Q&A: National relay champions reflect on joining ‘elite club’
Twenty-six national champions have emerged from UH track & field. But winning one event, the 4×100-meter relay, is second only to earning a team title. As senior Cameron Burrell said, the race is bigger than one person. It’s the University of Houston that crosses the finish line, not one runner.
In 2016 the men’s 4x100m relay team was just 0.02 seconds short of earning that national title, instead placing second.
At the 2017 championships in Eugene, Oregon last June, the team of then-sophomores John Lewis III, Mario Burke and Jacarias Martin and then-junior Cameron Burrell won the national title in a school-record 38.34 seconds. This was the first NCAA championship for the program since 2013, its first relay title since 1982 and the second in team history.
With the entire squad returning this year, The Cougar heard about what it was like on the day and what it means for the athletes to bring a national title back to Houston. The answers are recorded in the order in which they ran the race.
The Cougar: What were you thinking before the race started?
John Lewis III: Nothing. Really nothing at all. Before the race, when I was warming up, I had gotten all those doubts and insecurities, that nervousness. I had shut all those down before I had even stepped onto the track. By the time we walked onto the track, I had cleared my mind, and any little nervousness that I usually have I let it wash away. Once I got onto the track for the finals, I was focused on listening for the gun and getting out as fast as I could.
Mario Burke: Just to get the stick around, just to run as good as I can. Because I knew if I got the baton to Jacarias, and Jacarias got it to Cameron, then we’d have the gold medal.
Jacarias Martin: Excitement. I was real excited at that moment. When we were in the holding room warming up, all I had in my head was (that) I wasn’t going to lose to nobody today. And when I was doing my push-outs, I felt real good. The only thing coach told us to do was execute real well and just run our race, which is what I did.
Cameron Burrell: I knew we had a shot at it ’cause we had ran so well in the preliminary rounds. We were practicing well — everything was feeling good for us. Me being anchor-leg, I probably have the least amount of control about what goes on. I think the most important legs are the first to second, because you have to be in the race. It’s really hard to win from behind in a relay. So I was thinking as long as I’m close, I’ll run my absolute hardest to cross the line first, and God put me in a position to win, so the pressure was on me to finish the job.
The Cougar: What was going through your head during the race?
Lewis: It was blank as soon as the gun went off. All I knew was move. That was all I told my body. And so I ran, and when I got to the top of the curve, I’m like, “Go faster,” and I got faster because I wanted to make sure without a doubt that I got the baton off to Mario (Burke). I didn’t want there to be any gray area. After I handed it off to him, it was like lightning. I transferred my energy to him, and he got out and ran, and I cheered him on as he went because before the race he had told me, “When you hand it off to me, make sure you tell me to go.” So that was his motivator. So I was like, “Go Mario!”
(My mind) was blank as soon as the gun went off. All I knew was move. That was all I told my body.
Burke: Honestly when John was coming to me, I was surprised because he blew it out. By the time I saw him give me the baton first, I knew we had it because no one was going to pass me. No one was going to pass Jacarias, and no one was going to pass Cam (Burrell). So from that moment when John started, I knew we had it.
Martin: At that moment, I just cleared my mind and focused. Just taking the stick, not dropping it, and handing it off to first regardless of the consequences. Just making sure Cam could cross the line first. When I handed the stick off, I basically ran a 200 — I kept running. I didn’t stop until he finished, and then that’s when I stopped.
Burrell: I don’t try to think about other competitors, especially in a race. But in a relay, I almost couldn’t help it. So I tried to look through my periphery to see where I was, and I realized I was about first or second place. I think Auburn maybe had a step or two on me. So at that point, when I realized where I was, I just went after it, maintained my speed and crossed the line.
The Cougar: What did you say to your teammates after the race?
Lewis: I was like, “We did it! We did it!” And (Cam) was really screaming at me like, “Man, we did it! We did it!” But I have been screaming like the entire time. After I handed it to Mario, I ran almost the entire second hundred, and then I hopped, screaming and jumping all the way back to the first exchange zone. That’s how I was able meet Cam because there was so much excitement and adrenaline that I wasn’t even tired.
Burke: We just hugged each other and said “We did it.” We knew we could do it. It was a long, hard process, but it finally came together for us.
Martin: I just told everybody, told them, thanked them for having me here. Without them running me hard and motivating everybody, I wouldn’t be where I was at that moment.
Burrell: Just we did it. That was it. Hugged the guys, celebrated, did our victory lap. I couldn’t celebrate too much because I had to get ready for the 100. At the end of the day, I was happy knowing I was going home a champion.
The Cougar: What does it feel like knowing you’ve helped bring a national title back to UH?
Lewis: It feels great, especially since I did have that mess-up at the Texas Relays, that I was able to perform on that stage and perform well. Regardless of what people want to think, everyone had high confidence for me on my team, and I know the announcers or other teams might not have. If they did know me, it was from Texas Relays, and if they didn’t know me, then they were like, “Who is this kid?” It was just really exciting.
Burke: It feels good because we came here with a lot on our plate. We were like the No. 1 recruiting class, and it feels good to know we’ve gave back what the coaches invested in us.
Martin: That’s a great experience. Something I will never forget — ever. And having a ring and some medals to back that up, I can always look back in life and be like, “I accomplished something in my track career.”
Burrell: It was great. That’s what you work for all year. How many people on this earth can say that they won a national title? Not that many. It’s special. We’re now part of a very, very elite club. We set the tone for this year, so now we have to continue the traditions.