A Champion’s Demeanor
110H World Champion David Oliver Keeps An Even Keel
August 17th, 2014
How many elite track & field athletes conclude their careers undefeated? You’re correct. Zero. And unless you’re a truly exceptional performer – a Valerie Adams, an Edwin Moses, a Harrison Dillard, etc. – only a very few experience even an extended string of consecutive victories. As we know, world class track & field competition is an athletic and emotional roller coaster ride and the resiliency required to cope with losing – or a prolonged slump – is part of the sport. Reigning 110 meter hurdles world champion David Oliver has learned to go with the flow. “I don’t really get too down when things aren’t going right. And I don’t get too super, over-the-top with it when things are going well. You know how finicky this sport is,” admits Oliver. “I’m going into my eleventh season as a professional. So I know how it goes. I know how the ups and downs go. I’ve got a good solid team around me. They always have my best interest at heart. And we always just keep on fighting.”
Few track & field athletes ever have the kind of storybook year Oliver rang up four years ago. When the curtain came down on the 2010 outdoor season, the former Howard University athlete was unbeaten in 15 hurdles finals races. Along the way, Oliver first tied Dominque Arnold’s American record of 12.90 before ultimately breaking that mark with a 12.89 clocking in Paris. During that magical summer, the 2008 Olympic 110H bronze medalist ran the world’s 5 fastest 2010 times and posted 8 of the year’s top 9 110H marks. For his achievements, Oliver was crowned as the 110H Diamond League champion and was named as the USATF Jesse Owens Athlete of the Year. “2010 was great,” Oliver understates.
But 2011 was a different story. Physical ailments began cropping up during the indoor season. As the outdoor season unfolded, an impressive win at the Prefontaine DL meet [12.94] followed by a successful defense of his national title [13.04] belied the array of injuries the U.S. hurdles champion was battling. “Looking back on 2011, maybe I didn’t rest as much during the off season as I should have,” Oliver confesses. A calf strain emerged during winter competition which forced him to shut it down for the remainder of the indoor season. By all appearances, when Oliver went outdoors his early performances signaled his 2010 dominance would continue into the new year. He ran a WL 12.94 for a Diamond League victory at the Prefontaine Classic. But after first round of the USATF championship meet he endured “a little groin problem.” Oliver still toughed it out to win the outdoor title in 13.04. But the groin problem – on his lead leg side – lingered. When he went home in early July from Paris, he was hobbled. “It went downhill from that point. It hurt so bad, I could barely train,” reveals Oliver. “That ended up destroying the rest of that 2011 season. That’s what kept me down for a long time. Even going into 2012, I just could not get over what was really a stress reaction in my pelvis area. It took a while for that to subside.”
Oliver’s maladies lingered into 2012 – the Olympic year. Oliver was still injured, and he knew it. But he still thought he could claw his way onto the U.S. team heading for the London Olympics. “I thought I could run about 13.15. And I thought that maybe I could battle it out for third place at the Trials,” explains Oliver. “[Aries] Merritt and [then-world champion Jason] Richardson were running very well. I am a very self-aware individual. When it comes to running, I know what I can and can’t do. I knew I was not in the 12 second range, but I thought I could sneak up into third.” Oliver made it to the finals, but missed the U.S. team when he finished 5th. “It was just not meant to be,” he laments. “It was disappointing for a little bit. After that, I refocused on trying to get healthy. I went back home and told my coach, ‘Hey, the Olympics aren’t in the plans, but I can just reassess my season.’ I was able to go out and perform well.” The wounded hurdler soldiered onward. Amazingly, Oliver – masking his nagging ailments – performed consistently well and ended up with a #3 world-ranking in an Olympic year when he didn’t even participate in the global competition.
Self-imposed idleness on into early 2013 allowed Oliver – #2 110H performer on the all-time U.S. list [behind Merritt’s WR 12.80] and #4 performer on the all-time world list [behind Merritt, Cuba’s Dayron Robles (12.87) and China’s Xiang Liu (12.88)] – to recover fully from his nagging injuries. “After 2012, I reassessed things. Basically, I just stopped lifting weights in the traditional fashion. A lot of that extra, bulky mass probably wasn’t helping out the issue,” explains Oliver. “I trimmed down for the 2013 season. I curtailed my practice sessions. When you start reaching over 30, you have to start paying more attention to the risk cycle. I started feeling a bit better. I took off the 2013 indoor season. It was the first time in career I hadn’t done an indoor season.”
The new multi-faceted plan proved to be what Oliver needed. But observable improvement took a while to surface. “When I started my outdoor season without prior indoor competition, I didn’t have that good race rhythm and that kind of set me back. I couldn’t break 13.30 until the end of May.” His big 2013 breakthrough was his 13.16 clocking which propelled him to victory in the Beijing DL meet. “That was the race that was the springboard. I had identified what was going wrong for me. I knew what I had to do.” And with a smile he adds, “I’ve been doing this for a while.” Suddenly Oliver had recaptured some of that 2010 magic. “I ran a season’s best in Prefontaine [13.10] and things started getting better and better from there. When I get on a good roll like that, all I need to do is stay healthy and I’ll stay on the good roll. I have no doubt about what it is I need to do when it comes to running the 110 hurdles.” That roll took Oliver all the way to Luzhniki Stadium and Moscow’s world championship 110 meter hurdle final. Peaking at just the right time, Oliver reached back and rang up a world-leading 13.00 to claim the global title. Redemption complete.
