THE LAST THING on Britton Wilson’s mind at the NCAA Championships was breaking records. Like the rest of the Arkansas team, she came to win, and to do that she needed to stick to the plan. For the 400, she says, “Honestly, I just wanted to execute a clean race. That was what me and my coach had talked about going into it, was just to run smart and run efficiently. I just wanted to stay clean and not get caught up in any traffic or get tripped up or anything like that. It was mainly just trying to run a clean and efficient race.”
Did she have any sense of how fast she was moving? “No,” she says with a laugh. “I was just trying to execute and run well. My coach told me if I’m gonna make a move to make my move all the way through the finish line. So that was kind of what was going through my head. Like, ‘If I’m gonna pass somebody now, then I need to run all the way to the finish.’”
Then she glanced at the clock and saw the number: 49.48. Not just a personal record or a school record, but an American Record and the fastest ever run by a collegian indoors or out. “I was just over-the-moon excited. I didn’t know I ran that fast and I just couldn’t believe it. I was really, really, really excited.”
Her coach, Chris Johnson, might have been happy too: “Someone told me they saw him jumping up and down.”
Her work wasn’t done. The Razorbacks, in a furious battle for the team crown, called on her to anchor the 4×4. As the collegiate list leaders, the squad was heavily favored in the race. Coming into the final hand-off, third leg Rosie Effiong had a 20-meter lead on Texas. Not that she was doing any math at that point, but in hindsight, Wilson could have coasted a 53.1 and delivered the victory.
Coasting was the last thing on her mind. “I was just thinking to go out with a bang for the team. We really wanted to send out coach [Lance] Harter with his last [indoor] nationals as a team title. I was just thinking to run my hardest and give my best effort so that we were guaranteed the team win. I didn’t know how fast I was going or how big the gap was or anything like that. I was just running my hardest, trying to finish strong. It was really exciting when I came to the line.”
She was floored when a reporter told her how fast she had gone: 49.19, the fastest indoor split in world history, putting the exclamation point on her team running the fastest-ever indoor 4×4.
Clearly, the ’23 version of Britton Wilson is far stronger than the ’22 version, the one who ran 51.52 for 4th in last year’s NCAA Indoor. Could it have been all the 800s she’s been running? “That was just keeping me healthy going through the indoor season. I was dealing with a lot of injuries in my shins, so that’s why we tried not to focus on running a lot of 400s and doing a lot of speed work because it was hard managing the pain level.
“That was initially why we did the 600 [a collegiate record 1:25.16]. And then the 800s, it just became a for-fun type of thing. Coach asked if I wanted to try it, and I said sure. We could use the extra points in different events because we had so many girls stacked up in the SEC 400. So honestly, it was just for fun and trying it out. It wasn’t really like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna run those longer events and then drop down to the 4.’ It was mainly trying to protect my legs.”
Wait a second here. A 400-type calling the 800 “fun”?
“I really enjoyed trying a new event. I haven’t tried a new event since high school, and that was really fun just to branch out and try something new. I also liked how different it is from the 4, the pacing. Obviously, you’re racing it fast, but it’s a lot different from a full-out sprint. I thought it was really cool actually having to pace through 400 and 600… It definitely hurt,” she adds with a laugh, “but I didn’t hate it. I still want to try it again, hopefully in my pro career.”
That pro career might already have started after the ’22 season that Wilson produced. The NCAA champion at 400 hurdles, she took 2nd at USATF behind Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone in 53.08, then finished 5th at Worlds. On the relay, she joined her teammates in winning gold.
It was all a far cry from the previous season at Tennessee, when she clocked just 58.68, not even close to the high school best of 56.36 she ran in winning USATF Juniors in 2019. “A lot of it I have to attribute to coach Johnson,” she explains. “He transformed me physically with his workouts, but also mentally I was in a really hard spot when I transferred. I wasn’t improving and I knew I was a lot better than what I was doing.
“It was hard to just go into Arkansas just trusting coach Johnson and trusting the process when I trusted the process at Tennessee and it didn’t really get me anywhere. So mentally it was a battle, but I think coach Johnson really helped me to learn how to be strong mentally and how to keep my composure in these hard workouts and at these big meets. I think all of that collectively contributed to what I did last year.”
Agents noticed and dangled professional possibilities before her. She nearly took the bait. “I was looking forward to going pro, but after talking to coach Johnson about a lot of the ins and outs and where money was lying, he was just kind of like, ‘I think it would be better if you build your résumé for one more year and see if you can break some more records, do more things, and then we’ll go pro.’
“At first I was not really excited because I felt like I was passing up an opportunity. Now that I am here it makes more sense. I see what his vision was now, but at that moment I was like, ‘No, I wanna go pro now!’
“I trust coach Johnson. I was blindly trusting him and believing what he said was right. It definitely made a lot more sense for me to stay my year.”
The sociology student — she graduates next summer — says the main goal this outdoor season is being healthy: “I’m just trying to keep my body right and my mind right and stay healthy. I’m a lot stronger this year. That comes with the experience of having last year under my belt and changing my goals and always wanting to be better. I’ve got to keep myself healthy for the bigger goals, which is Worlds and all that. I definitely want to have a fun, exciting outdoor season.”
Will she try to qualify in the 400 flat or hurdles? “We’re going to take it meet-by-meet and cross that bridge when we get there. It’s kinda cool that I could potentially do both or decide which one I want to do, but I think we’ll honestly just see how it feels when we get closer to that time.”
For now, she aims to keep enjoying her time as a Razorback: “That’s what kind of separates us from other teams is that we all know how good each other is and we all wanna be better than each other, so we’re always pushing each other to be the best.”