I’ve only coached one hurdler who basically knew how to hurdle the instant he stepped on the track. Back in the spring of 2000, Cameron Akers, an eleventh grader who had never run track before, came out for the team. Although only 5’10” and about 150 pounds, he played on our football team. In past years, rumors had always swirled around that he would be coming out for track, but he never did. I didn’t think anything of it. Between academic troubles and wanting to rest up for football, he never made the rumors a reality. In his junior year, though, one of his best friends on the football team decided to come out for track, which motivated Cameron to do so as well. In the first couple days of practice, we had the kids do some tests to see what events they might be good in. Cameron tested well in the hurdles, so, although he was skinny and kind of light for his height, I decided to give him a go there. Our only returning hurdler, David Young, was a very hard worker, but had PR’s of only 18.1 and 44.2, so if I wanted a hurdler to compete for a state championship in either of the hurdle events, I would have to develop a new one. In Cameron’s first hurdle practice during the first week of the season, I set up three hurdles at the intermediate height to see if he could three-step them. Because he had tremendous spring in his legs, he was able to bounce three steps between the hurdles. The fact that he could three-step at all on his first day was good enough to convince me that I had found someone who could hurdle competitively. But then he commented as he stood at the starting line to go again, “I’m gonna try to lead with my other leg this time.” Leading with his left leg, he flew over those hurdles so quickly that I just stood there with my mouth open, not believing what I was seeing. “That was better,” he said, walking past me on his way back to the starting line. I nodded my head in agreement.
In his first race, Cameron never made it to the finish line. It was a dual meet, at home. The athlete next to him bumped him in the shoulder a few times, knocking him off balance until he eventually dropped out of the race. I blamed myself for that, because I hadn’t warned him that bumping could happen. In the next meet, he ran his first full 110 hurdle race, and finished first in a time of 15.5. He rapidly improved with each meet, running a hand-timed 14.3 by mid-April, in our last meet before spring break. He had been running track for a total of about eight weeks, had participated in seven meets, and had already run a 14.3. He had broken the school record in both hurdle events, and had done so with remarkable ease. Prior to the beginning of the season, I had heard from several of the football players that he was lazy and unmotivated, but I had virtually no complaints about his work ethic on the track. He did everything I asked him to do, he ran through pain, he rose to the challenge of tough workouts, and he listened well to instruction.
In mid-May, Cameron ran a 14.40 to win the independent school state meet, after having run a 14.56 in the semi-finals the day before. His finals time broke the independent school state record, and it ranked him as one of the top hurdlers in the state, public or private. It also qualified him to run in the Footlocker National Championship meet (now called the Adidas Outdoor National Championship meet) that would be held in Raleigh, at NC State University, in June.
In the final faculty meeting of the school year that year, I found out that I had had even more of a positive effect on Cameron’s life than I had realized. Since he started running track, his grades went up, his study habits improved, and he held hopes of earning an athletic scholarship to college. Little did I know, until that final faculty meeting, that Cameron’s grades had fallen low enough that he was close to not being invited back the following year. The improvement in his grades in the second semester made the difference for him. Cameron and I’s relationship became a sort of older brother/younger brother relationship. Throughout the summer, I would pick him up to go to practice, and I would take him home afterwards. We were both big fans of the old Martin TV show, so we were always laughing about the various episodes that we had seen. I don’t know what became of his dad, but I know he didn’t live with the family. Meanwhile, Cameron had a younger sister and younger brother to look after. He seemed to be close to his mom, although she didn’t come to any of his track meets. So, I was glad to fill the role of the older brother figure in his life.
At the Footlocker meet, Cameron ran well, but not as well as he or I would have hoped. His time was a 14.53, which placed him fourth in his heat, and 18th overall, out of forty-two competitors. You know it’s a tough meet when only nine out of forty-two move on to the final round, but that’s the way that goes. Still, I wasn’t disappointed in him or myself. My only disappointment was that he didn’t set a new PR. Meanwhile, Cameron got Allen Johnson’s and Terrence Trammell’s autographs on Saturday, which was a big thrill for him. Back then, the Footlocker meet featured a professional meet in the middle of it, and many world-class athletes competed in it. Trammell was the NCAA champion that year, and would go on to earn a silver medal in the Olympic games later that summer in Sydney, Australia. Johnson won the gold medal in ’96, was a two-time world champion at the time, and was also a favorite to earn a spot on the Olympic team. Trammell was attending the University of South Carolina, and Johnson was a volunteer assistant coach there. Their head coach, Curtis Frye, was one of the best sprint/hurdle coaches in the country.
