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Brazier’s Big Breakthrough

by Jeff Hollobaugh

brazier donovanDonavan Brazier captured the sport’s news cycle this weekend. The Texas A&M frosh crushed his first collegiate 800, clocking an American Junior Record of 1:45.93 to win the A&M Team Invitational by more than 5 seconds. The old mark of 1:47.84 was set by Villanova’s John Marshall way-way back in ’82.

The reaction has been excited, from heated online debates about whether he is the future of the event to “I told you so” from fans who watched him run as a prep at Kenowa Hills High in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

However, it is the nature of prep fandom that every great prospect is a future superstar on the world stage, and with so few actually panning out in real life, the rest of the world can be excused for not sitting up and taking notice before Saturday.

The 6-1 (1.85) Brazier reacted to the race in his typical soft-spoken style: “My coach wanted me to go 1:47 in this meet, but he said 1:47 or better. I was happy with 1:45, obviously.”

Brazier works with Alleyne Francique, the A&M assistant who as a 44.47 caliber long sprinter finished 4th in the 400 at the ’04 Olympics.

Aggie head Pat Henry says that both he and Francique both knew Brazier had “a great upside” when they recruited him, given that his résumé also included hints of great native speed with a 45.92 relay carry.

Says Henry, “He is starting to prove it. He's a good athlete, he's dedicated to it, he listens, he's coachable, and, you know, I think he's going to be really good.”

The race plan in his collegiate debut, according to Brazier, was straightforward: “My coach is crazy; he wants us to go out in 51. I wasn't too nervous coming through in 51 at the 400 split since that is what we train for. I didn't think I was going to hang on that well.”

Brazier led from the start, hitting the 200 in 25.20 and the 400 in 51.60. He stayed steady with a 26.58 third lap, passing 800m in 1:18.18. He closed with a 27.75 lap to cross the line 1.63 seconds faster than his outdoor best.

"I thought the other guys were going to be on my heels," said Brazier. "I looked at the video board and noticed I had a little bit of space on them. I wasn't so nervous since I knew I had it on the last lap. I thought I ran 1:46, but when I saw it was under 1:46 I was so happy.”

Not only was the mark an AJR, but it also missed the American Collegiate Record by a mere 0.05. Another interesting stat: of the three men ahead of him on the World Junior indoor list, all have medaled at the Olympics or Worlds.

Brazier remains fairly calm: "Now my goals are starting to go up a little bit. When I first got here I just wanted to make the travel team. Then I wanted to be the best 800 runner at A&M. But my main goal is to make the U.S. Junior team this year since I was disqualified in the [USATF heats] last summer."

That DQ is probably the reason more fans weren’t familiar with Brazier. He had a sterling prep career in which he won the New Balance Nationals as a junior in 1:48.61, then captured the No. 1 ranking from T&FN as a senior after running 1:47.55 and winning the Brooks PR Invitational.

However, he hadn’t come close to scraping the bottom of the tank with that run, which made him the No. 4 prep ever. A week later at the Juniors, he was probably ready to make a serious challenge Michael Granville’s 1:46.45 national record from ’96. But in the opening strides of the prelim, he lost his balance and stepped out of his lane. End of season.

The other development that perhaps toned down the media hype came because of another race he didn’t run. The adidas Dream Mile matchup between Grant Fisher and Drew Hunter might also have had Brazier on the line. He did have an invite.

“Grant Fisher’s coach [Mike Scannell] actually hooked that up for me,” Brazier explains. He considered it and eventually declined. “My coach wanted to shoot that down because he didn't think it would be good for me to be racing three weekends in a row.”

Considering the strength of Brazier’s finish (many of his high school PRs were negative-splitted), it’s an open debate how he might have influenced the results of the Dream Mile.

Certainly, now that he has completely skipped the 1:46s, Internet wags are quick to say he has the potential to break 4:00 in the mile. Not that we’ll see it anytime soon.

“I don't think this season,” says Henry. “I don't think he cares for the mile very much. In time, you never know. Right now [our emphasis] a little bit more towards the 8 and running that [4x4] relay.”

Last summer, Brazier indicated that his event choice was tied into his college choice. When asked if fans would ever see him become a miler, he said, “Unless I switch schools and go up to one of those northern schools where you have to do that, probably not.

“If I stick to down south, I will be a 4/8 guy. Every other school, like Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana—all of them—they wanted me to be a 1500 and 800 guy. It’s kind of different with Texas A&M, and I like that.”

And while many are quick to call him a potential Olympic medalist this summer, Brazier and his coach are in agreement about the USATF Juniors as an appropriate summer goal. Says Henry, “Part of the problems that young athletes have is they put themselves in the world [too soon].

“I think we can see that not only with American kids but with some really great ones from around the world. It's important to not go too quickly. It's important think as a Junior when you are a Junior.”

On the matter of training, Henry says, “Some of the work on the 4x4 is going to help his 800. Right now the development of speed is the direction we're taking with him. We want to be a little bit cautious, but the way both Francique and I feel, for him to continue to get better he's got to get better at getting faster. That's a long process but he loves running on that mile relay. That makes a job just that much more fun, you know, because he likes doing it.”

Concludes Henry, “He's very quiet. He's a humble kid. He just wants to get a little better. He doesn't really have any time goals. That's not a huge priority for him. It's good to see a great young American coming up and I think he's going to be a great, great one for this country.”

January 18, 2016