THE FIRST 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.
“THIS COULD HAVE BEEN the year, you know.”
Freddie Crittenden is not wrong. The hurdler who only won one high school State title outdoors—and who never won an NCAA crown—came knocking on the international door in ’19, hard.
After skimming the barriers in a PR 13.27 and earning No. 9 in the World Rankings during his first full pro season in ’18, last year the Syracuse alum put together another solid campaign, placing 4th at USATF, winning silver at the Pan-Ams and blitzing a PR 13.17 at the Paris DL. Crittenden finished 3rd in that race behind Daniel Roberts and Orlando Ortega, and ahead of Euro champ Pascal Martinot-Lagarde, soon-to-be World champ Grant Holloway, Asian champ Wenjun Xie and ’15 World champ Sergey Shubenkov.
Very much in the mix, in other words.
“I was extremely happy with my season,” says the No. 10-rated hurdler on the planet. “I’ve always been the kind of athlete that’s been kind of right there and I was super-consistent all of last year from the beginning all the way through to the end, so when I finally got the breakthrough, I was extremely pleased.”
It all started at McCluer North High (Florissant, Missouri). After a 9th-grade season spent as a 400 guy, he was tested over the barriers: “I didn’t know what I was doing. I kinda went after it and I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m pretty decent at it.’”
With his full-lap-dashing background, he focused on the 300H, where he finished 5th at State in 39.17 that season. The highs were covered by teammate Aaron Mallett, who went on to become a Big 10 champ at Iowa and won the USATF Indoor this winter.
The Crittenden family moved to Utica, Michigan, for his last two prep years. There Freddie met coach Roger White, a masseur who has been on USATF staffs. A bond was formed: “He was a great coach. He took me under his wing at the start because he was new to coaching too. We worked together and did our best to make something happen.”
The magic moment came when White suggested the 11th-grader switch lead legs. “When I switched to the left leg, it made everything easier somehow,” Crittenden explains. “Everything just started clicking into place.”
He then burst into national prominence as a senior, crushing a nation-leading 7.72 to win the New Balance Indoor 60H. “Out of nowhere; nobody knew who I was,” he says. “That got me a lot of looks for a short period. Then I got hurt after indoors.”
Syracuse, though, stayed interested, even though Crittenden’s best time over the 110s was just 14.36 (plus a windy 14.10). Speed coach Dave Hegland had guided Jarrett Eaton to the ’12 NCAA Indoor title the year before. On his visit, Crittenden ran into Eaton in the track office: “He said, ‘I look forward to seeing you in the fall,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll be there in the fall.’” Back then Crittenden was Eaton’s awestruck fan; today they’re roommates.
At Syracuse Crittenden eventually developed into one of the nation’s top collegians. As both a junior and senior he forged runner-up finishes at the NCAA Indoor. “I always had a lot of good training, a lot of good consistency,” he says. “And then something random would pop up.”
In the ’16 East Regional, finishing his fastest outdoor race ever—a barely windy 13.43—he explains, “I tried to lean a little too hard and started stumbling. I planted one of my legs and hyper-extended my knee and tore some ligaments.” He still managed to place 4th at the NCAA, and at the Olympic Trials, he advanced to the semis, finishing 5th.
As a senior in ’17, after another Indoor 2nd, he pulled a hamstring at Regionals and didn’t finish. So much for hitting the ground running as a pro.
But Crittenden wasn’t done: “It took a lot of motivation and dedication to the craft. Just focusing on things that I love about the sport. I had to suppress all the comparisons that I had of myself and other athletes. I had to just focus on myself and keep developing, keep grinding, and have hope and faith that at the end everything will work out.
“Tony Campbell was the only agent who called me. He gave me a chance. Same thing with my coaches and family and friends. They’ll push me to keep going and they know this is something I’m passionate about.”
Financially it’s not always easy, as major shoe sponsorships don’t trickle very far down the U.S. Rankings. “In the past couple of years,” he says, “I’ve done all right in terms of just getting prize money, but for sure before that I’ve had to get other jobs. I worked at GameStop for a few months. I’ve subbed a bit—substitute teaching, because it’s flexible.
“You definitely have to find a way to figure it out without the shoe contracts. You’ve got to keep the train rolling so you can be ready when the time comes. So yeah, definitely difficult, but you gotta do what you gotta do when you love something.”
Now Crittenden is helping coach at Phoenix’s Brophy Prep, where he trains. He’s part of the Phoenix TC group that was originally brought together by Devon Allen: fellow Syracuse alum Jarret Eaton, as well as Canada’s Johnathan Cabral (13.34), Britain’s David King (13.48) and Australia’s Nick Andrews (13.76).
Coaching them is Tim O’Neil, who guided Allen in high school and for two years as a pro. While the 25-year-old Crittenden is excited about how training has been going, he admits that the C19 pandemic has turned it into a struggle.
“They kicked us off the track because they shut the whole campus down,” he says. “We’ve had to take a step back and rationalize what’s the best option… If there aren’t any meets, you know, should we be trying other ways to make money, should we be planning something else, or just staying away from each other?
“This is weird, but the only thing we’re trying to do right now is maintaining fitness. Go to the park, run around, do some 300s, do some grass runs, in case something down the road pops up. We have to reevaluate every couple of weeks as things develop.”
Crittenden fully intends to be in the mix when the sport returns to normal, saying, “I was hoping this would be the year that I could solidify my name in the big picture. The goal doesn’t change; it’s just gonna postpone. So come 2021 when the Olympic Trials are here, I’m going to have that same mentality, that same tenacity, the same grit, the same plan.”