After Another Surgery in Feb., Donavan Brazier Is Hoping He Gets A Chance to Compete in 2023: “All I Really Want Is a Shot”
By Jonathan Gault
March 16, 2023
In the last five decades, no American male 800-meter runner has had a season like Donavan Brazier in 2019. Indoors, Brazier set an American record (1:44.41) and world best (1:13.77 for 600m). Outdoors, he won two Diamond Leagues, including the final in Zurich, and ended his season by winning the world title in Doha in dominant fashion in 1:42.34, setting championship and American records in the process. Brazier’s winning margin of 1.13 seconds was easily the largest in World Championship history. At just 22 years old, it was tempting to wonder what else Brazier could accomplish. Olympic champion? World record holder? The sky was the limit.
Brazier wondered those same things, which is what has made the last three years so frustrating for him. In 2020, Brazier remained the world’s best 800-meter runner, winning all seven of his races and knocking out an impossibly easy 3:35 1500m personal best. But the Olympics were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Brazier wound up cutting his season short due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
First surgery 2021
In 2021, Brazier made it to the final at the US Olympic Trials and was in 2nd place with 200 meters to go when a badly-injured left leg finally gave out — he wound up fading to last and undergoing surgery to repair a fractured tibia. Brazier’s 2022 season ended in similar fashion — he made it to Worlds in the 800 (he had the bye as defending champion) but, hobbled by an Achilles injury, he was eliminated in the first round. A week later, he underwent surgery in Denver to correct a Haglund’s deformity — the bony bump on the heel that has bothered a number of American distance runners in recent years, including Galen Rupp and Jake Riley, both of whom received the surgery in 2018 and rebounded to make the Olympic team in the marathon in 2020.
Brazier knows that whenever the story of his running career is written, what he accomplished in 2019 will be in the first paragraph. He just doesn’t want the second paragraph to include the words, what if?
“I don’t want them to be like man, Donavan, he was such a talent, he could have been such this, he could have been such that,” Brazier says. “That’s gonna be so disappointing if I come out of this and 2019, everything leading up to there, is the only accolades I have in this sport. I would be so disappointed. It would hurt really badly if I was to retire and that was the biggest thing that could be said about me – or really, the only thing that could be said about me. I just don’t want that to be my whole narrative of my career, that he was always injured.”
Brazier knows he did not help himself by trying to compete while injured in 2021 and 2022. But he maintains those were risks worth taking. An Olympic Games comes around once every four years; a home World Championship once in a career. If Brazier had any shot to be a part of those events, he was taking it.
“In 2022, I was so focused on a redemption season back then that I didn’t quite get past that hump of being healthy or not,” Brazier says. “I probably ran a little longer than I should have. But it was worth it. We had a home meet [at Worlds]. At USAs, I had a bye. You gotta take a shot. So we ended up going for it.”
Brazier has had healthy stretches since his 2019 world title. He ran great for much of 2020, and had the Olympics been held as scheduled, he would have started as the gold-medal favorite. Brazier also had a healthy stretch of training during the 2022 indoor season in which he qualified for the World Indoor Championships in the 400 by running a personal best of 46.14 to finish 2nd at USA Indoors (he ultimately opted only to only run the relay at World Indoors).
He has pored over his injury history with his doctors and his coach Pete Julian, trying to find an underlying cause. They questioned whether it might stem from his mechanics or his mileage — though at roughly 35 per week, he wasn’t running that many to begin with. Most of the injuries have come below Brazier’s knee, but other than that, he has not discovered one core reason for his recent troubles.
“I don’t think I’m an injury-prone athlete,” Brazier says. “I think I’ve just had a streak of bad luck here when it comes to injuries, some of them placed at very, very poor timing.”
One lesson Brazier has learned throughout his travails is the importance of listening to his body. He ignored its wails at times over the last two years, but there is less pressure, internally and externally, to be ready for a World Championships in Budapest in 2023 than an Olympics or a home World Championships.
“I’ve run through some decent injuries before,” Brazier says. “That was probably not the best thing. I’ve gotta be honest with myself. If I see a little hitch in my step, I might have to just back off that day and be more aware of how I’m feeling.”
