Aleia Hobbs Ready For The Next Step

The USATF win made Aleia Hobbs only the fourth woman ever to win an NCAA/USATF 100 double. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

Her footspeed first showed itself in an adrenaline-aided escape from a menacing dog outside her church when she was 7 years old. As Aleia Hobbs has told the world before, that canine encounter moved a family friend who saw it, “Miss Tanya,” to recruit her as a trackster. Fast-forward to the present: in her last two collegiate seasons Hobbs tuned the jets in her feet for explosions down the straight to a low-altitude Collegiate Record 9.85 in ’17, an NCAA Indoor 60 crown last winter, and two national 100 titles, NCAA and USATF, last June. Neither knee surgery nor rain nor heat—nor knee surgery again—stays Hobbs from the swift completion of her appointed rounds as she sets the stage for her adidas-sponsored professional career.

Asked what she most looks forward to this coming season, Hobbs’s answer is forthright, delivered with a smile and colored by her last two competitions, those victorious championships outings: “The big meets. I like big meets, actually running with—I was running with some great people so I’m really excited about doing that.”

The New Orleans native, set to graduate from LSU in December, won’t be stopped if she has anything to say about it. If any part of her has balked, it has been those troublesome knees, first in ’15, a frosh season with the Bayou Bengals in which she cut her best from a high school PR of 11.49 down to 11.13 in the NCAA semis. She placed 2nd at the USATF Junior Champs that summer on a left knee that wasn’t entirely cooperative.

“I started feeling it toward the end of my freshman year,” Hobbs says, “but we decided to wait till after the Pan-Am Junior meet in Canada [another runner-up finish], then I got surgery,” a week later. Hobbs was unable to sprint until the next January and admits her ’16 results, with an 11.34 best, disappointed. Even after she blasted the low-altitude CR in ’17, “junior year my post-season didn’t go as I expected it to [5th at the NCAA with teammate Mikiah Brisco winning, 7th at USATF],” Hobbs recalls. “But I knew that there were still some physical things I needed to do. My body still wasn’t all the way feeling well. So after that I just started working more rehab, and also mentally—I had to be stronger mentally because after the surgery and after my sophomore season I kind of had that time where I was down.”

She admits she harbored doubts, “But my teammates, my coaches, my family, I just prayed a lot and everybody just told me, ‘It’ll be OK, just keep on praying. If anything, you’re going to get stronger from this.’ So past that I just really just was getting myself mentally prepared, and I think that was really important.”

Which ’18 performance particularly makes Hobbs smile? That question sparks another smile. “NCAA Nationals,” she says. “Just because of the weather. I have never competed in weather like that.” Dumping rain, in which Hobbs’ 11.01 splashed her into a zone of her own, 0.23 ahead of 2nd. “I was just proud that I overcame the obstacles and stuff like that.”

Among onlookers, incredulity and even laughter broke out at officials’ decision to fire the starting gun. “The track had puddles on it,” Hobbs remembers, breaking out in laughter of her own. “That had to be the best race just because of that, and it was freezing.” The champion “wanted a 10 again,” as a sub-11 would have been her eighth for the year in nine races, interrupted only by a negative-wind 11.06 at home in April. “I wanted to continuously run a 10 but I did the best I could.” She clung with commitment to LSU coach Dennis Shaver’s observation that conditions are the same in every lane.

Hobbs blocked out the conditions “completely” before the NCAA start, “But while I was running I was thinking about the rain,” she admits, “because it kept hitting me in my eyes.” She could see just “barely but I knew I just had to go straight. The whole time I was running I just kept blinking and blinking but I feel like the whole race I was really excited because my family was also in the stands.” As her Hobbs’ mom, grandmother, sister and niece looked on from the cover of Hayward Field’s the now-demolished East Grandstand, “I knew they were just right there to the right of me excited, so I’m just running and I didn’t see anybody [on her periphery] like you do so I’m like, ‘OK, I think I’m about to win the NCAA championship.’ I was really just excited the whole race.”

While Hobbs’ USATF encore 2 weeks later wasn’t planned as her last race for the year, a knee—this time her right—had other ideas and there would be no European Circuit debut. “I was supposed to run in one of the Diamond League meets,” she says, “but my knee wasn’t feeling too good and I got surgery right [after] I left, I didn’t compete.” Undetected as she sped through the domestic championship season—“Usually when I’m about to compete my adrenaline will be so high, I’m ready to run”—the knee problem manifested itself as “catching” in the joint while walking European ground for the first time. “Basically, I was kinda bone on bone, the same thing as my other knee,” she says, “but in this one I had a little extra flap of cartilage which was hurting me in Europe. They had to go in there, drill just a couple of holes in it, just clean it up a little bit and cut off the extra flap.”

Since her surgery in August—medics anticipate a full recovery—Hobbs has been back in “the rehab stage” and began treadmill jogging in late October. Her summer and fall have been devoted to finishing her Interdisciplinary Studies degree and watching Netflix. “But I saw just about everything on Netflix,” she says, “so I kind of switched over to Starz.” And to FX, home of the series Snowfall, a dramatization of the ’80s crack epidemic in LA. Hobbs also probably is not the first college student to have delayed her discovery of Breaking Bad, another fave she cites, until now when her schedule has eased somewhat.

As Hobbs seeks to extend her status as ’18’s hottest U.S. dashwoman into the World Championships campaign ahead, the global title meet’s anomalous late staging next fall will give her time to return her knee and the rest of her body to full fitness.

“I’ve never competed that long, on into October,” she says. “That’ll be the first time for that.” Staying in Baton Rouge under Shaver’s watchful eye, “This year we’re kind of taking it day by day,” she adds. “I’m not sure exactly what meets I’ll be competing in to get prepared for the Worlds [and the U.S. Trials in July] but we definitely want to have a good plan. Either way, I will be prepared.”

Looking forward to donning that college graduation cap before year’s end, Hobbs has identified an area in which she can improve her preparation for sprinting. “At home-wise, I’m excited about eating better,” she says. “I won’t be taking classes, I won’t have that much time on campus, I can actually be home and focusing on what I’m eating. I think that will be important for my training.”

No longer is Aleia Hobbs running from big dogs. She’s running with the big dogs.