Sometimes, when the career of a promising athlete is cut short by injury, that athlete will spend years wallowing in regret and self-pity, wondering what might have been if life had not taken an unfair twist. Others, meanwhile, will choose to pick themselves up and do the best they can to make a difference in the lives of others. Marcus Walker, ranked second in the world in the 110 meter high hurdles in 1970, unquestionably falls into the latter category. Father of Beau Walker, whose profile also appears on this website, Marcus has spent much of his adulthood coaching youth track, developing the minds and bodies of future generations of track athletes. A few days ago I had a very pleasant conversation with Walker, covering several topics, including his competitive career, his coaching career, and the turbulent 1960’s. Walker, it cannot be mistaken, is a man committed to making a significant impact on the lives of young student/athletes, which is something he began to do as soon as the opportunity first presented itself.
The 56-year-old Walker was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, but moved with his family to Wichita, Kansas at the age of ten. It was there, in Wichita, that he first began to involve himself in sports. “At that time it was mostly basketball and baseball,” he said. “I got involved in track probably that very next year, when I was eleven. I was mostly just hanging around with my brothers and some of their friends, and they all ran track, so I wanted to see what it was like.” Walker went on to explain that “track was a big thing for us, growing up around that time. I took to track right away because it was something that I just liked a lot, and I just stayed with it.”
Although the Mid-west is not commonly regarded as a hot-bed for Track & Field in the modern era, Walker stated that track was very big in that part of the country when he was growing up. At Wichita East High School, where he ran for four years, the standards of success were set very high. “We had a very big track program,” Walker said, pointing out that legendary distance runner Jim Ryun was a senior at Wichita East during Walker’s freshman year.
Walker began hurdling as a ninth grader, under the tutelage of coach J.D. Edmundson. Things did not start off well for Walker during his early stages of development in this new event, but he took his lumps and steadily improved. When asked to describe his earliest memories of hurdling, he flatly remarked, “I got beat a lot. I lost a lot of races, got an attitude, worked harder, and got better. I didn’t like losing. I knew the price to pay to get better was to work harder, so I did.” As his times gradually dropped, his horizons gradually broadened. “After I won two or three races in a row,” he said, “I started training with the thought in mind of what I wanted to do the next year. As I saw my times coming down, I tried to compare my times to what was happening in other parts of the country, not just the state.” So when did Walker realize that he could be really good in the hurdles? “When I saw my times getting closer to what the best kids were running nationally. I knew I had something then.”
Walker competed in the days when all race distances in the United States were measured in yards. Those were also the days before there was an intermediate hurdle race at the high school level. So he ran the 120-yard high hurdles, the 180-yard low hurdles, the 100-yard dash, the 220-yard dash, and the 440-yard dash. His personal bests in high school were 13.5 in the high hurdles, 18.5 in the low hurdles, 9.4 in the 100, 20.8 in the 220, and 47.0 in the 440. All timing was done manually, as automatic timing did not exist yet either, even at the international level. Even the Olympic Games did not feature automatic timing until 1972. Walker won two state titles in the high hurdles, and one in the low hurdles before graduating from Wichita East in 1967. He couldn’t afford to travel much for the post-season meets, but he did compete in the Golden West Invitational after his senior year, where he finished third in the highs.
When deciding upon a college to attend, Walker entertained offers from several institutions of higher learning in Kansas, but chose to enroll at Butler County Community College in hopes of eventually making his way to Colorado University in Boulder, Colorado, which is what ended up happening. In discussing why he chose Boulder over a local university, Walker explained that, during his visit to CU, he enjoyed talking to coach Don Meyers. “He was very knowledgeable about the sport,” Walker said. “Plus, I liked the campus and how it was set up in Boulder.” As to the difficulty of training in the thin air, Walker commented that “running in the altitude was great. It was hard at first, but I adjusted quickly. I had heard about it, so I started training early, so it wasn’t something that got to me.”
