International experience, coach’s guidance propel sprinter
If one sophomore on the Cougar track and field team is able to get his already impressive 100m dash time down to 10 seconds flat by the time he graduates, he will be in company with many world-class sprinters. The goal time would make him the fastest person in his home country, top 10 in the world and possibly eligible for the 2020 Olympics.
Second-year sprinter Mario Burke is using his global record and prestigious coaching staff to throttle his collegiate running career toward becoming an eventual Olympic champion in the near future.
When Burke arrived in Houston last season for his first year on the team, he was already on the heels of a successful showing at the 2015 Caribbean Free Trade Association Games from Basseterre, St. Kitts and Nevis.
The Barbados native joined prestigious company when he won both the 100m and 200m events at the CARIFTA Games. It was a competition that has vaulted the careers of many Olympic-level athletes in the Caribbean.
Running with pride
With that experience under his belt, Burke had a lot of expectations when he came to compete for head coach Leroy Burrell’s team. Burke fulfilled his goals — and then some — when he proved to be a key piece in the Cougars’ 4x100m relay team and various sprinting events during the indoor and outdoor seasons.
“My first season was an experience in itself,” Burke said. “(There were) a lot of ups and downs, but I got adjusted to the program pretty fast. I was able to get a good season under my belt in my first year. Besides the fact I didn’t qualify for the Olympics, I lived up to the coach’s expectations. They’re all proud of me.”
Burke may have missed out on the Olympics, but he followed up his regular season with an invitation to represent his home nation at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland. This came just after Burke helped the Cougars to a second-place finish in the 4x100m relay at the NCAA Outdoor Nationals and added more to his already-growing trophy case.
At the meet in Bydgoszcz, Burke made history as his bronze medal in the 100m was the first medal earned by Barbados in the games’ history. Burke saw the event as a confidence booster entering the 2017 indoor season beginning Dec. 10.
“Knowing that I was able to represent my country, my university, myself and my family, and being known as the third-fastest under 20 in the world is a great feeling,” Burke said. “Right now, you could say I’m in the best shape I ever was. Once I’m confident mentally, it translates into my body.”
Assistant coach and nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis was well aware of Burke’s potential when he came to Houston. Lewis saw that he was capable of having success, but only if he was able to stay healthy for an entire season, a feat that Burke had never done before.
Made for success
During Burke’s first year, Lewis put him through a program designed to get him in top shape and running confident in the 100m dash. Burke accomplished both in his freshman season, and Lewis is ecstatic for how he can improve his 100m times in his sophomore season.
“Mario went from a 10.3 (seconds) to occasional 10.5 to a 10.2 solid,” Lewis said. “That’s a huge jump. This year, I want him to jump down as a 10.0 guy consistently. That’s the difference from going to regionals and being in the finals at nationals. I really think he can do that.”
Lewis said that he is unsure of what Burke cannot accomplish.
In what Lewis sees as a benefit, Burke is not yet expected to be a leader as the team already has multiple tenured sprinters. Also, Burke will likely not have any other events to train for, which allows him to solely focus on his craft.
With Burke constantly looking to improve and a team with sky-high aspirations, Lewis and the other coaches have reason to be excited about the season.
“Right now, if everyone stays healthy, this will be the greatest spring program in the history of the NCAA,” Lewis said. “These guys right here. Period. No question. They’re going to set all the records, they’re going to win all the championships. If they don’t do anything crazy, they’ve got the ability to do it.”