What it Means to be a True Champion
It’s a daunting task, to have everything line up, to go as planned.
It was the final day of the NCAA championship and we were staring at a need for perfection. To get to this point, the stars had to align. Five years earlier, it was just a dream. A seemingly outlandish goal. It was started by Leroy Burrell, Will Blackburn, and Kyle Tellez. It was the end of my first year on the job, and we were looking towards the future, “This class could really be special,” Leroy commented. Little did he know.
Along the way, momentum grew. Carl Lewis joined the staff, and started actually telling people “We’re going to win a national championship within three years.” That was Carl. Make big claims, then, more importantly, do the work to back them up. You could see glimpses of why he was the greatest champion of the 20th century. Leroy was the calming, logical voice. The steady hand on the wheel, making sure that even though we were driving 80mph down a windy road, that the car never veered off into disaster. Will was the workhorse, the get things done man, the guy who could never sit down, and was always pushing to be better. Kyle, the master of chill, who when he did speak up, you listened to. Those moments where his competitive nature bubbled to the surface and wisdom poured out.
We were understaffed, overworked, and didn’t have many of the advantages of the goliaths of the NCAA sports machine. The non-power 5 school trying to take on the big dogs. Despite a long history of excellence, and two of the greatest athletes of the last century on our staff, we were underdogs. Scrapping around to make things work. To show that we belong.
Over the next 4 years, the pieces came into place. Not all at once. It was a process, of both skill and a bit of luck. Through a combination of recruiting some unbelievable talents, developing others far beyond what their high school times showed, and everything in between, we’d slowly assembled a team that could accomplish the goal. A few strategic redshirts, a lining up of the various classes, and we were ready to take our shot.
It never goes as planned
The thing about track is it never goes exactly how you expect. We had guys who just missed NCAAs, who false started or fell. Who were on the top of the world, then got hit by an injury. Track isn’t like team sports, you can’t be off, but still play well in the championship game. You can’t suck at shooting, so you step your game up in passing or defense. A momentary blip, and your day is done. Leading up to the championships, we’d had our fair ships of unlucky blips. A false start, a missed height, a miscalculation in the prelims, a near-miss in a number of events. The depth of talent we’d had leading up to NCAA’s had slowly dissipated. That’s track. It’s a brutal sport.
When we entered that final of the NCAA championship, we had a shot. I’d done the math, calculated where everyone should finish based on their best performances. If we were perfect, we could win. A little slip up from a team or two, and our journey would get a bit easier.
The entire time we’d spent in Eugene, I watched as Leroy had acted as a thermometer. He was walking around, gauging the temperature of his team. Where were their heads at, their energy levels, were they feeling the pressure or expectations. Going into the final day, he canceled the pre-meet big talk. They know what to do. We’d talked about it all year. No need to get them hyped hours before their race.
And when the meet finally started… it was perfect.
On a typical dreary Eugene day, four athletes— John Lewis III, Elijah Hall, Mario Burke, and Cameron Burrell— stormed around the track in the 4×100. In a tightrope of synchronization, the quartet managed exquisite exchanges. The lead runner taking off at exactly the right moment so that as he accelerated, the trailing runner would gradually catch up, placing the baton in the stretched out hand, all taking place while traveling at around 25 miles per hour. The Houston quartet won by over half a second, an eternity on the sprint straightaway. They’d stormed home in 38.17, setting a collegiate record on a day better suited for running long than running fast.
Right before this was taking place, I was trying to keep steepler Brian Barraza in the right state of mind. I’d watched Brian develop from only getting 5th at the TX state meet to now vying for a national championship. An outgoing, enthusiastic kid, my sole job was to get him to the starting line in a place where he was ready to perform. Brian’s best chance was a difficult one. Lead and go hard. He was the fittest of the field, having the best flat 3k and 5k times. It was only his second year of running the steeplechase, and he still wasn’t comfortable jumping over immovable barriers in a large pack, and more importantly changing gears for the final kick in tactical races. When he entered college, he had little to no speed, running a flat-out 1:55 for 800m. We’d worked on and refined that, taking him to a sub 4 mile indoors, and splitting 50 point on the 4×400. But if he wanted to win this 3,000m steeplechase, he needed to make it hard.
