Meet Will Sumner, The 2023 NCAA 800m Champ

On June 9th in Austin, TX, freshman runner from the University of Georgia, Will Sumner, won the NCAA 800m Championship in a PB of 1:44.26. This run made Sumner the fifth fastest collegiate runner of all-time.

Will was the guest on the Track Talk Podcast two weeks ago. You can listen to the full Will Sumner podcast in the player below or on your favorite podcast app here. If you don’t have time for the podcast, we’ve found some time to type up some highlights below, edited, and rearranged for reader experience. (Will joins the podcast at the 76:47 mark)

Sumner comes from a very prestigious family of runners. Will’s mom, Tosha Sumner (Woodward), who coached him in high school, ran for Villanova where she was the NCAA runnerup in the 800 in 1995 and and an Olympic Trials finalist in 1996. She has an PB of 2:00.46 over 800m. Will’s dad, Brad Sumner, boasts a PB of 1:46.33 over 800m and was the NCAA Indoor 4x800m Champion with Villanova in 1990. Brad Sumner also qualified for the Indoor World Championships in Barcelona 1995. Will’s uncle, Bryan Woodward (1:45.23 pb), was the 1997 NCAA 800m Champion and competed for the U.S. in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Will’s sister, Brynne Sumner, is a runner for Clemson after attending transferring from Villanova.

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Article continues below player. (LRC): So what are we six days out [of the NCAA 800m Final]? Have you been pinching yourself all week? It is real. You are the NCAA Champion.

Will: Yeah it still hasn’t fully settled in. Every day I kind of just reflect on it a bit and now I’m trying to move past that stage and just trying to get back to work.

LRC: So it looks like you’re in your Georgia dorm right now, are you gonna stay there and continue to train, try to get ready for USAs?

Will: Yeah, pretty much. I’ll be living here at least through USAs. Based on how that goes, we’ll kinda just see from there.

On his beginnings in track and field and high school career

Will: I did a little bit of youth track starting in third grade. However, when I was a kid, my parents really just wanted me to have fun and try a bunch of different sports. So it wasn’t anything I took really seriously. Then I stopped youth track after sixth grade, and it wasn’t until I got to high school where I started again. It wasn’t really until sophomore year that I started taking it seriously, though.

LRC: Outdoors you just missed Michael Greenville’s 1:46:45, you ran 1:46:53. Were you disappointed you didn’t get that record or was it not that big of a deal because you were more of 400m guy than 800m guy?

Will: No, I wasn’t disappointed because the big thing for me was just getting my 400m speed down and the 800m was just kind of something I ran for fun just to see what I could do. My parents were the ones who coached me and they wanted me to focus on long-term goals and long-term, getting my 400m speed down would probably help me more than anything. So going out there running 1:46.53, I was actually really happy with that and had no disappointment or complaints. 

On deciding to go to Georgia

LRC: What made you pick Georgia? It’s not like they’re known for their 800-meter prowess.

Will: The big thing for me was Coach Caryl coming in, bringing winning team culture, and I really felt like it would be somewhere where I could develop my speed a little bit more. I felt that training with Elijah Godwin and Matt Boling would really help me more than anything because as I’ve said, I’ve always approached the 800 from the sprint side. So far, that’s really proven true because getting in those workouts with them has definitely been something that I never really got to experience in high school. So it’s definitely helped.

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LRC: Coach Caryl is Coach Caryl Smith Gilbert, who came to Georgia from USCVery successful there. But when you chose Georgia, the person that coached you this year, Pat Henner, the former Georgetown coach, wasn’t even at Georgia. So when you committed, who did you think was gonna be coaching you?

Will: I just assumed that I’d be with Coach Caryl, Coach West, and the 400m group. I didn’t really necessarily care if I wasn’t getting coached by like an actual 800m coach, because like I said, I really just wanted my long-term development to be the most impacted thing, which would’ve been 400m training. The way things worked out I think are pretty good.

LRC: So when you showed up at Georgia, how did they say Coach Henner’s going to be coaching you. Every time I’ve interviewed you, it seems like you’ve totally had trust in the coaching staff at Georgia. Did it take a few weeks to learn to trust them or did you do it right off the bat?

Will: When we found out he was getting hired, my parents and I were all in Eugene for Nike Nationals. We just got on a Zoom call with him, and had a long talk. We just made sure we were on the same page going forward. Coach Henner just kept up with my training through summer and U20s. By the time I was reaching his training I had already developed a little bit of relationship with him. So it didn’t make the transition too difficult. Now, I would say just because he wasn’t the one who recruited me, it definitely made things a little bit different. But like I said, it wasn’t weird transition or anything. I knew what I was getting into and I had plenty of time to prepare for it. It’s not like it was just like a sudden change.

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On his first NCAA indoor season

LRC: You were the SEC indoor champion and finished seventh as a Freshman at NCAA Indoor Championships. I imagine you were pretty happy with that right?