Walker achieved a great deal of success at Colorado. In 1970, he pr’ed with a 13.3, which made him the second-ranked hurdler in the world, behind Thomas Hill of Arkansas, who would later go on to capture the bronze medal in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Walker’s name does not appear on any World or National rankings lists beyond 1970. Why not? “I got hurt,” he said. “I had pulled a muscle in my leg, and I didn’t wait long enough for it to heal. I just came back too soon, and it just caused more of a problem than anything. I developed a hematoma in the bone of the muscle, and that was it for me.” However, before the injury incapacitated him, Walker set world records in the 50-yard low hurdles, the 50-yard high hurdles, and the 60-yard high hurdles, earning All-American honors.
Walker competes against France’s Guy Drut. Drut would later go on to win an Olympic silver medal in 1972, and a gold in 1976.
Although the injury did cut short his track career, Walker harbors no misgivings about having tried to fight through it, noting that, when considering the era in which he competed, there wasn’t much else he could do. “I don’t have any regrets,” he said. I was trying to do what I thought was the right thing. I didn’t know if I would ever get another chance [to make an Olympic team], and when you’re young, sometimes you don’t see the whole picture. During that time, nobody was getting paid to run track, so I had to think about making a living. So you take your shot and see what happens. If you had an agent or somebody to help you finance a career, then it would be different. But during that time, you couldn’t.”
In regards to the professionalism that exists in the sport now, Walker feels good about it, and does not begrudge the modern athletes the opportunity to grow wealthy running track, or, as is the case for most athletes, to at least earn some income competing professionally. The money is “good for the sport,” he said. “I’m not bitter about it; it’s the times. Hopefully, either my grandson or my daughter [Beau] will be able to reap some of the benefits. As for me? No. It was get a job, survive; that’s how the system was. If it were now, I would maybe take a regular job and train while I can get an agent on my side. The money is there now, so if a kid has an opportunity to go ahead and do that, why not? It makes the sport more competitive too,” because careers can be extended. Even those athletes with short careers can profit if they have an outstanding year at the right time – like, say, during an Olympic year. As Walker noted, “If you can get on top of your game and have one great year and win your fair share, you’re way ahead of the game. You can come out of this smelling like a champion. They got pros in everything else, so why not track?”
In the same race as the previous photo, Walker (left) and fellow American Thomas Hill (right) lead Guy Drut in the dash over the last hurdle. Hill finished 3rd in the ’72 Olympics.
After Walker’s injury put an end to his competitive career, “it was time to go to work.” He started coaching right after he got out of college, around 1975. “I mainly had my own [track] club,” he said, “coaching kids from eight to eighteen [years old]. There were a few exceptions – a few older athletes, but I worked mainly with the young kids.” When asked why someone who had competed at such a high level would choose to coach youth track, Walker responded by saying, “I was just directed there. I coached high school as well, but my main focus was my club. It was kind of like a calling, if you will.”
And it is a calling that Walker takes quite seriously. “A coach takes on many roles,” he explained. “Being a coach is like being a father, uncle, brother, mother – all those things wrapped up into one. I try to show the kids there’s another way other than the negative. If I don’t have the answer to how they can get to where they’re trying to go, I can direct them to the right way. I can teach them to be positive people first, and then find the good things to do with their lives.” From Walker’s perspective, all the “good things” are, in one form or another, centered around education. In addition to his daughter Beau, who runs for the University of Alabama, Walker’s other daughter, as well as his two sons, all ran track for him, and three of the four earned scholarships to universities that enabled them to earn an education without paying the exorbitant costs that they would have had to shell out otherwise. “Track,” he explained, “is a vehicle for education. If you understand the importance of academics, and use your talents, with [a coach] to help mold you and recognize your talents, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll succeed. Colleges need you; they’ve got spots to fill. If you have the talent, you might as well capitalize.”
