevin Watson: Born to Hurdle

Some athletes get involved in hurdling because they have good height, or because they lack raw sprinting speed, or at the suggestion of a coach who has too many people sprinting. Sometimes, though, athletes will get involved in hurdling because they were simply born to hurdle, because they were hurdlers before they even knew they were. Such is the case with Kevin Watson, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I recently sat down with Watson – the 2003 ACC 60mHH conference champion – for a discussion about his hurdling career and future goals. A student of the high hurdles who is constantly seeking to achieve a higher level of mastery in the event, the 22-year-old Watson’s ongoing journey through the world of hurdling began when he was just a little boy.

Watson’s first encounter with the hurdles came at the age of six, while growing up in Richmond, VA. He was watching the 1988 Olympic Games on television when he saw Roger Kingdom running to first place in the 110mHH finals. “I went outside and just started running and jumping over stuff,” the 6’1”, 192-pound Watson said. “I didn’t know that I wanted to be a hurdler, but that’s when it started.” Later, as an eighth-grader, eager to get started hurdling, he was told by his coach that he would have to wait until he was in ninth grade. “Then one day my freshman year [at Henrico High] I went out there and did it. My coach nicknamed me ‘the natural’ because it came so easily to me.” From there, Watson’s hurdling career took off. His breakthrough came during his sophomore year, when he defeated a nationally ranked hurdler in the district championships.

Watson’s personal best in the 110s in high school was 14.21, which is quite remarkable when considering his personal bests in the sprints were a relatively slow 10.9 in the 100 and 22.9 in the 200. “I’ve never been that fast,” Watson said, explaining the apparent discrepancy. “I’ve had teammates say that they can’t believe I run so fast in the hurdles. But there’s something about just having hurdles in my way. . . .” Watson feels that his strengths as a hurdler are more mental than physical. “I never thought of myself as being an exceptional talent,” he said. “I couldn’t bench-press my own body weight in high school. But I always had the drive to do my best, to work on my weaknesses. I have a quick start, but most of my strengths are mental,” the psychology major observed. “I just refuse to be average. I know that I can run at an exceptional level when I put my mind to it.”

A wide receiver for four years at Henrico High, Watson planned to attend college on a football scholarship, not a track scholarship. But he wanted to continue hurdling. So, although he was being recruited by several schools for football, he was hoping to wind up either at Clemson University or the University of South Carolina – two schools known for having strong track programs, particularly in the sprints and hurdles. During his football recruiting visit to UNC, however, he met with head track coach Dennis Craddock, who, upon seeing the times Watson ran in high school, offered him a scholarship on the spot. “So I ended up going to UNC on a track scholarship,” Watson said, “but I played football for a year because I felt I owed it to Coach [John] Bunting (UNC’s head football coach). After one year I was given an ultimatum to either play spring football or run track. Since I was on a track scholarship, I felt I should run track, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

And he’s been doing it well. His personal best thus far is 14.03, which he ran at the Clemson Invitational in 2003, as a sophomore. That same year he finished 14th in the Eastern Regionals with a 14.32. A turning point during that season occurred when he ran at North Carolina Central University against Terry Reese – a professional hurdler who also coaches the sprinters and hurdlers at North Carolina State University. “I was ahead for the first half of the race,” Watson noted, “then Reese caught me at the sixth hurdle and ran something like a 13.60. I ran a 14.07. Nobody else was anywhere near either of us. I knew that if I could keep up that long with Reese, I could compete on a national level.” In 2004, as a junior, he finished 18th at Regionals with a 14.34. The latter performance was a major disappointment for Watson, however, as he had set goals of running under 14.00 as a junior after having come so close to running that fast as a sophomore. Also, he knew he would have to run that fast in order to keep up with the competition in the conference and in the region. So, what happened? The story is a long one.

In describing the injury that slowed him down throughout his junior year, the otherwise easygoing Watson spoke with an expression of grim determination on his dark brown face, as the jovial smile and light-heartedness of his tone completely disappeared. “I fell in practice,” he explained, almost in a whisper, obviously still haunted by the memory, “while training at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) during Christmas break. I did my normal drills, then decided to sprint over five hurdles. On the second rep, I clipped the last hurdle with my trail leg. I had new spikes in my shoes, and they got caught in the track when I landed. When I tried to catch myself, my knee buckled and I fell on my left arm. I dislocated my shoulder, but I was able to bend my knee, so I thought the knee was okay.” Watson had previously torn his acl as a freshman in high school while hurdling. “I went to the emergency room,” he continued, “but just for my shoulder, not my knee. A week later, my knee was still hurting. Another week later I went out for a jog, and my knee was killing me. I couldn’t run until a month later. I was going to the training room every day, getting iced, stretching. I ran 8.31 [in the 60mHH] my first meet back, but I just kept going. At the ACC Outdoors I realized I really wasn’t supposed to be running. I had been trying to set an example for my teammates. But the truth was, even though I could compete, I couldn’t compete at the level I wanted to. My knee was bothering me too much. I had set absolute goals earlier that year – times that I wanted to reach, but it was obvious that I wasn’t going to reach them. There were days when I would just cry, you know, because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. My body wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to do. And I’m not one who cries a lot.”

