Khadevis Robinson – A Very Fine Vintage
Anyone who witnessed the men’s 800 final at the 2008 Olympic Trials for Track & Field will never forget it. As night descended on Day Four at Hayward Field, the 8 competitors in the much-anticipated men’s 800 final emerged onto the track – ready to do battle for the 3 Olympic team spots. The tension was palpable. Lightheartedly billed as “Oregon vs. The World”, the field included three Eugene-connected athletes – Nick Symmonds, Andrew Wheating, and Christian Smith – who were joined by five other worthy finalists which included former national champion Jebrah Harris and the defending Olympic Trials champion Jonathan Johnson. Also in the field was three-time reigning national champion Khadevis Robinson – a fearless frontrunner who had not finished a national championship 800 race any lower than second any time during the past six years.
The crowd expected a ruthless competition – and that they got. At the starting gun, Robinson – with Lopez Lomong in tow – set a blistering opening pace which would ensure a championship caliber time. Passing the 400 in 50.2, Robinson and Lomong – now joined by Johnson – were out in front and out of trouble as they pressed on. The big kickers, Symmonds and Wheating, brought up the rear. The field tightened as the runners entered the final 200. Suddenly a sliver of daylight opened and Symmonds, hopelessly trapped on the rail, seized the moment and unleashed a furious spurt which put him in the clear. Long striding Wheating found his rhythm and slid to lane four off the final turn and exploded down the final straightaway. The hometown crowd roared its approval as Symmonds and Wheating overcame the early pacesetters. Smith, the final Eugene runner, appeared out of it with 15 meters to go. But a faltering Robinson began drifting from the rail and gave Smith the only opening he needed. With one final desperate dive for the line, Smith edged Robinson for the final Beijing spot. Just like that it was over. Smith was handed an American flag and Robinson – who missed the team by .06 seconds – was escorted off the track.
Woefully overtrained coming into the Trials, Robinson had known early he would have problems. “At the 2008 Trials, I barely made it out of the first round – advancing on time. In the second round, I won. But I knew, ‘I’m in trouble.’ I knew I had nothing left,” Robinson explains. The OT 800 favorite struggled in his effort to come up with a winning formula for the final. “I really didn’t know what to do in the final. If I sit and kick, it’s not going to be the best idea with Nick [Symmonds] and [Andrew] Wheating in the final. And if I lead, it’s going to be a challenge to finish strong,” he offers. “I was literally on the line right before the final asking myself what I was going to do when I finally thought to myself, ‘I’m going to make everybody run a PR if anybody’s going to beat me today. I’m gonna go for it.’ And I just went. And I think I would have been alright if Jonathan Johnson hadn’t tried to take the lead at the bell. He was trying to take the lead and I changed the gear to keep the lead. And that was a mistake. I was already behind the eight ball and to do that was too much.”
Reflecting on those final meters coming off the Bowerman curve, KD confides, “I knew what was coming. I had nothing the last 100 – absolutely zero. I knew people were coming – it’s the Olympic Trials – I am just trying to get to the line.”
That electrifying 800 final – which instantly became the signature moment of the 2008 Trials – left an enduring wound. The pain and disappointment of barely missing the ’08 Olympic team might have compelled a lesser athlete to turn the page. Yet the passage of time has allowed KD to put the heartbreak of ’08 in perspective. “I’m not a quitter. So that was out of the question,” says Robinson. “If I had just been beaten, that would have been different. But I knew I could do a bit better,” explains KD. “That [not making the 2008 Olympic team] was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I went back to Santa Monica and a complete stranger came up to me and exclaimed, ‘Oh my goodness, Khadevis, I saw your race. I can’t believe it. You should have made it. I love watching your races. You inspire me. You motivate me. Don’t retire.'” And I thought, ‘I’ve never said anything about retiring! That’s something else.'”
