Growing Pains: How Donavan Brazier Went From Breaking A 50-Year Old NCAA Record To Bombing Out Of The Olympic Trials 21 Days Later

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By Jonathan Gault
December 20, 2016

Most runners in the United States don’t grow up as fans of the sport from an early age. Families don’t huddle around the television on fall Sundays to watch professional track and field, after all. If a passion for watching people run around in circles does develop, it’s usually the result of personal success. Bump into someone at a professional track and field meet in this country (if you can find one), and chances are that person either knows one of the competitors personally or was a runner themselves once upon a time.

Thus it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn that 19-year-old professional 800-meter runner Donavan Brazier‘s track and field education is far from complete and still ongoing. Entering June’s NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., Brazier had never heard of Jim Ryun, the legendary U.S. middle-distance runner and former world record holder in the half mile* and mile. It wasn’t until a reporter mentioned that Brazier had narrowly missed Ryun’s 1:44.3 collegiate and American junior 800-meter record in the NCAA prelims that Brazier took to the internet to look up the 1968 Olympic silver medallist and learn what he had accomplished. The research came in handy as two days later, on June 10, 2016, Brazier shattered Ryun’s long-standing record with a jaw-dropping 1:43.55 on the very day that the record celebrated its 50th anniversary. Before his race at the Olympic Trials in July, four-time Olympic gold medallist Sanya Richards-Ross gave Brazier a hug and congratulated him on his run at NCAAs. He didn’t realize who she was until a coach informed him afterward.

Brazier on a better day at Hayward

Brazier on a better day at Hayward

When Brazier was still discovering his talent as a junior at Kenowa Hills High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., he had to be talked into embracing the sport. This was June 2014, and Brazier had just broken the meet record by running 1:50.24 as an 11th grader at the Michigan Division 1 Lower Peninsula State Meet. Brazier was pleased with the result. It was a personal best by over two seconds, and he was confident that the time would be good enough for him to secure a scholarship to Central Michigan University. He was also glad that the season was over: now that it was summer, he’d have more time for fishing and hunting, two of his favorite pursuits.

Brazier’s coach, Kevin Winne, had bigger plans. A scholarship to Central Michigan would be nice, but Winne knew that his star was capable of more. Winne believed that if Brazier ran against the best in the nation at the New Balance Nationals (NBN) he’d produce a time that would have every school in the country drooling. There was only one problem: Brazier didn’t want to do another race.

“I was never really a track guy,” Brazier said. “I never liked track, I never liked cross country. Going an extra two weeks into the season at New Balance Nationals, I was like ‘Oh my god, this is going to be terrible. I gotta train another two weeks?'”

It was only after Winne told Brazier that he was also planning on entering a sprint medley relay that Brazier relented. He didn’t want to let down his teammates, plus he enjoyed the free swag they received at NBN. “Do it for the backpacks” became their rallying cry.

At the meet, Brazier broke out in a big way. He split a 1:48 on the relay, though his team was ultimately disqualified. The next day, he came back and ran 1:48.61, a Michigan state record, to win the open 800 and his first national title.

***

Winne was right: the blue bloods did come calling after the 1:48 and Brazier enrolled at Texas A&M University in the fall of 2015. Soon he found himself in a similar situation to the one he had faced in high school. As a freshman, the plan had been for Brazier to run at the U.S. Junior Championships after the conclusion of the NCAA outdoor season, with hopes of qualifying for the World U20 Championships, to be held in Poland in July. But, just as Brazier’s 1:50 at the state meet had his coach pleading for him to aim higher, Brazier’s 1:43 at NCAAs had the track world clamoring for him to run the 800 at the Olympic Trials. Running fans know what happened next. Brazier turned professional and skipped U.S. Juniors for the Olympic Trials, only to finish 4th in his heat and bomb out of the Trials in the first round.

Brazier's only race as a pro was a disaster

Brazier’s only race as a pro was a disaster

Long-limbed, chestnut-skinned and 165 pounds of lean muscle, Brazier runs upright on his toes so that when he hits top speed, he looks every bit of his six feet, two inches. His form is a thing of beauty, smooth power with no wasted motion. Only when Brazier is truly tired — a rare sight — does his body betray any sign of trouble, his shoulders scrunching up close to his head.