Because of the disappointment of that season, and of the fact that he fell so far short of the goals he had set for himself, Watson has altered his whole approach to competing. When asked what his absolute goals are for his upcoming senior year, he respectfully declined to answer, preferring to keep them to himself. He says that now his main goal is to be a model for his coach, Kendra Warren, who coaches UNC’s sprinters and hurdlers. Coach Warren was a star sprinter for UNC herself in the early 1990s. Explaining himself further, Watson said that “I want to help her sharpen her skills as she helps me to sharpen mine. I want to master the hurdles as best as I am physically capable of doing so. In practices, I want to set the example of the things she tries to teach. Now that I’m a senior, I’m not just a model for the hurdlers, but for the whole team. I want to be the person she can look to to represent what she’s trying to teach.” His other goal for his senior year is to “beat a lot of people I didn’t beat last year.” He noted that there are “people in the conference, some national people, and even some pros I think I can keep up with.”

Of course, in competing in a major conference like the ACC, in a region that has many outstanding hurdlers, Watson has his work cut out for him. But he isn’t too worried about the pressure, preferring instead to focus on furthering his attempts to master the event. “Consistency,” he said, “is the key to dealing with pressure. Developing routines and sticking to them. I deal with pressure in practice; I don’t wait until the day of a race to deal with pressure. I’m always visualizing, seeing myself hurdle. I’m thinking about hurdles all the time. I’m always thinking about workouts, studying, reading up. But I also try to take my mind off it at times by doing things with friends, by developing relationships. I try to find a balance between doing what I need to do to accomplish my goals and taking time off away from the track to recover mentally. On the day of a race, the biggest thing is calming myself and believing in what I’ve already accomplished. A race is more technical than emotional. You can’t get too amped up. You’ve gotta be consistent with what you’ve done previously and not worry about the other guys. Because, at any given meet, anything can happen. I mean, Allen Johnson fell in an early round [in the 2004 Olympic Games], so anything can happen.”

Watson has received hurdling tips from Johnson, who is a UNC alum and visits the school from time to time. He has also received tips from Reggie Torian – one of the better 110m hurdlers during the 1990s, and he keeps a notebook where he writes down all he has learned and picked up over the years. Watson, who is on schedule to earn a degree in Psychology with a minor in Exercise Sports Science, is interested in becoming a coach on the college level one day. He enjoys the technical aspects of sprinting and hurdling, the challenge of fine-tuning, and the challenge of pinpointing areas of concern and developing strategies to improve upon weaknesses. Also, because of his major in Psychology, he has become aware of the psychological aspects of coaching. “A coach has to be a psychologist,” he said, “because so much of competing is mental.”

When it comes to being a student/athlete, there is a give and take involved, Watson has found out. “I have no problem managing my time,” he commented, “but I am frustrated that I have to do it. I don’t like having to study for a test when I’m trying to focus on making sure I eat the right foods. I’m in class from 10 to 2, with only a ten-minute break. Then practice is at 3:30. So it’s hard to find time to eat right. Between studying and training, there’s not much time for socializing. I don’t really socialize all that much.” In regards to how being a full-time student has affected his performance on the track, Watson remarked that “I know my GPA could be higher if I didn’t do track, but I also know I could probably run faster if I didn’t have to worry about classes. It goes both ways.”

When speaking of the possibility of someday becoming a coach, Watson is fully aware of the inviolability of the athlete/coach relationship, and of how the athlete’s experience of the sport, whether a positive or negative one, is largely dependent on the nature of his or her relationship with the coach. “Coach [Jeff] Brown, my high school coach, was a great coach, and an exceptional person,” Watson said, smiling as he reflected on his past. “Coach Brown knew a lot about hurdles, but he was an even better person. I want to be able to give to my athletes, if I coach one day, the kind of inspiration that he gave me. I want them to have that kind of relationship with me.”

Watson’s advice for young hurdlers is to work on developing proper technique from the outset. As he put it, “If you’re not doing it right, don’t do it at all.” Therefore, he said, young hurdlers should seek out role models who will support them like Coach Brown supported him, because “you need people who are willing to care enough to work with you,” and such people aren’t easy to find. Without the guidance of a supportive, knowledgeable coach, a hurdler can easily develop bad habits, which are very hard to break.

It will be interesting to see how Watson’s final year as a collegiate hurdler progresses. As tough as the competition that he will face will be, there can be no guarantees as to how far he will go on the regional and national levels. What we can be certain about, however, is that he will train hard consistently, and when the big races come, he will be ready to compete with the best of them.

© 2004 Steve McGill

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