HARD TO BELIEVE, but there was a time when Masai Russell wasn’t thought to have much potential in the 100H. In high school, she had only run the event four times before she came to Kentucky to work with coach Lonnie Greene.
Five years later, it’s safe to say that the hurdling world looks at the Wildcat senior a bit differently, after she broke the Collegiate Record with her world-leading 12.36 in her first outdoor meet of the year.
A glance at Russell’s history provides a clear understanding of how she got to this level: she stayed healthy, she stuck with the program, and she got a little bit better every year.
As a prep in Maryland’s powerhouse Bullis program, Russell started out as a sprinter who was drawn to the longer barrier races. Her improvement stayed gradual until her senior year, when she went into overdrive, winning State titles in 13.84 and a nation-leading 40.16, good for No. 4 on the all-time HS list. The 100H time was her fourth race ever in the event. She went on to place 3rd in the USATF Junior 400H at 57.65.
She looks back now on those days and says, “I was just blessed to have a high school coach that knew what he was doing and knew the plan, especially going into college. I wasn’t an athlete who was always the best at a younger age.”
That focus on gradual development carried on in Lexington with Coach Greene. Says Russell, “I feel like my body has been able to take the time to develop and adjust to the training and the way that my high school coach and my college coach have trained me.”
It’s been a one-step-at-a-time process. As a Wildcat frosh, she made All-SEC in all three hurdle races (60 indoors, 100 & 400 out). She got her first trip to the NCAA in the 400H, were she ran a best of 57.34 at the East Regional. Later, she PRed for 2nd at USATF Juniors in 56.78 and improved again to 56.29 to win silver at the Pan-Am Juniors.
The next year, 2020, saw her PR in her indoor events before COVID shut the season down. She came back in ’21 even stronger, finishing 4th in the NCAA with a PR 56.18 and making it to the OT semis. At 100H, she PRed at 12.90 and ended up 6th in the NCAA.
Last season, the improvement continued. She ran 7.95 to place 2nd in the NCAA Indoor. Outdoors, after improving to 12.71 and 55.36, she took 3rd in the NCAA 100H and 4th in the 400H. She later cut her 400H time to 55.02 before placing 6th in the USATF final.
Most hurdlers would be thrilled with a season like that. Not so much Russell, who explains, “At the end of my 400H race, I was literally crying to my coach because I just knew there was so much more for me. I was not very happy with the result, but I know that I’m one of those individuals who are relentless and I know that through work and time, great things will come. I mean, I knew I was still doing great.
“I was still content and blessed for where I was at. But as a competitor, you always want more for yourself.”
So the grinding continued over the winter. “I stuck to the same training plan. I think the thing that has made the biggest difference in the success that I’ve had this year is the mentality that I’ve brought into this season. If you can do the big things and you can put up the big times, then you can win. And I’m like, ‘Why not you?’ That’s all I was saying leading up to this season, ‘Why not me?’
“God blesses everybody in different ways and you know, when you take a step back, you just always tend to doubt yourself. But when you switch it around and look from a different angle and say, ‘Why not you?’ I think that great things start to happen. Because when your mind is intact with the goals that you have, there’s literally nothing that I believe you cannot do.”
The results of that mindset produced a Collegiate Record in the indoor season, when she flew to a 7.75 over 60H at the Red Raider Open in Lubbock. However, coming into the NCAA Indoor with the favorite’s mantle, she found herself losing the CR and finishing 2nd to Arkansas’s Ackera Nugent, despite running another 7.75.
“It didn’t end the way that I wanted it to,” she reflects, “but, you know, everything happens for a reason and hey, it is what it is. Things happen and it’s just a race and some people just show up and are better on that day. The only thing that I can do is continue to focus on myself and do the things that I can do. I’m not really worried about what other people have going on. When I do what’s right for me and focus on me and focus on what I have going on in my lane, I feel like there’s nothing that I possibly can’t do.”
On the way down to the Texas Relays, she says, “My coach was talking about breaking the Collegiate Record just based off the times I was running in practice. He was saying, ‘7.7 correlates to 12.20s and 12.30s, so that’s what I need you to do.’”
But she admits that at the starting line, she was only focused on winning: “Time will take care of itself when you’re winning. I was just trying to execute and open up. I just wanted to see what I would run in the 100H off that indoor peak.”
The Austin race itself was a blur. “If I’m being honest, I don’t really remember how it felt,” she says with a laugh. “It was like a flash.” Then she saw the clock and her immediate thought was, “I could do anything I put my mind to. I feel like I proved to myself and everybody once again that I am one of the best hurdlers in the world and I’m just continuing to prove it to myself.
“I was so happy when [the wind gauge] said 2.0, because the day before it was 5.9 when I ran my 12.61 heat. I was like, ‘Man, that wind!’ So, I was so happy that it was right at the legal limit to have counted towards the Collegiate Record. That was super great.”
The timing is good, she says. “I feel like I’m just like right where I need to be. I’m not like peaking too early, which is clear. I mean, it took me 5 years to get to where I’m at now. And I think it’s honestly just the beginning because the way that my coach trains me is very consistent. It’s not about trying to get too fast too soon. It’s just all coming together at the right time.”
The day will come, Russell knows, when she may have to choose between the hurdle events: “That’ll be more of a decision once I am a professional. Right now for points purposes, I’m running both hurdles. But I understand that my short hurdles is going to be what will bring me much more success and pay my bills once I do transition to the professional space.”
She adds, “The 400H is definitely my first love because the 400H are what got me into hurdling to begin with. So I have to give my props to the 400H. But the 100H has definitely turned into a passion of mine.”
Then she laughs again and admits, “My motivation to be good at the 100H was to not hurt as bad as I do in practice for the 400H. I was like, ‘I’m going to get good at the 100H because of how hard the 400H is.’ And, I mean, it ended up working out.”