May 31st, 2015
In track & Field – like life – it is easy to be poised and gracious when everything is going your way. When your body is healthy, your training is going well, your life is serene, and your focus is dialed in, the victories come. You become the magnanimous, smiling winner. And everything is beautiful.
But the true test of champions begins – and the corresponding insight into a person’s character is revealed – when they are confronted by adversity. When an athlete is injured, or their life becomes roiled, or their confidence sags, or their focus is shot, how do they respond? It’s all about how you do on Plan B.
Bershawn “Batman” Jackson – who just turned 32 – has firsthand knowledge of the ups and downs of a professional track & field athlete. At age 22, he was the World Championship gold medalist in the 400 meter hurdles. During the 10-year span from 2003 through 2012, he earned top ten world rankings every year in the 400H. During that same period, he won other global medals of varying colors – both individual and relay – including a 400H bronze in the 2008 Olympic Games. The 5’7″ intermediate hurdler – whose 400H P.R. of 47.30 is #10 on the all-time world list – has had a bountiful career, to be sure.
But Jackson has had to face the hard times as well – a string of them beginning in 2012. “I missed the Olympic team. I took 4th. I felt like my hurdle was crashed [by Angelo Taylor in the adjacent lane]. I felt that was the reason why I missed the Olympic team,” explains Jackson. “And to this day, it wasn’t just about ‘why wasn’t a call made?’ I filed a protest and made an appeal and nothing happened. As athletes, we train hard for one moment. I felt like at that moment my dreams had been shattered. It hurts.” Disconsolate, Jackson raced no more in 2012 – but was still able to garner his 10th consecutive top ten world ranking in his specialty event.
The hurdler’s woes continued in 2013. While his gutty stretch drive to just grab 3rd at the 2013 national championships earned him a spot on the USA world championship team, a lingering hamstring injury – reinjured the day before the 400H WC semi-final in Moscow – sent him sprawling in that intermediate hurdles second round race.
While Jackson’s 2014 season started on a hopeful note, physical difficulties still plagued him. “In ’13 and in ’14, I ran with an anger – running with that burden on my shoulders knowing I should have been in London,” Bershawn laments. “Two years had passed, and in 2014 I still had that same burden on my shoulders. I just couldn’t get over it. And I think that kinda triggered my injuries because I was trying too hard to prove that I was still relevant. And I just kept getting injured over and over.” And those persistent ailments once again felled him in the sweltering Sacramento heat of the 2014 national championship 400H final. “I was on the track laying down at the last two big events I had – Moscow and the ’14 nationals,” Jackson exclaims. “And they carried me off the track. And people were speculating, ‘Is that the end of Batman? Is it over?'”
His two DNF’s in highly-visible big race finals made it impossible for him to gain entry into any more 2014 meets. In a sobering moment of reflection, Jackson knew he had to deal with his own personal Plan B. “I got therapy. And I did rehab. I was depressed, but it wasn’t that bad. I took the rest of the year off.” During that time, Jackson took steps to rein in his social life which had grown to be an interference with his track & field ambitions. And he also finally waved goodbye to the emotional baggage of his big race misfortunes. “I had to let it go. Who cares what happened in 2012?” asks Batman rhetorically. “You never know you can get hurt in a certain way until you get hurt. I never felt track could affect me in a way where I couldn’t run fast. And it happened to me,” he emphasizes. “Throughout my career, I have always been that guy who is a fighter, a warrior, running crazy good times,” explains Jackson, whose compilation of #1 American 400H rankings is second only to Edwin Moses. “I’ve always been known to go out and perform. I’m a short guy with a big heart. I take my craft very seriously. I train hard. My work ethic has always been impeccable. But that incident hurt me to the point where I thought I could never recover. I thought I would never get over that incident.”
Jackson’s 2015 performances to date suggest he finally has. Opening his outdoor season at the Drake Relays, Jackson silenced whispers that his world class days may well be over. Running in a tight inner lane, Jackson clocked 48.87 to lay waste to a top-flight global field that included both Javier Culson [49.47] and Michael Tinsley [49.39] – respectively world ranked #1 and #2 in the 400H in 2014. Off to Doha, Bershawn rang up another big victory in capturing the Diamond League 400H opener in a world-leading time of 48.09 – again bettering a star-studded lineup that featured, among others, Culson and 2-time Olympic 400H champion Felix Sanchez. “I didn’t want to be that statistic: that I finish 4th in the Olympic Trials and that’s the end of the Batman,” offers Jackson in revealing a source of motivation. “So this year I came with a better mindset. I came with a humble heart. I got rid of that burden. And I wanted to be as positive as I could; train as I normally do; not do anything extra to cause injuries.”
Adhering to his new philosophy, the veteran hurdler has gone on to notch additional 400H wins at both the Jamaican Invitational and the Guadeloupe Invitational. “I came back with a goal set: to be the best I can be in 2015,” reveals Jackson. “And so far this year, I’ve been doing that. Last year, I wanted to win so bad, I was running everybody else’s race but my own. I ran Javier Culson’s race, I ran Michael Tinsley’s race – because they were winning.” But what is the Batman’s race? “My race is to use my speed to my advantage,” explains Jackson who owns an impressive out-of-the-blocks 400 meter P.R of 45.06. “I want to be in striking distance over the la
st 2 hurdles. Basically, I go out the first three hurdles. I let my momentum carry me over 4, 5, and 6. I start working back into it over 7 and 8. And from there it is all guts and courage -finishing up strong.”
At the Prefontaine Classic, Jackson ran his race. While his customary mid-race float put him at deficit, Batman downshifted with 200 remaining, flew around the curve, and was within striking distance of his training partner Johnny Dutch as they raced past the Bowerman curve. Closing hard over the final two hurdles, Jackson [48.22] simply ran out of real estate in his drive to catch the victorious Dutch [48.20]. Both hurdlers bested an impressive field that once again included Culson and Tinsley.
While his world-leading time [48.09] is still intact, Jackson doesn’t see himself as the 400H favorite at the USATF national meet. “I think I have to prove myself. It has been a blessing so far this season. I have to continue to stay consistent, to run great races. I still have flaws in my race that I’m still trying to correct. I don’t consider myself the favorite because actually my training partner Johnny Dutch is the defending national champ. So at this point, he must be favored.” Jackson knows he still has work to do. “I have to execute my race – going out; running my race; running my points; making sure my hips are square; making sure my trail leg is following through. Until I get back on top of my game where I can say I’m the best in the world, I still have more work to do.”
That additional work may well aid Jackson in his quest to achieve his remaining goals. “I want to win Worlds again – at least two more times,” admits Jackson who is clearly inspired by Justin Gatlin’s sprinting longevity. “I also want to come out with an individual Olympic gold medal. We have a small window of opportunity. I want to maximize every opportunity. I want to be solidified as one of the greatest hurdlers ever. I want my message to be clear: anything you set your mind to, you can achieve. These next three years, I want to put all of my heart and dedication into it. I want to go out with a bang, a serious bang. When all is said and done and I hang up my spikes, I want to know I did everything I could do as an athlete.”
Bershawn Jackson exhibits a rare conversational pause when asked about how he would like to be remembered in the sport. But before too long, he answers. “I want to be remembered as the short guy who fought every time he stepped on the track, that never laid down, who always gave 110%.” Batman’s reinvigorated performances thus far in 2015 enhance the chances this may well be his legacy.
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