He is impossibly talented. As a high schooler, Brazier displayed unthinkable range, running 15:25 for 5,000 meters in cross country and splitting sub-46 on the 4×400 relay. Only eight Americans, period, have ever run faster for 800 meters than what Brazier ran as a 19-year-old college freshman (Brazier doesn’t turn 20 until April 15).

“I let him know that man, you’re talented enough to be the first man to break 1:40,” said the man at the top of that list, American record holder Johnny Gray.

***

So how did the prodigy with the smooth as silk stride, the fastest man in the country (and #4 in the world) in 2016 entering the Olympic Trials, fail to even qualify for the semifinals?

After Brazier’s 1:43 at NCAAs, I asked him in the media tent behind Hayward Field’s west grandstand whether, after running such a fast time, he had thought about turning professional.

“I didn’t think about it until you just said it, I guess, so I don’t know,” Brazier said. After all, only a few minutes earlier his personal best had been 1:45.

But after flying back to College Station, Brazier thought about it a lot in the days that followed. Mississippi State’s Brandon McBride and Brigham Young’s Shaquille Walker, who finished second and third behind Brazier at NCAAs, told him that he had a rare opportunity: he was 19 years old, coming off an NCAA record and a U.S.-leading time. The Olympic Trials were right around the corner. His value would never be higher. Brazier talked to his parents, John Brazier and Jennifer Pennington (they divorced when he was in high school), as well as his coaches at Texas A&M, Alleyne Francique and Pat Henry, and weighed his options. On June 12, two days after NCAAs, Brazier saw Akron junior Clayton Murphy run 3:36.23 to win the 1500 at the Portland Track Festival; after the race, Murphy announced that he was turning pro. Brazier had already been leaning in that direction and Murphy’s announcement cemented his choice. On June 21, Brazier officially turned professional. He signed with Nike a week later.

When he broke the news to his coaches, Francique and Henry were hesitant, to say the least. Brazier’s decision had thrown a wrench into their plans. Everything had been booked for him to run at U.S. Juniors, but Brazier knew that as a pro he had to run at the Olympic Trials. He considered running both meets (U.S. Juniors was a week before the Trials), but ultimately decided to devote all his energy into the Olympic Trials. Francique drew up a new set of workouts with a new goal in mind. However, rather than remain in College Station, Brazier flew back to Grand Rapids for the final two weeks before the Trials.

“I don’t think he felt that he was able to stay at Texas [A&M],” Pennington said. “I think that once he turned pro, he didn’t think he had the option to stay and train with his collegiate coaches… I don’t want to get into the details of it, but I don’t think that was a decision that they were real happy with. I just don’t think he felt comfortable. And he wasn’t really sure that that’s where he should be.”

Brazier says that he had the option to train at the Texas A&M facilities if he so desired; both Francique and Henry declined to comment for this story.

Back in Grand Rapids, Brazier worked out alone at his old high school track, a very different environment than the one he had become accustomed to at Texas A&M.

“It felt weird,” Brazier said. “It was very quiet out there. Coming from a program that has 150+ athletes that are all out there training, to by myself and really no one yelling at you like Coach Francique yells at you and just being by yourself, it’s kind of hard to get that good workout done. It was different. It was hard.”

Those close to him agree that those two weeks back home had an impact on Brazier’s race at the Trials. Brazier was coming off one of the biggest decisions of his life, and his first meet as a professional just so happened to be the most important one of his career to date. That’s a lot to take in for a college freshman whose coach and training partners were suddenly 1,000 miles away.