KD did not retire. Instead he redoubled his commitment. The resilient middle distance star found a way to transform what would have been a crushing defeat for many into his own special inspiration. “I had letters and emails from people I’ve never known,” smiles KD. “Since I had this crisis, this downfall, people felt I was approachable, I was human. But if I had won or made the [2008 Olympic] team, I never would have had this rejuvenating experience.”
Rejuvenation was the beginning of the road to redemption. Re-inspired, Robinson made the ’09 and ’11 World Championship teams on his way to the 2012 Olympic Trials – his fourth – and the long-awaited opportunity to set things straight. Working his way through the rounds, Robinson found himself in his fourth consecutive OT 800 final. “I kinda knew how things were going to play out,” smiles KD. “When [Charles] Jock and Duane [Soloman] made the finals, I knew it was going to be a rough day. I knew that Jock was going to take it out. And I knew that Duane could hold on to the pace. I knew that I couldn’t let these guys up front get too far away and I knew that Nick [Symmonds] – he’s a tough guy – was going to be there.” In final 200, Symmonds broke free for a clear victory. But Robinson – evidencing a finishing strength that was missing 4 years earlier – closed in 1:44.64 to nip Soloman by .01 seconds at the line for second – and a berth on the USA team headed to London. With his redemption now complete, Robinson smiles and adds, “It all worked out.”
The shadows are growing longer as KD is entering the gloaming of his career. Robinson – who is 36 – knows his world is changing and with it the opportunity to compete at a world class level is shrinking. Married with two sons – ages 2 and 5 – KD is now the women’s middle distance coach at The Ohio State University. He beams as he speaks of the current performance and yet-untapped potential of Katie Borchers and Jernel Oberlding – two of his middle distance protÃ©gÃ©s who are expected to perform well in this weekend’s Big Ten championship meet. And are we likely to see KD back on track & field’s bigger stages? “We’ll see. I’ll be quite honest with you. The load I have here is pretty high,” he confides. “I have a wife, I have two kids, I have a lot of other things that pull. And with my talent, where I’m at, I have to be all in to perform well. So we’ll see. I can’t fool myself into thinking that I cannot be all in and perform well.” Explaining that the door is still open as to whether or not he will compete at the national championship meet in Des Moines in late June, KD coyly offers, “So as I train and see where my body is at, that will kinda tell me a little more.” Stay tuned.
When he ultimately hangs up his spikes, Robinson will be well satisfied if his legacy is simple and inspirational. “I hope that people will grasp that I am just a regular guy. Here’s a regular guy who accomplished,” he candidly explains. “And if they can look at
my record, and say, ‘Man, that motivates me.’ Whatever their goals, if I can inspire others, that’s all I care about.”
But lasting memories of Khadevis Robinson will likely be more than that. While the desperate finish line drama of the ’08 OT 800 Final will always be linked to Khadevis, the man should be judged – and remembered – based upon his entire body of work. KD’s 800 P.R. of 1:43.68 ranks him as the 9th fastest American of all time. In addition – and perhaps more importantly – the middle distance star has performed at the national pinnacle of the 800 for well over a decade – garnering 8 indoor and outdoor national championships, earning berths on 2 Olympic teams and 7 World Championship squads, and capturing numerous important domestic and international victories. Robinson’s impressive record of excellence and longevity suggests that he be considered among the greatest American 800 meter runners of all time.
Pointing to his own modest beginnings – “I only ran 1:53 in high school.” – Robinson is quick to credit the importance of attitude, work ethic, and consistent training. While he readily acknowledges that innate athletic skills are of course beneficial, Khadevis emphasizes the often-overlooked cerebral aspect of track & field. “It’s all mental,” Robinson urges. “You have to put the work in. But the mental part – developing the mental mind set – is huge.” Robinson is resolute and insistent about the power of focused commitment to promote achievement. “Runners can do amazing things,” he exclaims. “You just have to stick with it. You persevere and put the work in. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” All we need to do is to reflect upon KD’s impressive and resilient career to know he speaks the truth.