BYU track star Shaquille Walker sets sight on an Olympic medal

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A junior studying exercise science, Shaquille Walker went from not knowing that colleges recruited for track to becoming one of BYU’s top runners. (Photo by Alisha Gallagher)

A junior studying exercise science, Shaquille Walker went from not knowing that colleges recruited for track to becoming one of BYU’s top runners. (Photo by Alisha Gallagher)

Shaquille Walker was convinced he was a sprinter, so he got his freshman high school coach to put him in the 100-meter, and he ran against five others at Liberty High School in his home state of Georgia. He placed fourth.

“I remember thinking, ‘How are you running faster than me? I’m moving as fast as I can!’” Shaquille says. “I didn’t like how that felt.”

At the next race, he listened to his coach, who knew Shaquille’s speed and endurance could fuel him through the 800. His coach told him to run when the gun goes off and to stay with the leaders. With no concept of pacing, Shaquille did just that — and won with a time of 2:15.

Shaquille didn’t lose often after that. He advanced through the county, state and regional competitions, twice winning the 800 state championships.

[pullquote]“I decided I was going to have fun this year, so I got pink spikes. It reminds me I can’t take myself too seriously. Because if you wear pink spikes, you’ve gotta have swag.” —Shaquille Walker, BYU track and field[/pullquote]

That’s when things started to change. He wasn’t LDS, but he was dating an LDS girl at the time, and her dad asked about his plans after high school. He suggested BYU, and he gave him the email address for Ed Eyestone, the BYU track and field head coach.

“He told me they’d fly me out, give me a tour of campus, put me up in a hotel — and I didn’t even know universities recruited for track,” Shaquille says.

He took his first-ever plane ride out to BYU and loved his campus experience. After considering a few other schools, he chose BYU, bid farewell to Georgia, and got to work. A few months later, he was baptized as a member of the LDS Church. A few months after that, he had his mission call to Manchester, England.

“I ran 30 miles in those two years,” Shaquille says. (Now, on an average training week, he runs 45 miles.) “Three months after I got home, I ran faster than I had ever run — beating my personal best time by two seconds. I can’t explain it, other than ‘blessings.’”

With those blessings came battles.

“I had a problem with getting into the racing mentality,” Shaquille says. “I would sometimes hope a car wreck would stop me from making it to the race. It wasn’t fun anymore, and I was losing a lot of sleep because the thought of racing became horrifying.”

But he found the cure — his running shoes.

Shaquille Walker's Favorite Firsts: Proudest First Place: Winning gold in the 800 at the World University Games in Korea. First Things First: First thing Shaquille does when he arrives in the racing venue city is look for a Subway. Four hours before the gun goes off, he orders the same Subway sandwich every time: One footlong Cold Cut Combo on 9-grain honey oat, with spinach, American cheese, salt, pepper, black olives, oil and vinegar. First First Place: A high school 800-meter race in Bryan County, Georgia, with a time of 2:15.

Shaquille Walker’s Favorite Firsts:
Proudest First Place: Winning gold in the 800 at the World University Games in Korea.
First Things First: First thing Shaquille does when he arrives in the racing venue city is look for a Subway. Four hours before the gun goes off, he orders the same Subway sandwich every time: One footlong Cold Cut Combo on 9-grain honey oat, with spinach, American cheese, salt, pepper, black olives, oil and vinegar.
First First Place: A high school 800-meter race in Bryan County, Georgia, with a time of 2:15.

“I decided I was going to have fun this year, so I got pink spikes,” Shaquille says. “It reminds me I can’t take myself too seriously. Because if you wear pink spikes, you’ve gotta have swag.”

Soon after he returned from his mission, Shaquille broke the BYU record for the fastest outdoor 800 time, running it in 1:45. (He also holds the record for the fastest indoor 800 time at BYU, with a time of 1:47). So as far as firsts go, that was a big one — but not nearly as big as his July win in the World University Games in Gwangju, Korea.

“I went to Korea super focused, ready to win, and then before the final race, a huge typhoon blew in,” Shaquille says. “I had never raced in the rain before, and here I was in Korea, seeing a power line get blown over by huge gusts of wind. But everything came together.”

Shaquille placed first for Team USA, making him the first American to win gold in the 800 since 1976, with a time of 1:49. Then he experienced another first of his own.

“I never understood how these runners I saw on TV had the energy to do a victory lap with the American flag after they spent everything on the race they just finished,” Shaquille says. “But now I get it — the adrenaline kicks in. When I won in Korea, they threw me a flag, I did my victory lap, stood on the podium and everything. It was something I had always wanted to do.”

His dream now is to win it again on a bigger stage. An Olympic stage.

“I want to make the 2016 Olympic Team, which means I’ll have to run faster than I ever have before,” Shaquille says.

He placed sixth in the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships this year, and he’ll have to place third or higher next year to qualify.

“I like my chances,” Shaquille says. “A lot of people don’t set their vision high enough, but I’m setting mine high, for the Olympics. I’m pushing myself, and I think it’s only up from here.”

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Alisha swapped plains for peaks when she moved to Utah from her Kansas hometown. After graduating from BYU and traveling around China with her husband, Shane, they put down roots in Utah Valley, where Alisha first fell in love with yoga, learned to ski and discovered fry sauce. Alisha is an associate editor, writing for Utah Valley Magazine and UtahValley360.com. Follow her on Twitter @alishagallag.

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