“I wish I could have done more for him at that point in time,” said Winne, Brazier’s high school coach, who had initially planned to travel to the Trials as a fan, but wound up as Brazier’s unofficial adviser after his event coach at Texas A&M, Francique, didn’t make the trip (Brazier said that Francique was absent because of a “family issue,” but had plans to fly in for the final). It was a 19-year-old kid who needed some help. It was just one of those things where you try to do as much as you can to get him ready. It’s tough when you’re not sure exactly what the training was like for the year and everything else. I think that definitely played into him not doing as well as he was capable of at the Trials…He’s one where he doesn’t always like to ask for help. It’s one of those things that I found out where it’s like from now on, just ask for help. He’s a great kid and there’s a lot of people who are willing to support him however they can.”

“I think he was stressed out, I don’t think he realized the impact that it had on him,” Pennington said. “When it came down to it, being on his own for a few weeks, I think it had a huge impact on Trials even though he was still training hard. Everything that happened for that few weeks prior to I think really played a big part in the outcome of Trials.”

Brazier flew out to Eugene alone for the Trials. Winne and his family flew in a few days later before his first race, though Brazier did have Art Huff, a coach who works with Brazier’s agent, Mark Wetmore, on hand to time him in practice. Physically, little had changed from his last trip there three weeks earlier for NCAAs. But mentally, everything was different.

“[A friend] told me it’s kind of like a jockey,” Brazier said. “The horse is like your body and the jockey is like your mind. But then you’ve got the trainer for the jockey. You have to have all those things come together to make sure the horse is running good. And my horse is like my body and the jockey just wasn’t there. My mind wasn’t right, my coach wasn’t there.”

On July 1, the day of the first round of the men’s 800, Brazier woke up, did a brief shakeout run and spent the morning walking around Eugene. On the day of the NCAA final, his legs had felt incredibly sore, the product of running a 1:45 800 plus a 45.75 relay split in the prelims two days before. But with no races in three weeks, his legs felt a lot better this time around. Brazier arrived at Hayward Field around 2:15 p.m., five hours before his race was set to go off, and headed to the Nike hospitality area.

When it came time to warm up, Brazier was faced with a new situation. There was no Francique and there was no Hector Hernandez, Brazier’s Texas A&M teammate and occasional de facto rabbit during races (Hernandez runs for Puerto Rico and wasn’t at the Trials). He looked for someone to warm up with, but most of the pros he was facing ran for 20-25 minutes in warmups; Brazier only runs for 5. So he did his warmup and drills by himself, with Winne looking on in the athlete support area. Francique had not laid out a specific race plan for Brazier, but Winne knew that Brazier had succeeded by running positive splits, so he reminded him to do that during the race.

Brazier was nervous, not just about the race, but about representing Nike for the first time. Nerves were not necessarily a bad thing. Brazier had always run well when he was nervous during high school, and he never felt as nervous before a race as he did before the NCAA final. That one had turned out more than okay.

Despite being in a heat with Murphy, the eventual Olympic bronze medallist, Brazier knew the target was squarely on his back. He had the fastest time in the country, at 1:43.55; no one else in his heat had broken 1:46 on the year. He also had the fortune of running in the fourth and final heat. Three runners from each heat advanced automatically, and as long as Brazier broke 1:47 and didn’t finish last in his heat, he was guaranteed a spot in the next day’s semifinals.

Donovan Brazier Leading at the Olympic Trials

Brazier leading at the Olympic Trials

Brazier likes to run near the front, but not in the front, so he told himself he wasn’t going to lead the race. Yet 200 meters in, that’s exactly where he found himself. Before the race, Brazier had also told himself that if he was going to lead, then he’d better make it fast. But in the back of his mind, he was worried about saving something for the next two rounds. He passed 400 meters in just 54.05 — 3.57 seconds slower than he had in the NCAA final.

On the backstretch, Brazier made tactical mistake number three. Instead of pushing the pace, Brazier chose to back off and relax, and while he still held the lead at 600 meters (1:21.07), the slow pace meant that almost everyone was still in contention — six of the eight men in the field were within .52 of the lead. It also meant that they were not going to break 1:47.00, so only the top 3 would advance. By the time he turned for home, Brazier knew something was wrong, and he faded to fourth place by the finish. His 1:48.13 was not enough to advance him on time. He was eliminated.