Walker now is molding his eight-year-old grandson to be the next stand-out track star in the family. “I had retired [from coaching] about three years ago,” he said, “and was just helping out. “But now with my grandson – he’s three years late; I usually start my own kids [running] when they’re five. Now with him getting older, I gotta get back in the game again. He’s gotta go to school too.” Starting as a youngster on the track is a given in the Walker family, and it always has been. As Walker put it himself, “If you’re born in the family, that’s what the deal is. All that time together gives us a chance to bond. We travel together, go to practice together. They learn my temperament, I learn there’s. [My kids] hated me for it,” he laughed, “but I love ‘em.” While they may not have enjoyed the strict regimen he put them through at the time that they were going through it, the love he felt for them was most definitely mutual. It is no accident, nor surprise, that in my earlier interview with Beau, she identified her father as “hands-down my best friend” in the world.
Beyond his own kids, Walker very much values the work he does with all of the kids he coaches. They are all, in a sense, members of his extended family. “Track is a good outlet for any community,” he said, “especially for minorities. I say that because of the financial situation a lot of minorities are in. Track gives you another outlet to keep your kids off the streets and out of trouble. You know how they say it takes a whole village to raise a child? Well track gives you a chance to have other people in the village to help raise and direct your kids. I think it’s just a great environment to have your kids in.” According to Walker, the benefits of participating in youth track are numerous for the kids who stick with it. “When you’re traveling,” he said, “you get to see the country, you get to interact with other kids. It molds your attitude, too. You can be like, ‘Hey, I got third this year, but I’m gonna work harder and come back and win next year.’ I see kids grow up out there [on the track]. You remember kids who were struggling when they were small who are now champions, ready to go to college. That’s what it’s all about. It gives you a good feeling inside when you see that happen.”
Walker’s awareness of the need for community-building in minority communities began long before his coaching career ever got started. Having grown up during the 1960’s – the decade of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Black Panther Party, as well as Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City – Walker witnessed and took part in the struggle of African-Americans to move toward a position of equality in the United States. Walker was especially inspired by the example set by Martin Luther King. “I was involved [in the Civil Rights Movement] on a campus level,” he said, “but I wasn’t into turning over cars and carrying on. I was down with the peaceful movements, the Martin Luther King attitude, not trying to shoot everybody.”
As for the peaceful demonstration of Smith and Carlos, Walker feels that their actions were grossly misunderstood by all who criticized them. For those of you who don’t know the story, Smith and Carlos finished first and third, respectively, in the 200 meter final at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968. To protest the unfair treatment of African-Americans in the United States at the time, Smith and Carlos stood on the victory stand, during the playing of the National Anthem, each wearing a black glove – Smith on his right hand, Carlos on his left. They both bowed their heads, raised their gloved fists, and kept their fists raised throughout the playing of the anthem. Both athletes also wore black socks, with no shoes on, to protest the conditions of poverty that many African-Americans were being forced to endure in urban ghettos and throughout the American South. As reward for their actions, Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals, banished from the Olympic village, and banned from ever participating in the Olympic Games again. Because of the searing racial tension in the country at the time (Martin Luther King had been shot dead only a few months earlier – an event that incited riots and racially charged confrontations throughout the nation), the peaceful demonstration of Smith and Carlos was erroneously regarded by many Americans as a horrifyingly audacious act of hatred, reverse racism, and treachery in its rawest form. The fact that Smith had just run one of the most beautiful, breath-taking races in the history of Track & Field was instantly forgotten, and has never really been appreciated as it should be.