The next day, on the way to practice, I was talking to Cameron about possibly going to South Carolina for college, and I was pointing out something I had observed at the meet on Saturday that had impressed me a great deal. It was one of those little things that speaks volumes. Curtis Frye was sitting alone on one of the hurdle carts in the infield a few minutes before the 110 hurdle race was about to start. He was just relaxing, it seemed, or maybe trying to focus a little bit since he had two athletes in the race – Allen Johnson and Terrence Trammell. Johnson, who had just cleared a few hurdles while warming up, then walked over to the infield and sat down beside his coach. From what I could tell, Johnson didn’t even say anything, or even make eye contact with Frye, who did not say anything to Johnson either. They just sat there together quietly. Then a few other athletes whom Frye coached came over and sat down too, and began talking to Frye. Johnson then walked silently away, back to the starting line for the start of the race. I was upset that a special moment between coach and athlete had been interrupted, and I was also perturbed by the fact that Frye’s other athletes didn’t realize what was obvious to me – that Johnson wasn’t just sitting there; he wanted a minute alone with his coach just to get his mind right for the race. Looking back on the incident later, I thought about how special a coach Frye must be that his athletes seemed so drawn to him. When I pointed out to Cameron how cool it was that Johnson, at the moment of greatest tension and nervousness, went to sit beside his coach, Cameron pointed out that he had done the same thing before his race on Friday. And it’s true; he had done the same thing. After warming up for a while over the hurdles, he had come to sit beside me for several minutes before going back to the starting line. Like Frye and Johnson, we had said very little to each other. We didn’t discuss race strategy or anything. I don’t remember that we even talked at all.
Cameron’s break-out race finally happened in mid-July, at the USATF Junior Olympic regional championship meet which, like the Footlocker meet, was also held at Cameron’s favorite track – NC State University. He ran a 14.23 to win the 15-16 age group, setting a new meet record that still stands as of this writing. There was only one other competitor in the race who could run on Cameron’s level – a kid from Georgia named Dexter Faulk. Going into the meet, they both had PR’s in the 14.40-14.30 range. In the prelims, they both cruised to easy victories in their heats, Cameron with a 14.81 and Faulk with a 14.95. In the final, Cameron had a good start, but fell behind early by a slight margin. He caught up around the fifth hurdle, surged ahead around the seventh hurdle, and finished .08 ahead of Faulk. It was an awesome race. The pressure level was high, and Cameron came through. He didn’t allow falling behind early to phase him, and his strength over the last few hurdles provided evidence of the worth of the constant repetitions and drills I had him do in practice. He raised his arms in triumph as he crossed the finish line, and I was going crazy in the bleachers. It was easily the greatest moment that I’ve had as a coach. Looking back upon it, it stands out as the moment when I realized that I really was a good coach. I no longer just hoped I was or thought I was; I knew I was. That race totally changed my outlook on coaching; it was no longer something I did because I could no longer compete myself, but was something I did because I loved it and could do it well.
Cameron ran a 14.33 at nationals, finishing 2nd this time behind Faulk. The loss was disappointing; he lost by only .07 of a second, which is not much more than the lean at the finish line. Still, it was a very rewarding year, for both Cameron and myself. He went on to have a very successful senior year, culminating with a 9th place finish at the Footlocker meet, and a pr of 14.21. After graduating, he went on to Clemson University – a school well-known for its success in the hurdles. I was hoping that being coached by Charles Foster – who was a great hurdler himself back in the seventies, and had also coached Allen Johnson when both of them were at UNC-Chapel Hill – would help to make Cameron into a potential Olympian. Unfortunately, however, for reasons that had nothing to do with track, things didn’t work out at Clemson. When I talked to him during the spring of 2004, he told me that he is now in the Air Force, and plans for running for them in 2005. I hope he does. I noticed while following the Olympic trials this past summer that Dexter Faulk competed and was running the 110s in the mid-13’s. I emailed Cameron to make sure he knew. Cameron can hurdle at that level, I’m sure, and I’d like to see it happen. Still, whatever happens, I feel grateful toward him for the many shared memories that we have, and for having provided me with my greatest moment as a coach.
© 2004 Steve McGill