“It was just stupid,” Brazier said of his tactics. “It was plain and simple stupid. The other guys beat me. I ran a dumb race.”

Brazier knows that his situation was unique. At 19, he was the youngest guy in the field, having to face the pressure of humongous expectations without his collegiate coach or teammates. But he accepts responsibility for the outcome.

“There was nothing going into the race I shouldn’t have been able overcome,” Brazier said. “I shouldn’t need my coach out there to run a 1:48. At the end of the day, I should have ran hard, I should have ran faster, I should have ran better. And I will run better.”

***

Brazier slept poorly the next few days and when the gun went off for the 800 final on July 4, he was on a plane back home to Grand Rapids. Once he got back, he tried to cheer himself up by making his first major purchase as a pro — a 2016 Chevy Silverado. He also decided that his 2016 season was over. He’d been racing since the third weekend of January, and with no Olympics (or World U20s) on the horizon, he felt it didn’t make sense for him to prolong his season. But he still had some choices to make. The Texas A&M coaches had been less than thrilled about his decision to go pro and with his future in College Station uncertain, he began looking for a new coach and visited Johnny Gray in Orlando.

Brazier liked what he saw and was enticed by the opportunity to train with the two fastest Americans in history at 800 meters — Gray and Duane Solomon, who would be one of his new training partners. Gray recognized Brazier’s talent and was happy to take him once he realized Brazier was leaving College Station.

“Being 19, I took him on because he was in a dilemma,” Gray said. “He didn’t have a home. It was almost like if he went pro, he can’t train at Texas A&M.”

Brazier arrived in mid-August and quickly realized just how different life as a professional was going to be. Gray’s pro athletes practice early in the morning and then they all go their separate ways. Gray coaches the women’s cross country and track teams at the University of Central Florida. Solomon has a wife and young son. Sean Obinwa, another of Gray’s athletes, has a full-time job. Brazier applied to UCF but didn’t get in. With no one to hang out with and school to attend, boredom seeped in.

“He was going to practice every morning and then doing nothing all day,” Pennington said.

Another challenge: the training. At Texas A&M, Brazier had run around 30 miles per week. For Gray, that was not nearly enough if Brazier was to run well consistently at the professional level. But Brazier struggled with the added volume.

“I feel like it was just wearing on me,” Brazier said. “It was harder for me to adapt to that kind of thing without me feeling like I was almost getting injured at the same time.”

Physically and mentally, Brazier may not be ready to handle that sort of workload at the moment, but Gray believes that he needs to become stronger if he is to realize his full potential. Brazier said that he has plans to increase his volume during the 2017 season.

“If he thinks that he can get by with running 27-30 miles a week, well I’d like to see it,” Gray said. “He’ll never be able to compete at the high level that he’s going to be expected to compete at unless he puts in more mileage. Now you can run fast off of 30 miles a week, but you only can do it once or twice. But to find that consistency and step into the Olympics and go through rounds, [he needs to run more miles].

“He did it at the NCAAs. That might happen. He’s so young and talented, he might get away with it. But now that the expectation’s on him, it’s going to become harder. And unless he changes his mileage, he’s going to have a problem with it.

“Duane can put it anywhere from 60 to 75, 80 miles per week but he’s been doing it for years under me. He had to build up to that. Donavan, being young, would probably have to go to 40-50 miles a week at least, if he’s going to be as successful as he wants to be. [If you want] to run 1:42/1:43 every meet, you have to put that strength, that background work in or you’re body’s not going to hold up.”

After three weeks, both Brazier and Gray realized that, from both a training and a lifestyle perspective, the Orlando experiment was not working out. They parted amicably and remain friendly.

“The guys [in Orlando] are great, the coach is great, everybody’s treating me great,” Brazier said. “I feel like it wasn’t a good fit for me at the time. I feel like it wasn’t right for my training style and my body at the time…It was kind of a panic-type thing. I wanted to get good quick and I thought hey, this is the answer to me being that next medalist in the 800 meters. I went into the decision kind of rushed, I really didn’t think it through. I just went full-blown into it, I just packed up everything, drove down to Florida, rented an apartment and the rest is history.”

