Sprint City: UH home for the fastest runners in the country
Many university athletic programs cherish being called farm schools, i.e. Alabama is a farm school for the NFL or Kentucky is a farm school for the NBA. It is a testament to the efforts of the coaching staff that their athletes are prepared better than others to become professional athletes.
During the ’80s and ’90s, UH could have easily been called a farm school for its track & field program. Twelve different Cougars in total competed at five different Olympic Games between 1980 and 1996; the star of the pack obviously being nine time Olympic gold medalist, three time world’s fast man and UH alum, now assistant coach, Carl Lewis.
The track program continued to be dominant at the conference level, winning 16 titles from 1997 to 2010. But during that same period they failed to produce the Olympic level talent they had in years past, with only three athletes being named to Olympic squads in the last ten years.
Still, in recent years the program has shown signs of becoming a farm school once again. Head coach Leroy Burrell’s squad is working their way towards being a home to some of the fastest runners in the country.
“We’re going to do some great things,” said senior sprinter Elijah Hall. “If we all come together and we put our minds together and work hard every day and do what we’re supposed to do, we could go to that national championship meet in Oregon and win it all.”
In the 2016-17 season, the Cougars won every sprinting title at the conference meets and swept the podium in both the 100m and 200m finals at the outdoor meet. For all intents and purposes, the athletes on the roster are some of the best to come through UH in decades.
This was a roster built with one purpose in mind: win a national championship.
“(Our success) feels good because we came here with a lot on our plate,” said junior sprinter Mario Burke, the Barbados 100m national champion. “We were like the No. 1 recruiting class, and it feels good to know we paid back what the coaches invested in us.”
The men’s team has won four straight American Athletic Conference titles, due in large part to its sprinters. Athletes like 2016 graduate LeShon Collins, seniors Cameron Burrell and Elijah Hall and juniors Mario Burke and Jacarias Martin have all been monumental in this feat.
The sprinting events have always been the main attraction of any track & field competition. Just look at this past summer and Usain Bolt’s retirement race. Everyone was on their feet with camera in hand that day because they did not want to miss the fastest man in the world’s final race.
For coaches Burrell and Lewis, these events have also been the ace in the hole for their current athletes. In the last four meets the previous two seasons, the Cougars were always down in points before the sprints. After the sprints they always achieved a commanding lead that they never lost.
This past season was also historic, because three school records were broken: the indoor 200m, the outdoor 100m and the 4x100m relay.
Senior sprinter Elijah Hall, a former two time NJCAA national champion at Butler Community College, broke the indoor 200m record (20.71s) in his very first race as a Cougar.
Senior sprinter Cameron Burrell broke the outdoor 100m record (9.93s) in the NCAA semifinals. This was Burrell’s second school record, as he broke the indoor 60m record (6.48) the year prior.
But the 4x100m relay was the sweetest as it came in the NCAA final. On that day, the team of Burrell, Burke and sophomores John Lewis III and Jacarias Martin crossed the finish line first to win the NCAA title in 38.34s.
In a race that featured several major track schools like Auburn, Oregon and LSU, the Cougars showed that non-Power 5 athletes had the ability to become champions. With that momentum behind them and with their current roster, 2018 just might be the year the team reaches that mountaintop.
Around March of last year, the new term Sprint City started floating around the team. It started in reference to the fact that Cameron Burrell and Mario Burke were in the NCAA Indoor 60m final, the first Cougar duo to do so in 20 years. But this dream of UH being home to the fastest sprinters in the country is becoming a reality.
During the indoor season, the Cougars had the number one ranked 60m squad in the country with an average speed of 6.65s. Their indoor 200m squad ranked fourth with a 20.96s aggregate time.
Burrell, Burke and Hall all had times ranked in the NCAA Top 15 in the 60m, 100m and 200m, while the 4x100m relay team had the second best time in the country (38.59s).
This desire of making Houston into Sprint City has become so ingrained that #HTownSprintCity is now on every tweet the official UH Track & Field twitter account sends out. While the track & field program is always growing, winning a national title in six months would be the greatest way of accomplishing that goal.
This summer proved they have the men to do it. Mario Burke won the 100m at the Barbados Naional Championship. He is literally the fastest man in his country.
Cameron Burrell is the fastest Cougar ever to run in the short sprinters and has two runners up medals to show for it. A less than 100 percent Elijah Hall ran the third fastest 200m time at the USA Track & Field Championships. Plus, every member of the transformative 4×1 team is returning.
If this team wants to accomplish their dream they will have to perform when it matters most, something Burrell preached to them at every meet. If they do that, then championships are well within reach.
“That’s what we’re looking forward to do,” Hall said, “changing the way we do things in Houston. Becoming that program that’s fast in college and when we leave college we become a bigger program like in Santa Monica. That’s why Carl is doing the Perfect Method, where we have a group outside of college. It’s going to be great this year. We’re really expanding the way we do things in Houston.”
