Months After Leaving Their NCAA Teams In the Middle of the Season, Sammy Watson & Lynna Irby Explain Why They Turned Pro

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By Jonathan Gault
June 18, 2019

BOSTON — Adidas, more than any shoe company, has shown a willingness to bet big on young talent. Watching the adidas Boost Boston Games roll through town on Sunday was a reminder of that fact. Event after event featured athletes who had signed their first professional contract before consuming their first legal beer, from 19-year-old first-year pro Josh Hoey (last in the 600 meters in 1:21.4) to 21-year-olds Drew Hunter (second in the mile in 3:57.6) and Noah Lyles (winner of the 150 in 14.69) to 25-year-old Ajee’ Wilson (winner of the women’s 600 in 1:26.3).

It’s too early to judge the signing of Hoey, the 1:47 800-meter runner who shockingly turned down the University of Oregon to sign a pro deal in August 2018, but the latter three bets have all paid off. Lyles, the favorite for the 200-meter world title in Doha this fall, is one of the world’s top sprinters and a terrific showman to boot. Wilson has won nine U.S. titles and three World Championship medals. Hunter won his first U.S. title in February and has steadily improved across all distances since turning pro in 2016.

It is the success of athletes like Hunter, Lyles, and Wilson that has emboldened adidas to continue splashing the cash on young athletes, and two of their more interesting test cases were on display in Boston on Sunday. Sammy Watson, 19, and Lynna Irby, 20, both won NCAA titles as true freshmen in 2018. Both returned to college for their sophomore years in 2019, and both regressed. And, earlier this year, both signed professional deals with adidas.

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For both, the timing of the signing was odd. Watson, the 2018 NCAA 800-meter champion for Texas A&M, turned pro in February, midway through the indoor season. Irby, the 2018 NCAA 400-meter champion for Georgia, went pro in April, two meets into the outdoor season. In both cases, the athlete’s value was indisputably higher in June 2018. Yet when I asked them about whether they had any regrets on Sunday, both of them said they would not change a thing.

“I feel like the timing was perfect,” Watson said.

“Not at all,” Irby said. “I still learned and gained a lot from coming back, but ultimately it was time to go.”

With Watson, that explanation simply doesn’t hold water. Watson’s early results this year were poor — she ran 2:06 in her only indoor 800, in Lubbock on January 26, and left the Texas A&M team two weeks later. Watson said she is planning on joining coach Derek Thompson‘s group in Philadelphia (though she added it was not yet “100%”), but doesn’t want to leave College Station until her lease expires, so she’s stuck there for now. Rather than making a clean break, she’s been stranded in Texas for months, 1,500 miles from a new coach and the training group she wants to join. That situation is the opposite of perfect.

And right now, Watson’s first pro season couldn’t be going much worse. She’s gotten slower in each of her three 800s this outdoor season, going 2:03.00 on May 18 in Guadeloupe, 2:05.11 on June 1 in Nashville, and 2:09.72 on June 8 in Kingston, where she finished dead last, over 10 seconds behind Wilson, who won the race. As it stands, she’d be lucky to make it out of the first round at USAs (the qualifying standard is 2:03.00, which she hit on the nose in Guadeloupe), after placing 6th in the final as a high schooler in 2017. 2019 looks like a lost season for Watson.

Perhaps once Watson joins Thompson, things will improve. She is only three years removed from a World U20 title at 800 meters (though when she returned to defend her title last summer, she did not make it out of the semis). Thompson has a proven track record of developing middle distance talent, guiding Wilson to a pile of national titles and global medals and transforming Charlene Lipsey into a 1:57 World Championship finalist in 2017. If anyone can resuscitate her career, it’s him.

The problem for Watson is this isn’t the first year she’s seen her SBs head in the wrong direction. She is two years removed from an 800 pb (she ran 2:00.65 in HS in 2017 and 2:01.46 as a freshman last year) and four years removed from her 400 pb (she ran 52.69 in 2015, 53.28 in 2016, 55.90 in 2017, 54.77 in 2018 and 55.29 on the relay this year).

As for Irby, she had a solid indoor season, if not quite as strong as her freshman campaign. She won the SEC indoor title and finished 4th at NCAA indoors, two places lower than in 2018. But indoors, she failed to break 23 seconds in any of her 200’s (after doing so in all five of her 200’s in 2018) and failed to break 52 seconds in any of her 400’s (after doing so in all five of her 400’s in 2018).

However, she’s only one year removed from running 49.80 — the #2 time ever by a collegian — and said that she wasn’t worried about running slower this year indoors than in 2018, pointing out that she is aiming to peak much later this year.

“It’s such a long season,” said Irby, who earned silver at the World U20 champs as a 17-year-old in 2016. “I knew that ultimately the end goal is run 49 later, not now.”

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None of this addresses the big question: why did Watson and Irby turn professional when they did?

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Irby’s explanation was that it was “time to go,” adding that she felt she had done all that she could accomplish at Georgia. That doesn’t explain why it was “time to go” in April 2019 rather than June 2018, given she didn’t accomplish much in the intervening 10 months, but Irby declined to expand on her comments when asked what made April the right time to leave Georgia. If there’s more to the story, the perpetually smiling Irby isn’t willing to share it right now.

“I felt like I did all that I could for UGA, from freshman year going through indoor, and from there it was time to go,” Irby said.

Watson’s reasons for leaving A&M were more concrete.

“I wasn’t doing so great my indoor season and I wanted a change,” Watson said. “I wanted to go to the next level, train at the next level.”

Watson said that it was hard for her to adjust to a new coach at Texas A&M after Alleyne Francique left during the 2018 indoor season — even though Watson won the NCAA outdoor title last spring.

“I feel like the relationship, [while] I was happy with A&M as a whole, it wasn’t as strong as it used to be. I felt like I was starting to grow apart from them.

“I feel like I gave it long enough if I’m not happy and I’m losing my why for why I wanted to keep running and keep performing, I needed to switch things.”

In addition, Watson said that, in order to improve, she believes she needs to be pushed more than she was at A&M (though it’s worth noting that one of her former training partners, Jazmine Fray, just won the NCAA 800 title).

“With that group [at Texas A&M], I wasn’t being challenged enough to get there,” Watson said. “That’s exciting having another challenge to go through and not have every practice be easy.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Watson and Irby’s decisions to turn pro when they did, there is no doubting that both women have supreme potential. Watson, like Ajee’ Wilson before here, was a World Youth and World U20 champion and ran faster than Wilson as a high schooler (2:00.65 to 2:00.91). Irby was the fifth-fastest woman in the world last year. And both should soon be in the hands of coaches with a history of developing high school stars into world-beaters. Thompson has worked with Wilson since she was a teenager, while Irby’s coach, Lance Brauman, has overseen Lyles’ successful transition into a professional career.

But let’s be clear. These are very different situations from someone like Grant Holloway, who also turned pro early, signing with adidas last week after concluding his junior year at Florida. Right now, Holloway is the best in the world in his event, the 110 hurdles, and he signed at a logical time (immediately after NCAA outdoors) after improving year over year. Turning pro when Holloway did was a no-brainer; both Watson and Irby left in the middle of the season after sliding back from their form of the previous year.

In years past, athletes in Watson or Irby’s situations might seek to transfer, tough it out at their current school, or wait until the end of the spring before deciding to go pro. Both chose to blaze a new trail and turn pro, immediately. Foolish? Groundbreaking? Both? We’re about to find out.

Sammy Watson interview

Lynna Irby interview


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