But that still left Brazier in a pickle. He’d been through three coaches in 14 months and didn’t want to take on a fourth, so Brazier asked Francique and Henry if he’d be able to return to Texas A&M. Though there had been some tension initially when Brazier decided to go pro, Francique and Henry agreed to begin coaching Brazier again.

“I think they always would have [agreed to continue coaching him], I think it was again, [turning pro] wasn’t the direction they wanted him to take,” Pennington said. “He made a decision based on what he wanted, not what they wanted. It may have been some hard feelings, but I think that ultimately they understood it.”

Brazier made a 1:45.93 indoors look easy in January

Brazier made a 1:45.93 indoors look easy in January

Gray wants American half-milers to be successful no matter who’s coaching them and is pleased to see Brazier back in an environment in which he feels comfortable.

“I’m a dream maker, not a dream breaker,” Gray said. “If I’m going to help you because I’m helping you, then I’m gonna be there for you. But if going back to [what] made you what you are [is going to make you better], I’m going to help push you back in that direction…I hope he does well, I support him, and I have nothing but love for Donavan.”

Brazier now shares an apartment in College Station with JaQwae Ellison, a sophomore 800 runner at A&M who ran 1:48 as a freshman, and is working out with old college teammate Hector Hernandez under Francique. He plans on getting his degree from Texas A&M and will resume classes this month.

***

Brazier, like most college sophomores, is very much a work in progress. His race at the Trials was a disaster, yes, and it still stings.

“I’m never going to be over that,” Brazier said. “No one should ever get over something like that. If you get over something that quick, then it really never hurt you in the first place.”

But it was still only one race in an otherwise magnificent freshman season. Consider Boris Berian. Last year, Berian entered U.S. Outdoor Championships with a 1:43.84 season’s best. No one else in the country had broken 1:45, yet Berian failed to even make the final. In 2016, Berian became the World Indoor champion and an Olympic finalist. And he was three years older in 2015 than Brazier was this year.

Brazier recognizes the challenges ahead and the responsibility he now faces for his actions as a professional. In age, he may still be a teenager, but Brazier understands that, because of his immense talent, he has to grow up quickly. He’s already made some missteps, but part of maturity is learning from one’s mistakes. Brazier may never be a track nerd, but he’s learning to embrace the sport, and despite his turbulent summer, he remains the affable fellow his friends grew up knowing in Grand Rapids. When he went back to watch a Kenowa Hills football game in September, he grabbed a meal beforehand with Winne. When the check came, Brazier picked it up. Winne said it was the first time in 11 years of coaching at Kenowa Hills that a former athlete had ever paid for one of his meals.

“It is an interesting story,” Brazier said. “I went from the peak — I won NCAAs, I broke the record, I did all this stuff and I was feeling so happy about myself — to the slums and just getting bashed. And everybody was like ‘He went too early.’ But you know, I don’t regret my decision [to go pro]…All that stuff I just explained to you, like the coaches aren’t being there, this stuff happening, I’m not saying, ‘Oh boo hoo.’ That’s just the terms that come with going pro is that you’ve gotta deal with that stuff and I’ve gotta get used to that the next few years.”

 


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*Ryun ran 1:44.9 for 880 yards at age 19 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Track & Field News listed a converted mark — 1:44.3 — as the NCAA 800 record until Brazier broke it. At the time of Ryun’s run, Peter Snell held the world record for the 880 yards and 800 meters — 1:45.1 and 1:44.3, respectively, from the same race in Christchurch, New Zealand, on February 3, 1962. Despite Ryun running a faster time in the 880 yards, Ryun’s mark was not ratified as a world record as it was run at a USATF meet and the competing AAU refused to sign off on the WR petition. Depending on which conversion is used, Ryun would have at least tied Snell’s 800-meter world record, if not broken it (as he ran 0.2 faster in the 880 yards), but that record was not ratified either.

Full disclosure: Global Athletics & Marketing, which represents Brazier, covered two nights of the author’s lodging during the reporting of this story.