We’d prepared for that. He got his qualifying mark for the steeple in a meet at Rice University. Not at Stanford or Mt. Sac or some mecha for distance running. He did it at Rice, pushing hard out by himself, leading the whole way, while focusing on cranking down the pace the last several laps. He’d rehearsed what he needed to do. Now he just needed to do it.
As we walked over to the track, I thought long and hard about what I was going to say to him for my final coaching instructions. As we parted ways, I looked at him and said “You’re fit enough to run 8:25.” His PR was 8:32. It wasn’t an instruction, just letting him know, he was fit, and if he needed to lead the whole thing, go for it.
And he went for it. Brian took the lead from the gun. In the first half lap of the steeplechase, you don’t have to jump any barriers. Those only begin after you cross the finish line for the first time. This is what I call the “free money” portion. A section where people are afraid to go out fast but don’t realize that because they don’t have to jump anything, they can go out at their flat 3k pace, and it will feel easy, and they’ll have got some time in the bank without expending much energy. Once you start jumping, then you settle into your rhythm.
And that’s what Brian did. Rhythm. 67-68 seconds for every lap, just clicking it off. A momentary settle in the middle, before charging home over the final bit. By the last lap, Brian had built up about a 20-meter lead. He had a gap and he was still looking strong. His water jumps were spot on. Those are the barriers you worry about the most. The extra bit of energy it takes to push off and clear the water is where the tell-tale signs of fatigue occur. His second to last water jump looked great. In fact, in the penultimate lap, he’d picked up the pace, beginning to turn the screw, to take advantage of the lead he’d accumulated and make everyone work hard to catch him. He had the fastest 2nd to the last lap of the entire field. He was in position to win and executing to perfection.
As he made the turn for the backstretch of the final lap, Brian clipped a barrier and went down. Hard. He’d end up dislocating his shoulder. A momentary lapse in concentration was the culprit. As he approached the barrier he lengthened to adjust his takeoff for the hurdle, before at the last second aborting that strategy and stuttering. The indecision cost him. He took off too close to the barrier, he hit the immovable objects and went down to the track. Watching from across the track, I screamed “F***!” much to the dismay of the track fans around me.
Perfection was dashed.
My heart sank. I found Brian’s teammate, GJ, and we exchanged a glance of pure sorrow, no words needed to be said. We rushed off to the other side of the track, to find Brian.
Sitting in the warm-up area, watching the race unfold were three of Brian’s cougar teammates: Mario, Eli, and Cam. All members of the 4×100, about to come back and race the final of track and fields premier event, the 100m dash. They were on the top of the world, having just won the 4×100, and here less than 15-minutes later they were watching their teammate take it to the field, going after 10 vital points to the team’s championship quest. They could feel the momentum building, a 4×100 champ, a steeple champ, and then their turn to put it away with a dominating 100m, all in the span of 30 minutes. UH’s first track team championship was within grasp. Until Brian went down.
The seasoned competitors refocused. The 100m is a burst of energy. It’s over so fast it’s hard to even appreciate the event. Yet, it’s a technical event relying on precision. The precise acceleration of every step, the exacting angles of your limbs attacking the ground, and the balance of relaxation while keeping ever-rising tension at bay, make it one of the most technically and psychologically demanding events on the track. The trio of sprinters demonstrated their grit and equanimity. As the gun went off, Cam Burrell bolted to the front, executing to perfection. Clinching an individual NCAA title. He had been runner-up too many times to count. And here he was, joining his parents as NCAA champions. The first family of track and field sprinting. Eli Hall made a late surge to capture silver. One-Two for the Cougars.
