ON ITS FACE, Justin Robinson’s rise as America’s top high school 400 runner has been as rapid as his times. The senior-to-be at Hazelwood West High in greater St. Louis made his first international splash last summer when his 45.21 third leg at the World Juniors helped earn 4×4 silver for the U.S. This year brought fast wins at Arcadia (46.22) and Missouri State (46.30). In the first week of June, at Albuquerque’s Great Southwest meet, he crushed the World Youth Record (and national soph-class and age-18 records) with his 44.84(A) to kick off what has been a sensational summer that featured a 43.7 carry (the fastest HS relay leg ever) at the Pan-Am Juniors, then added a 44.2 at the Pan-Am Games. (Continued below)
That timeline is remarkable. The story behind it is far more amazing. “This has been exciting, I’m a little surprised by it all,” Robinson says. “It all came really quickly.” That’s because he didn’t start running track until he reached high school. His first season was in ’17, and he didn’t give up football until that ’18 relay leg—hand-timed in the high 44s—in Finland. “I told coach if I broke 45 I’d quit football and focus on track and try to have a really good year,” he says. “I did it in that relay and quit football.”
The coach, Sean Burris, remembers it well. “After his sophomore year at the World Championships, bringing team USA back for the silver medal, that’s when he let go of football,” Burris says. “He saw the light, that track was what he’s meant to do.”
What Robinson has done since speaks to an immense natural talent, but what should truly excite American 400 fans is that, by design, he’s just starting to touch that talent, explains Burris: “We’ll go into evaluations, there are some deficiencies to address. In about the middle of September we’ll start addressing some issues, get that cleaned up and start working for the Olympic Trials. We don’t run a lot of races; I don’t believe in racing for the sake of racing. Last year he ran one outdoor 400 before he had to run at district. He worked all the way through the state meet, it was like a workout.”
Deficiencies? From a guy who ran a 44.84 as a junior? “I’m going to work more on my 200 speed,” Robinson says. “That’s where I can get better. That’s going to be my focus.”
“He can’t run fast enough to make himself tired,” is how Burris puts it. “We’ve overbuilt the gas tank, now we’re working on the engine.” To that end, Robinson’s training is about to hit a different level. Until now, Burris says he’s taken it easy on his star pupil. No more. “He’s been running track for less than 2 years and I train him as such,” Burris says. “In terms of the volume of work he does, it’s the same volume for anyone whose been running track that long. I give him a lot of rest. The main thing is to keep it enjoyable and fun, that’s the big emphasis.
“But now he can handle more of the upper intensity work, we haven’t touched that. That’s how I know we’re going to see fairly significant improvement next year, as crazy as that sounds. Next year I’m expecting to see him run something pretty amazing. The main thing is to build his speed. Do that, you’ll see him do some things no one has ever done.”
As for what that means his senior year, the goal is to run in the mid-44s in the indoor season—something only a handful of pros have ever done—which would set Robinson up to try to go under 44 outdoors. If he comes anywhere close, and takes care of Darrell Robinson’s ’82 HS Record of 44.69, he’ll be the most recruited prep in America and he has already met with a number of coaches. “That’s been a lot of fun,” Robinson says of the process, but obviously there’s no guarantees he’ll ever put on a college uniform.
“He’ll have to see if it makes sense not to go to run college, and financially his education will have to be covered,” Burris says. “But he’s enjoying it, he’s liked every coach he’s met with. For someone that new to the sport to get that kind of attention is special.”
Now, after wrapping up his long season with a 45.07 that earned him Pan-Am Senior bronze, he will begin a fairly brief offseason, providing a chance to reflect on a 2019 that included running on the recordsetting 4×4 with the year’s other big prep sprint star, Matthew Boling. “That was an incredible experience, it’s fun to be on a stage like that,” Robinson says. “I got to run with some great guys, that was a lot of fun.”
He started setting himself up for that back at Great Southwest when he ran that blazing 44.84. Says Burris, who was actually a college roommate of Robinson’s father, “On the morning of New Mexico, I asked him what he thought he was going to do. He said, ‘I can go 45.1 or 45.2.’ I said, ‘If you do that you’ll be pretty upset because you’ll be right at the U18 World Record.’ In that race, I said, ‘Let’s don’t worry about tactics and splits. Expose yourself, run with heart,’ and that’s what he did.”
Robinson has as much heart as talent, and that could set him up for a special future. ◻︎