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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sports

Sprinters head to Bahamas with world championship goals


Three sprinters — two University of Houston students and an alumnus — have been invited to the IAAF World Relays to represent their countries on the track. | Ajani Stewart/The Cougar

The chance to run on the world’s stage and bring glory to their country: That is what awaits two current athletes on the Cougar track & field team and one graduate who has remained on campus to train with the Olympic coaching staff.

Sophomore sprinter Mario Burke, freshman sprinter Brianne Bethel and Class of 2016 Cougar LeShon Collins have been invited to run in the 4x100m relays for their respective nations at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Relays in Nassau, Bahamas.

The meet is a precursor to the IAAF World Championships in London. The top eight times in the 4x100m and 4x200m relays automatically qualify for the World Championships this August.

“I think (making top eight) would be an amazing accomplishment because, in my opinion, that’s one of the easiest qualifications you can have for the World Championships,” said assistant coach Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie. “All you have to be is the top eight, and you’re in. It doesn’t get any easier than that.”

Chasing heroes

For Burke, an international student from Barbados, his desire to qualify for the World Championships has been public. After finishing third in the 100m at the U20 World Championships this summer, Burke put on record that he wanted to get to London.

He is well on his way to being one of the top three athletes in his country and qualifying individually for the World Championships in addition to being a member of the relay team.

Assistant coach Carl Lewis said that Burke would have gone to the Rio Olympics last summer if he had not held him back, citing the fact he was only 19 years old.

In the meantime, Burke made a trip to the NCAA Indoor Championships, ran on a 4x400m relay team that set the school record and ran on a 4x100m team that has the second-fastest time in the country.

After spending the last two summers representing his country in Houston, Burke is on pace to do so again.

“(Going to the relays is) a very huge confidence booster because I get to run against guys I used to watch on my television,” Burke said. “I feel really good because I’ve been progressing in this program and it’s given me a lot of opportunities.”

Returning home

For freshman Brianne Bethel, the relays in Nassau stand for more than just a chance to represent her country. They are also a chance to run on her home track while wearing the black, yellow and aquamarine of the Bahamas.

“I feel honored,” Bethel said. “I appreciate that they trust me enough to be on the team no matter how young I am. They have faith in me, and I have faith in myself as well. I just want to go there and represent my country as best I can and bring home a medal.”

Bethel has been a key part of the freshman class that helped propel the women to a top three conference finish.

Her success has helped Bethel earn her way onto the Bahamas relay team, something her coach Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie, an Olympic gold medalist for the Bahamas, knows from firsthand experience.

Ferguson-McKenzie ran with Bethel at the 2015 relays. She and the rest of the coaching staff said they knew Bethel has the talent to make this team. Now, she just has to perform.

“You have a lot of kids who don’t have that opportunity,” Ferguson-McKenzi said. “I just want her to not take it for granted and to make the most of it.”

A new face

2016 graduate LeShon Collins was a force during his time for the Cougars. Qualifying for nationals in the 60, 100, 200 and 4x100m relays, he did anything and everything in the sprints. Now as a pro, he has remained at Houston as a member of assistant coach Carl Lewis’ Team Perfect Method.

In his first year as a professional, Collins placed second in the 60m at the USATF Indoor Championships. He finished second behind last year’s national champion, Ronnie Baker.

Collins’ performance at the championships is what earned him a call up to the relay team. There, he will be joined by Baker, Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin and defending World Relays champion Mike Rodgers.

“To see two kids that are at UH going to the World Relays representing us internationally, and then one athlete that has gone on and is representing the United States post-collegiately, it (realizes) our vision,” Lewis said. “So all these young recruits that come to us that want to go to the Olympics, we’re actually physically showing them the path. You can do it in school while you’re here, and you can do it post-collegiately.”

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