THE SECOND IN A SERIES of event-focus articles on the U.S. men’s 110 hurdles, a loaded discipline for Team USA and decidedly one to watch when competition resumes.
CHANGING COACHES IN AN OLYMPIC YEAR can be a bit dicey, but for Devon Allen, not quite so much. For one thing, it turned out to not be an Olympic year after all. For another, it’s not exactly a new coach, but a reunion with an old one.
Allen, the reigning Olympic Trials champion in the 110H, made the cross-country drive to Maryland in early April so that he could again work with Jamie Cook, his mentor at Oregon who coached him to three NCAA titles and his OT win. Cook now coaches at Navy.
“Obviously I had success with him when I was in college,” explains Allen. “But as a young man, I didn’t necessarily want to move to the East Coast when he got the head job at the Naval Academy [in ‘17].”
Instead, Allen returned to his high school coach, Tim O’Neil, and trained in Phoenix. “He’s also a great coach,” says Allen. “Just sometimes things don’t really work out as well. I just wasn’t running as fast as before. Obviously, there are tons of factors where it can be health related and stuff like that. But I thought going back to what I was doing when I was running well would give me a good chance to run fast.”
So after Allen shut his indoor season down with nagging Achilles issues, he made the decision to move in February. Then COVID-19 hit the headlines: “I decided maybe I should just wait. And it became a thing where I was like, ‘OK, I’m waiting forever now. I may as well just go.’ So I drove across the country.”
There are hurdlers who would kill to have just a share of Allen’s accomplishments in the last few years, even though he required ACL surgeries in both ’15 (right knee) and ’16 (left knee) after football-incurred injuries.
As a 19-year-old Oregon frosh in ’14 he had won an NCAA/USATF double, and after missing the ’15 campaign he went on to win the ’16 OT and take 5th in Rio. In ’17, he placed 3rd at USATF and Ranked No. 5 in the world; in ’18, he won at USATF and Ranked No. 6; last season, he won the USATF Indoor but in April his right Achilles flared up.
“I was supposed to open up at Drake Relays, but I took some time off to be healthy,” he explains. “I decided to do that World Relays event [where he anchored Team USA to the win in the mixed shuttle hurdles], but my Achilles was bothering me there.”
He pulled out of two big meets in China, rehabbed, and then, “I decided to jumpstart my season again, four weeks from USAs. I went over to Europe and did a couple of meets, and was having Achilles issues again.”
More rehab. But he went to Des Moines anyway, and amazingly, made the World Championship team. “Luckily, I skinned by—by a hundredth of a second. Then I was able to take another rest. After that, I was trying to get healthy again, get back into training. It happens to lots of athletes. It’s not always who’s fastest and the best, it’s who can stay healthy and manage the season when it counts.”
The whole season was peaks and valleys, a roller coaster ride for Allen. “First of all I was surprised I made the team. Obviously I want to compete and I think I have the talent to make every World team, every Olympic team that I’m running for. But you know, I trained with Freddie Crittenden and a couple of those fast guys and I’m aware of Grant [Holloway] and Daniel [Roberts] and all those guys. I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to have a hard time making the team for this one.’
“And then I ended up making it.” His 13.38 in 3rd edged Crittenden’s 13.39, as Roberts (13.23) and Holloway (13.36) took the top two spots.
Back to rehab and training, Allen didn’t toe the line again until Doha. A 13.36 semi sent him to the final. “There,” he says, “I didn’t run great.” He hit 13.70 for 7th from lane 3, next to Spain’s Orlando Ortega. “My slowest time of the year, but it is what it is. Kind of a chaotic final to say the least.”
Now quarantined like most of the nation, Allen is playing it safe while struggling to find places to train. “Most things are shut down. We’re hopping fences to work out at tracks, like most athletes.” He adds, “I got lucky. My coach has a little weight setup in his basement, so I can go over there and lift.”
Yet with no certain schedule to aim for, periodization doesn’t come easy. “That’s the dilemma,” says Allen. “You don’t know exactly what to do. We decided that we’re just going to try to get as strong and fast as possible. We’re doing a lot of speed development, plyometrics and lifting heavy and lifting fast. If there is a season we can adjust as we go.”
The real target in Allen’s mind is not simply to regain or better the 13.03 form that helped him win the last OT: “The goal for me is winning an Olympic gold medal. If I run 13.50 and still win a gold medal, I’ll be ecstatic. But running fast is probably No. 1 because that’s what’s going to get you through those rounds and give you a chance to compete for that medal.”
With a touchy Achilles (“better than 90% now”) and the original Games dates a few months away, Allen admits, “I have more time to be healthy and train. It is probably the best case for me. If the Olympics were this year anyways, I think I would have been ready. But it doesn’t hurt me to have another 18 months.
“I’m just excited for the time to come, with the Olympics coming up in 2021. This gives everybody a chance to restart and be reenergized. This Olympics, I think, will be one of the biggest and most anticipated ever.”