The world champion is disarmingly candid about the strengths and weaknesses of his hurdle game – an event where the margin for error is undeniably the smallest in the sport. “My technique and aerial times are up there with some of the greatest of all times,” states Oliver. “My weaknesses might be my overall speed and my speed between hurdles. I’m probably not as fast on the flat as most of the other guys. So I have to make it up from a technical standpoint. And I think when I’m on, I do a pretty good job of that.” Large by hurdler dimensions at 6’2″ and 212 pounds, Oliver cites his start as a strength. “My start is pretty good. Last year after the U.S. Trials going forward, those were some of the best starts of my career. My start was really coming together.” Oliver is also stronger than most of his competitors. “I haven’t been in a gym to lift in the traditional sense in a long time. But I can still go under a bench press with 225 pounds and probably still knock it out 12 to 13 times. That’s just something I can do.”
Oliver is quick to
credit the frank and experienced guidance of his coach Brooks Johnson for the magnitude of his unexpected success on the track. “I got hooked up with Brooks shortly after the Olympic Trials in 2004. I was still in college at the time. I moved to Florida in January of 2005 and started training under his tutelage. At the time I was a 13.55 hurdler coming out of college. Brooks told me, ‘We’ve got to find a way to go from the best of the rest to the best. Do what I say, when I say it, and how I said it to be done, and I guarantee you success,” Oliver explains. “For me, Brooks’ approach is how I operate. If you just tell me straight out what it is you want from me, then I can give it to you. I don’t like to try and guess,” states Oliver. Johnson’s approach doesn’t promise or deliver overnight results. “I didn’t go from 13.55 to under 12 seconds in just one or two years. I worked my way down. And that’s why I know whenever I have a setback, I can always get back to where I was before. That’s because I didn’t make some quantum leap. I know exactly what it took to get there. That comes from Brooks’ tutelage. I’ve followed everything he’s said. And it has worked right on cue. I found myself becoming one of the best American hurdlers of my era.”
The three-time U.S.A. outdoor 110H champion is candid about how he defines hurdle greatness. “Time is just time. That just means you had a good performance. I have run 12.89 and I did have the American record at the time. But that’s just one performance,” offers Oliver. “Really, it’s all about how many performances you put together in a career – not just over a season or in one race. When I had the American record, I wasn’t considered the greatest American 110 hurdler of all time because there is more that goes into that than just what time you have. Winning is what makes you great.”
At age 32, the Colorado native knows his remaining years as a world class hurdler are not without number. And he has definite thoughts on how he hopes he’ll be remembered. “I would like to be remembered as one of the best 110 meter hurdlers to ever do the event,” states Oliver unabashedly. “It is very, very difficult to get into that classification. But I figure I still have time: win a couple more medals, keep building that resume up. I’d like to be seen as a guy who really maximized every opportunity that came his way.”
The goal-oriented athlete has a precise vision of his future hurdling objectives. “Coming off my win in Moscow, to win a gold medal next year in Beijing would be the ultimate. To win world championships back-to-back is very difficult to do. Allen [Johnson] did it in 2001 and 2003. So it’s been over 10 years since someone has been able to win it back to back. That would be great.” [Note: Allen Johnson actually had two sets of back-to-back wins (’95-’97 and ’01-’03) and Greg Foster tallied a three-peat grabbing the first three world championship 110H crowns (’83-’87-’91)]
To do so, Oliver will need to regain that 2010, 2013 magic. After finishing 3rd [in 13.23] at the USATF championships this summer, the reigning world hurdles champion made a brief lackluster swing through Europe – no podium appearances with no time better than 13.26. Referencing a problem that cropped up at the Shanghai DL meet earlier this spring, Oliver admits, “my foot is giving me a little bit of a problem.”
But the world championship meet isn’t this year. It’s next year. “I can get a long off season this year, take a long rest, and really ease myself into training for 2015. I can take my time getting back into training and make sure everything is working well. I’m going to follow the same protocol I did in the fall of 2012 and into 2013. I did a lot this season – I travelled over 110,000 miles; went around the globe a couple of times; I did the Australian swing. Now it is time to get super serious and get ready to defend the title next year.”
To successfully defend a global title is a lofty goal for any reigning champion in any track or field event. But to do so in the unforgiving 110 meter hurdles where the slightest miscue – a poor start, an errant overstride, a grazed hurdle – can spell doom may make this champion’s quest even more daunting. But in a race where inches count and any edge is welcomed, David Oliver’s inherent and unshakably resilient attitude just might be his secret weapon.