Will: Yeah. I was disappointed with the way NCAAs went, but other than that, I’d say the end of season went pretty well.

On the start of his outdoor campaign

LRC: The only open 800m you ran before SECs was at Mt Sac. You’re in the top heat. If you watch this Mt Sac race from just a few months ago, you’re not gonna believe it’s the same runner from the NCAA final. You went out in 53 and just totally tied up and ran 1:50. So what happened there and how big of a blow to your confidence was that race?

Will: I think it was more of like confidence thing more than anything. I felt like after indoor, I lost my confidence and really just took that with me to Mt Sac. That’s why you saw that I didn’t run anymore 800m races until SECs. Coach just wanted me to switch focus for a little bit and then come back when I was ready for the 800m. I think that was a smart move by coach to just kind of take me out of that. We definitely had a lot of things that we had to work on between Mt Sac and SECs.

LRC: What were those things?

Will: I’d say the big thing was that I just needed to feel confident in myself and run in a way that made me confident. So I think, going back to the 400m, because I get confidence in my speed. I ran a real confident, front running race in the prelims at SECs, and I feel like that really helped my confidence as well. So, I feel like those are kind of the big things I just kind of needed to work on just to feel ready.

On NCAA Outdoors

LRC: So heading into NCAAs, what was the thought process in your head?

Will: More than anything I did want to win because knew what I was capable of doing that and I felt ready and it was just a matter of doing my best. I feel like as long as I did my best, good results would come. I obviously wanted to win, but more than anything I just wanted to score for my team. 

(LRC note: You really should listen to the full podcast as we go through the entire race and Will gives us his thought’s at each point)

Will’s thoughts the final 200m at NCAAs (and doing his best David Rudisha Impression)

Will: I didn’t really know how far back they were, but I saw the clock at 600 and I’m like, alright, this is gonna be pretty quick.

But, you know, my whole goal, because, I love watching old races and stuff, and I liked watching like David Rudisha and guys like that. So I always see them put in huge moves, 300 to go and I just kind of basically wanted to do my best impression of that and just kind of run away from them at that point.

And yeah, so I wasn’t really thinking about how close they were, just more of like, alright, gap them here.

LRC: Take me through your mindset here as you cross the finish line.

Will: I was just pumped because I knew I could run 1:44, but the clock had just turned 1:44, so I was thrilled. I mean, especially after the way the beginning of my outdoor season went and I was going through those mental struggles and stuff like that to come out there and run that way, and run from the front and win, just more than anything I was thrilled.

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On his training

Will: In terms of mileage, I’d say I gradually built up from my first fall week until the last week of training, before indoors started. I kind of go up a little bit and then plateau, and then go up a little bit and plateau only by three miles every, two or three weeks. I started at four or five miles in the first week, and then built up to about 18 by the first meet. After that I kind of just stopped counting my miles because I didn’t really run as much after that. In terms of a weekly workout schedule, basically we’ll do some short speed work on Mondays, usually it’s like forties and eighties and stuff like that, working on just speed, turnover, things like that. Tuesday I usually do my aerobic work, so I’ll go with the distance guys, just run tempos or VO2max workouts. Wednesday, typically I’ll go with the sprint group and either do a workout with them or just like their drills. Thursdays off. Friday is usually the hardest workout of the week, so I’ll do either an 800m workout, a mile workout, or a 400m workout. Saturday is my long run, but like I said, the longest I ever ran was six miles and mostly I’m only doing like three or four miles.

On going pro or staying in school

Will: So I mean a lot is coming my way in terms of just like offers, requests, whether it’s NIL or pro. It’s really just a matter of looking at what’s come my way and analyzing it. Nothing concrete has actually come back to me yet, so, really, it’s just a wait and see type thing. So I’m trying my best to not think about it as much as I can until it’s actually time to make that decision. I have no definitive answer in terms of what I am going to do.

On XC in high school

LRC: Did you ever do cross country in high school?

Will: I willingly did it because I wanted to help my team. Obviously, our best guy was injured that year, so we had no shot of getting to states without him. So I’m just like, all right, I’ll step in and do it. So I ran the county meet, and then that was just my test run because it was at the same course as our regionals meet, which qualifies us for state. So I went in tucked way in the back and then just last mile, I gunned it. I actually had a lot fun both times, honestly.

On where he wants to be in one year from now

LRC: This was a perfect finish to freshman year. What do you think a year from now you wanna work on to get even better?

Will: I definitely want work on getting out fast. Obviously, I think at the world stage, if you want to be the best, you gotta be able to go out in 49 and handle that. So eventually, maybe even sometime soon, I want to be able to be that guy who can go out in 49 and keep going. So I think that’s the biggest thing for me. NCAAs taught me is that I can close under any circumstance. So it’s just a matter of getting that first half a little bit quicker.

Full podcast with Will here. 

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