Second and third surgeries
That cautious approach is being tested during Brazier’s most recent comeback. After his surgery to correct the Haglund’s deformity in July 2022, Brazier was able to run on the AlterG treadmill at 70-80% bodyweight last fall. But once he returned to running on land, his heel didn’t feel right.
He took time off and got an MRI in January that showed some inflammation where the surgery had taken place. When a follow-up MRI six weeks later showed no progress, Brazier flew back to Denver in February for his third surgery in the last 20 months to clean out some scar tissue. He emphasizes that he is happy with the treatment he has received and hopes this most recent setback is the last one he will have to endure.
“My Achilles is looking great from the [initial] surgery by the sounds of it, but that bone back there just isn’t quite healing the way it should be,” Brazier says, noting that he is not a medical expert and generally leaves the details to his doctors. “…Hopefully [the second surgery is] going to relieve some of that pressure and allow that bone to fully recover back there.”
Brazier still isn’t running right now, making this the longest he’s gone during his professional career without any running training. He is hoping to return to running within a month, but he’s not locked in to a timeline and says his number one goal in 2023 is to get back to being 100% healthy.
Emmanuel Korir is now the World #1
When Brazier comes back to the 800, he’ll return to an event that is different than the one he dominated in 2019. Emmanuel Korir, who took over as king of the NCAA in 2017 after Brazier was one-and-done at Texas A&M in 2016, is now king of the world, having won the Olympics and Worlds in the last two years.
That being said, on the global level, the men’s 800 meters has been fairly underwhelming over the last two years. While Korir has been incredible in the biggest races — he’s won the last two Diamond League titles in addition to the Olympics and Worlds — he has been unremarkable on the circuit in 2021 and 2022 (overall, Korir has won 6 of his 15 800’s in that span; Brazier won 9 of 11 in 2019 and 2020). The winning time in the 2021 Olympic final was just 1:45.06, the slowest in 21 years. Only one athlete, Botswana’s Nijel Amos, has broken 1:43 since Brazier did it in the 2019 Worlds final — and Amos has subsequently been suspended after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Brazier hasn’t watched many races during his absence, but you won’t hear him call the 800 a weak event.
“The guys that have won, you’ve gotta give them props,” Brazier says. “They showed out.”
Brazier’s team at the Nike Union Athletics Club looks different as well. His two closest friends on the team, Eric Jenkins and Craig Engels, have both left the group in the last two years. But Brazier says he looks forward to training with some of UAC’s new additions, including 18-year-old World Indoor silver medalist Noah Kibet of Kenya, who has not officially joined the club but has been training with the team this year.
“I’ll train with him, I’ll train with Amos Bartelsmeyer, I’ll train with David Ribich,” Brazier says. “I’ll train with all our guys, I’ll even jump in with the girls when I need to. I’ll train with anybody and everybody on the team that can be useful, and likewise me to them.”
“All I really want is a shot, man”
Brazier believes, if he can get a couple of solid months of training, that he can make the World Championship team this year (USAs, which will be held in Eugene from July 6-9, are 16 weeks away). But he’s trying not to get carried away.
“I’ve gotta take a step back and realize where I’m at and be realistic with things,” Brazier says. “I’ve gotta get back to being nervous about making teams and getting that top three position, and then we’ll worry about it from there…I’ve gotta go back to, shit, getting the [World Championship] standard [of 1:45.20] and making the team. I’ve never really had to think about getting the standard before too much.”
The 800 has historically been a young man’s game. David Rudisha set his world record at 23 and won his last global title at 27. None of the finalists at last year’s World Championships were older than 28. But if Brazier, who turns 26 next month, can put his injury woes behind him, he should have a few more years where he can be competitive on the global stage. If he returns to full health and he falls short, Brazier can live with that. But he wants the guy his opponents beat to be a full-strength Brazier, not the hobbled version we saw the last two years.
“That’s all I really want is a shot, man,” Brazier says. “I’m not asking for something to be given. I just want at least for someone to be able to say they took it from me, [that] I was out there and I was out there competing at my best. I just unfortunately haven’t been given that opportunity in the past few big ones.”
We discussed Donavan Brazier’s Olympic chances relative to Donavan Brazier on our Supporters Club podcast. Highlight below