IT WAS MAY 7 of last year and Elija Godwin suddenly found himself close to death. His mind a whirl of panicked thoughts, he lay on the ground impaled by a javelin.
The accident happened innocently enough—the Georgia frosh was doing a backwards sprinting drill. The javelin had inadvertently been left stuck in the ground. He never saw it.
A promising recruit who came to Athens as a 3-time T&FN HS All-America in the 400 with PRs of 20.71 and 45.83, he had already improved to 20.59 in the half-lapper. In the longer sprint he was close, at 45.92. He was set to leave the next day for the SEC Championships, where he hoped to boost himself into the national picture. “I was feeling real good that day,” he says. “I was ready.” The drill was a common one. “I was accustomed to doing the backwards run. I’m not looking behind me.
“As soon as I ran into it, I really was confused. It felt like somebody had just stopped me with a hand. It felt like a punch. I could feel the weight of it. I kind of freaked out; I lost my bearings. I’d say there was 10 seconds of panic before I got completely calm.”
One of his first thoughts, lying on the ground was “You’ve got to get this out of my back and I’ll be good.” He still thought he would be competing for the team that weekend.
“Then I realized a javelin was in my back, and right after that I started coughing up blood.” The javelin had pierced his left lung. “I’m thinking about movies—any movie I ever watched where a character is coughing up blood, they usually die. That was my indication. I’m like, ‘OK, now I get what’s going on.’
“I was actually gearing up to, ‘OK, this is my final moment.’ I started praying. I put it in God’s hands.”
While trainers and team personnel were stabilizing him and waiting for an ambulance, Godwin found more calm. “The trainers made me feel real at peace,” he says. “Moments passed and I’m like, ‘I ain’t passed out yet. So maybe I might live.’ I asked the trainers, ‘What can I do to help?’ and they said, ‘Continue to be calm. Keep talking.’”
The EMT crew had to cut the javelin to get him into the ambulance, leaving a portion embedded in his torso. At the hospital, surgeons needed X-rays to see how to safely remove the tip. Godwin stayed conscious until they knocked him out for the surgery, which removed a small portion of his lung.
The summer was all about healing and regaining as much of his lung capacity as possible. Was he worried that his days as a track athlete were over?
“Nah,” he says. “I’m kind of headstrong. You go into each day with plans of tomorrow and plans of the future. All of these plans, when that happened, it was like I had to erase all of that and come up with a whole new game plan. I didn’t really think of this as a negative thing. Being able to live through the situation was super-positive for me. It made me more motivated to do everything and not just on the track. I would always plan things out and then postpone it or procrastinate. This helped me shoot for whatever I want.”
Even so, the recovery, he admits, was tedious: “I couldn’t carry weight. I couldn’t walk around. I couldn’t really leave the house at all. Just walking downstairs I’d be exhausted.” Eventually, though, he was given the clearance to start running again. He returned to school in the fall, having to make up all the final exams he had missed.
“I got tunnel vision at that point where I was just going to work and work and do whatever I can to put myself in the best position.”
The mindset Godwin adopted has paid dividends this winter, as he has he set indoor PRs in the 60 (6.76), 200 (21.02) and 400 (45.96). That last gave him a section win (and overall 3rd) at the SEC; it marked a huge improvement from last year when he didn’t make the finals. He will compete in the NCAA Indoor next week as the No. 7 seed.
Through it all, Godwin, now 20, has been counting his blessings: “Your whole life can change in a matter of seconds. I don’t want to be in a situation where I look back and be like, ‘I could have done this, but I didn’t.’ It changed my whole life.”