I was watching from the side of the track. As Brian went through the medical area, I stopped to see the trio race. It was magical, electric. A much-needed high, after a tough to swallow low.
But it was what came next which mattered most, that cemented what a true champion in life was.
After Brian’s race, my phone blew up with texts about how bad everyone felt for Brian. But the tenure suddenly changed, I started to get text after text. “Did you see what Cam did?”
In that moment, I did not. I watched the race, then went to find Brian. A friend sent me a recording of the video:
“This meet for us is about unity. We wanted to come to this meet as a family. And no matter what the ups and downs we had this meet, that’s what we’re going to do. And this one. I dedicate this race to my teammate Brian Barraza. Because he left his heart out there on that track for us.”
As I watched that video on my phone, I couldn’t help but cry. Standing there, on the side of the track, staring at my phone alone. It was a moment of humanity.
Here was an athlete in his greatest track and field moment. He’d won the 100m title, the fastest collegian in the country. A title he’d sought so many times, but fell just short with runner-up after runner-up. And on national TV, he steps aside, takes the spotlight off himself, and dedicates the race to a teammate. He’s looking out for his track family. To lift those up around him.
When Brian finally got checked out, we were walking on the concourse adjacent to the track, in search of his mom. The four 4×100 members were making their way back to the practice track. They spotted Brian, came over and embraced, Cam, Eli, John, Mario. I don’t remember exactly what was said, it was all a blur. But 5 guys, coming from different backgrounds, different events, came together, and most importantly, we’re there for each other. An acknowledgment of shared respect, admiration, and support. A team. A family.
The rest of the meet unfolded. Perfection was gone. We ended up 3rd as a team. But after that moment, I realized it didn’t matter all that much.
As Cam said on national TV, “We came to this meet as a family.” Many coaches and teams push that narrative. That we’re one unit, one team, all-in this together. I’ve often struggled with that metaphor. In a sport like track with splintered event groups, training at separate times, and often in separate locations, the metaphor gets muddled. There are those who have more scholarships or carry more load, those who don’t get the recognition they deserve. It’s not all on the coaches. It’s just the nature of the sport. Bringing together nearly 100 eighteen to twenty-three year old men and women and convince them to all strive together for the same audacious goal is a daunting task.
But at that moment, I realized that family was the best way to describe it. No, not the idealized definition of a family. It’s not the version where siblings always get along, where parents never argue, and where you are best friends with your brother, cousins, and everyone else around. It’s the real version. That when push comes to shove, when shit hits the fan, I’m here for you. I support you. I love you.
A note: I wrote this in 2018. I never published it. I often write to clear my head, to deal with what I’m feeling. This is how I processed that meet. It was an emotional push and pull, of striving for years to try and set up this one go at something monumental. I was devastated after Brian fell. He’s a fantastic person and I was crushed for him. Fifteen minutes later, Cam and the sprint crew shifted my perspective. The humanity shown in that moment was something I’ll never forget and just made me have so much respect for those guys.
This week, with the passing of Cam Burrell, this moment just kept coming back. When I was an athlete at UH, Cam was a child, an elementary school kid running around our locker room, and the facility. As a coach, I got to watch his development as an athlete and person. There were many many who were much closer to him than I was. I was the distance coach, who got to watch the marvelous sprinters compete from afar. But this moment represents everything Cam stood for as I watched from afar during those five years. He was a humble, unassuming person who was capable of putting out a burst of competitive emotional fire when he needed it, but equally able to show humanity and decency to all those who knew him. From watching the sprint crew, I always saw Cam as the older brother of the team. The one who showed people how it was done, what it took, and did so with love and support, lifting an entire team with him as he rose through the ranks of greatness. It’s not a surprise, the Burrell family in its entirety are loving, wonderful people. They are family: to hundreds of UH cougars, track athletes, and coaches throughout the world. RIP Cam