When Carl Lewis joined the coaching staff, Leroy Burrell must have known he was not only going to get a multi-faceted coach, but a great recruiting tool. Every member of the national championship relay team credited both Burrell and Lewis as reasons for committing to UH. The opportunity to train with Olympic gold medalists was one they did not want to pass up.
“We have two of the best coaches ever,” said junior Jacarias Martin, who competes in the 200m. “Both of them were the fastest person in the world in one point in their careers. And they did what we did, they did all this practicing, running, everything started here. What they did, they’re trying to recreate that so we can do the same thing they did.”
Since his arrival in 2014, Lewis has been working on a training system for the sprinters that micromanages every detail in order for his sprinters to peak at the right times. In past interviews he admitted that athletes will not have immediate success, but now that many are in their second or third year with him the effects are starting to show.
In an interview leading up to the 2016-17 season, Lewis said this current crop of sprinters would be the best in school history and they would break all the records. Last year showed they are capable of reaching that goal. But eventually the athletes will graduate, and then their focus will turn to one thing: becoming an Olympian.
Getting to the Olympics, let alone winning a medal, is not something one accomplishes by themselves. Lewis knows that better than anyone. In the prime of their careers, both Lewis and Burrell were members of the Santa Monica Track Club.
During their time with the club, Lewis and Burrell broke the 100m World Record a combined five times. Santa Monica proved to be a perfect training ground as the two were able to train with eight other Olympic gold medalists.
What the Santa Monica Track Club gave these two was guidance. Even after graduating from college, they maintained connections with Tom Tellez, the UH track & field coach at the time, and fellow UH alums Kirk Baptiste, Mike Marsh and Frank DeLoach. That place is something Lewis has tried to replicate with the creation of Team Perfect Method.
The Oregon model
The Perfect Method is an online resource created by Lewis to provide training techniques to athletes and schools for free. Team Perfect Method is the professional team Lewis coaches that all post collegiate athletes are able to join and UH alumni have easy access to.
The “about” section of the Team Perfect Method website reads, “The Perfect Method is a step-by-step program that prepares runners by focusing on their habits both on and off the track. The Perfect Method gives athletes and coaches everything they need to compete at the highest level: technical running skills, seasonal conditioning, optimized nutrition, mental preparation and discipline.”
Lewis said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle that Team Perfect Method would have a focus on keeping UH athletes in Houston. By keeping them at UH, the athletes are not thrown into the world of professional track & field without any guidance.
Instead, they are able to stay with the coaches that got them to where they are and continue their training long after they have left college. 2016 graduate sprinter LeShon Collins is the most high profile member so far.
In addition to winning races at both Texas and Penn Relays, Collins ran for USA at the IAAF World Relays in March, helping Team USA to a gold medal in the process. The article also reported that Lewis was hoping Elijah Hall and Cameron Burrell, both seniors, would join Team Perfect Method once they graduated.
“This squad that I have is going to be our squad when we run post collegiate,” said John Lewis III, who ran the first leg of the NCAA champion 4×1 team. “Just like how our coaches put Houston on the map, we’re trying to put them back on the map.”
What Coach Lewis has created is very similar to the Nike Oregon Project in Portland. It was originally founded in 2001 to promote long-distance running. The Oregon Project uses the high altitude of Oregon in order to strengthen the runner’s lungs and bodies in addition to the underwater and low-gravity treadmills.
The Oregon Project is coached by Alberto Salazar, an Oregon alumnus and three time New York City Marathon champion. Salazar and his team have been able to recruit fellow Oregon alums to the Project thanks to their proximity to the university.
The most notable has been Galen Rupp, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000m and 2017 Chicago Marathon champion (the first American to win the race in 35 years). But the Project has also recruited international athletes like Mo Farah of Great Britain, who won four Olympic gold medals in the 5000m and 10,000m in his time on the team.
Currently, Team Perfect Method is working on developing their own talent, but if the team is successful there is always the possibility of attracting established talent. Given that the Cougars are now 4x100m national champions, more people will be taking notice of what they are doing than they otherwise would.
“(Becoming Sprint City) would mean a lot, (Carl) already started it off with Team Perfect Method,” Burke said. “When Cam and Eli graduate at the end of this season they’ll move onto that team. I believe that if Oregon is the distance factory then we can be the sprint factory.”
After all, the purpose of sports is to promote their university and attract new students. There is no better way of doing that than winning a national title. Now that the team has a national title, they have ensured more talent will come in order to make sure they continue to stay competitive.
“When my time is gone here we’ll be able to have that leverage to attract the next great sprinter to our program. We’re already currently working on that,” Cameron Burrell said. “It just shows that what we’re doing here is some really great work, and when we do those things we can attract other great athletes to propel your program even further.”