IT FELT GOOD, very good, when Justin Robinson crossed the line of the Mt. SAC Relays 400. It wasn’t just winning; it was also the time on the clock — 44.98. For the first time in nearly three years, the former high school phenom had dipped under 45.
It has been a while coming. Back in ’19, Robinson was a junior at West HS in Hazelwood, Missouri, and his every step indicated serious talent. He produced the 7 fastest prep 1-lappers in the nation that year, topped by a class-record 44.84 in Albuquerque’s friendly altitude at the Great Southwest meet. He took the USATF Junior (U20) title in 45.59, and kept his undefeated streak going all the way to the Pan-Am Juniors, where he won bronze with a low-altitude best of 45.07.
Not surprisingly, he and his high school coach, Sean Burris, set their sights for the next year on Darrell Robinson’s prep record of 44.69 that had — and still has — endured since ’82. That mark, it seemed to many, was living on borrowed time.
Then the pandemic happened. Virtually every meet on Robinson’s calendar was canceled. He wasn’t able to line up an outdoor race until August, when the American Track League had a meet in Marietta, Georgia. Four of the men he competed against had World Championships relay medals to their names: Michael Cherry, Vernon Norwood, Britain’s Matthew Hudson-Smith and Trinidad’s Machel Cedenio.
Robinson wasn’t intimidated. He beat them all to the line in 44.91, a new low-altitude PR. Another race or two, and he might have taken down Darrell Robinson’s record. It wasn’t to be. With the pandemic making most colleges stay-at-home affairs at that point, the Arizona State signee made arrangements to wait another year to don the maroon and gold and keep working with Burris through the Olympic year.
No lie, he says, it was a hard time for him: “Just staying focused and keeping the goal in mind was what really helped me to get back on track and not get myself down too much. Everything was not going as planned, but you still have to just keep training and having goals in mind and keep shooting for the ultimate goal of making the Olympics and getting medals.”
So he ran unattached in ’21. At the USATF Golden Games, his last race before the Trials, he hit a season best 45.00. At the Trials, he placed 5th in his semi in 45.41, missing the final by 0.24. Not quite what he was looking for, but he was still just a teenager.
It was time to go to college. In Tempe, Robinson started to work with Sun Devil head Dion Miller. Instant success didn’t happen. Though Robinson placed 4th in both the 200 and 400 at the Pac-12 and ran 45.30 at the West Regional, at the Nationals he got stuck in his 400 semi.
He admits he was disappointed. “I think I was just getting used to college and just switching training programs could have played a big role in my performance.”
Looking back, he says the fact that he was a high school superstar did not lead to more pressure in Tempe, at least not from other people. He says the real culprit was himself. “Most definitely. I was just expecting to do much better in college than I did in high school,” Robinson says. “I think that’s where the pressure came from.”
That being said, he would still occasionally get the “Whatever happened to you?” treatment from others in the sport: “You’re always going to get that side of things, but I think that the people that matter, they still believe in me, still have faith in me, so I really don’t pay attention to the others.”
He still hears from Burris: “Just having him tell me to just be patient and things will come, man, don’t rush it… stuff like that has helped me a lot.”
That the tide was turning became apparent when he won the USATF Indoor 400 in February, finishing well ahead of Noah Williams in an indoor PR 45.40. “It felt great, man,” he says, “Just knowing I’ve still got it. It helps to be able to point at that and say, I’m back.”
This season, he says he has made the adjustment to the college scene: “I’m on a better track than last year. I need to just mature a little bit more so I can handle some of the harder workouts, and be able to drop my 200 times [he set his PR of 20.52 last year] down a little bit so I can be comfortable coming through a little bit faster in the first half of my race. I think that would be a start.
“Man, I just have to continue on the path I’m going on now, just continue to improve my time and continue to be the best that I can. That’s all I can ask for, honestly.”
Says Miller, “The sky’s the limit. Justin is capable of anything he puts his mind to. He loves the sport and I think he’s enjoying it. Our plan is for him to continue having success and I think Justin has high expectations. For him to open up at 44, it definitely was a good indicator on his training and what he’s able to do. We are definitely excited.”
Robinson just turned 21 on March 30. He says, “I do kind of feel a mixture of both old and young in the sport right now, but as far as experience, I have some of the best like those older guys. As far as running goes, I think I’m pretty young in that aspect.” He adds with a laugh, “Now, these young guys are running pretty fast.”
He’s certainly no longer the high school phenom. “I’m a different person. Just coming to college and growing up a little bit and learning how to communicate a little better, especially with my coaches, I’ve matured.”
Yet he holds on to big goals for the future: “I think I can shoot for the World Record eventually.”
For this season, though, he is primarily focused on trying to make it to Worlds: “That’s my ultimate goal: make the World Championship team and be able to have an opportunity to medal for us.” ◻︎