In Walker’s estimation, the swift and severe punishment dealt to Smith and Carlos led other Olympic athletes to shy away from making any sort of public demonstration that could be construed as racist. To support this point, in the HBO special, “Fists of Freedom” – a riveting documentary that aired in 1999 and provided details of all the events leading up to the protest – 400 meter runner Lee Evans makes the point that he smiled during his medal ceremony after winning his gold medal not because he was happy and not because he was an Uncle Tom, but because he was afraid of getting shot to death right there on the medal stand. His race and medal ceremony took place one day after the 200 meter dash. So no, he was not joking, and he was not exaggerating. Walker made the following insights about the actions of Smith and Carlos, and the lack of any other forms of protest afterward: “It was a touchy situation at the time, but the point [Smith and Carlos] were trying to make was valid. A lot of [athletes] didn’t join in because of the [hostile] times. As years go by, you get a clearer view of the statement they were trying to make. They kind of blackball you, and here you are trying to survive, but on minimum resources. For those reasons, people were looking for other ways to express themselves without getting whipped up. But those two brothers were taller,” metaphorically speaking, “and they had the stage to do it.”
Walker (left) upsets 1968 Olympic 110m high hurdle gold medallist Willie Davenport. This race was a 60-yard indoor competition.
Meanwhile, in the microcosm that is the men’s 110 meter high hurdles, Walker has plenty more interesting insights regarding the evolution of the event over the past thirty years or so. “There’s more focus now on being technically sound,” he said. “During my era, if you were fast and doing well, coaches wouldn’t change much in what you were doing. If you were winning with what you had, they would work on minor things, maybe, but that’s it. Whereas now, it’s all computerized. Everything is examined from head to toe. Which is good because it makes the sport that much better and the athletes that much better. I trained myself for the most part and made do with what I had. I think it’s a good thing that [the coaches] are more technical now. For a while, the times stayed in the same neighborhood. If you look at the times over the years, they didn’t drop under thirteen for a while. They hovered around 13.3, 13.2, then people started doing fast-twitch muscle drills, things like that, so times have come down to 12-plus. And that’s minus steroids; that’s clean. It’s all good, it’s all something to work toward.”
Walker finds it somewhat amusing that the times he ran over thirty years ago would still be competitive today, especially when considering all the advancements in sports science, training methods, equipment, and track surfaces. “We ran on gravel, man,” he said, laughing. “It was crazy. We ran on cinders and you did the best you could. If you saw a rubber track, it was Highway 85 type of stuff. If you were fortunate enough to go to New York for [the] Millrose [Games], then yeah, you’d run on the boards. But outdoors? No.” Speaking specifically about the mondo surfaces that are common nowadays, Walker said that “Yeah, it makes a hell of a difference because it’s built for speed, and it all works to [the athletes’] advantage. When you look at some of the international times, you still see 13.4’s. It’s amazing. And they’re getting paid! They’re not getting top dollar, but they’re getting some dollars. Shoot, I think I’ll adopt some kids and start trainin’ ‘em.”
On the international scene, the hurdler who most impresses Walker is Liu Xiang of China. “I’m satisfied now that he wasn’t running [away] from a drug test,” the ever affable Walker said, noting that Xiang didn’t compete very much in 2004 after winning the Olympic gold medal in Athens. “But now he’s back, and he’s technically sound. The USA has real good hurdlers too, but I don’t see a lot of youth coming up, protégé types. Maybe that’s because I’m not all over the United States, I don’t know. You notice that girl in the 200 [Allyson Felix], but I don’t see any hurdlers coming up like that. A lot of people prefer football over track, because there’s more money in it, so they don’t take the time to train for that race. You gotta feel that race, and if you don’t feel it, you’re in trouble. If you’re not used to getting your knees scraped up, it’s not for you.”
Walker’s advice for young hurdlers coming up is to be willing to persevere through the frustrations of the event. “Understand,” he said, “that it’s going to require more work than anything you’ve ever done before. If you’re willing to commit and put in the time, you’ll be fine. You have to have a positive attitude coming up, and be willing to learn to withstand the difficulties you’ll face. You’ll have to build up, fall down, get back up, just like in life you have to build up, fall down, and get back up. It’s all good. If you come into the sport aware of those things, you’ll be fine.”
There can be no doubt that Marcus Walker has cleared enough hurdles, lived through enough experiences, and helped enough people, to know how true that is.