Many Hurdles For Payne On
The Way Back To The Top
by Jeff Hollobaugh
David Payne had nearly made it to the top of world in the hurdles. At the ’08 Olympics, he stepped up on the podium to accept the silver medal for his 13.17 run behind the blinding 12.93 of Cuban Dayron Robles.
In the years immediately before and after Beijing, he won bronzes at the World Championships.
Not bad for a guy who only came out for the sport as a high school junior. He showed some promise, finishing 3rd in the Ohio State Meet that year in 14.59. After his senior season, though, he walked away from track and enrolled at Cincinnati.
As a soph, though he found that he missed the sport, so he walked on to the Bearcat team. That year he won the Conference USA title, and a year later he made 3rd at the ’03 NCAA Championships.
The road he followed after graduation led him to the podiums in Osaka, Beijing and Berlin. In all, he World Ranked 4 times and hit a best of 13.02. However, his bid to make a second Olympic team ended when he finished last in his semi at the ’12 Trials.
The next year, disaster hit. As he crossed the line at the Athletissima meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, he felt his leg go. He had broken his femur, the heaviest and strongest bone in the body. It was considered by many to be a career-ending injury.
Payne, however, refused to call it the end: “I didn’t. The same day that I broke it, I was telling my coaches and my agent, ‘I will be back. You know, I'm not going to stop until I'm back.’”
As he rehabbed the devastating injury—it would take months for him to even walk normally again—he discovered the reason for the break.
He explains, “Throughout my entire career I've had nothing but bone injuries. I had a bruised heel bone in 2007 and I had two or three stress fractures in 2009 and then the breaking of my femur. I went to see my doctor. I was on some medicine for about 10 years. It was antacid, because I have acid reflux real bad. And he was telling me over time that if you take this consistently, it can lower your bone density.
“There was nothing else that I was doing wrong other than consistently taking the medicine that I was supposed to and I couldn’t understand why was having all these bone issues.”
Payne says he was glad he was in Switzerland when the leg broke. “They had an aggressive recovery program in Lausanne,” he says. “I'm so happy that it happened there, if it had to happen anyplace, because a health care is so great there. They had me walking the next day after the surgery.
“I mean, I couldn't walk, but they had me walking. Because of that now I am able to run all out on my leg again. I'm so thankful for all the doctors and nurses that helped me.”
Yet the process from there back to the track was anything but easy. “I had to learn everything all over again,” he says. “Not just the mental but the physical.
“Honestly it was very depressing,” he explains. “To get sat down. You're still cheering for all the people you trained with but you’ve been stopped while everyone else is still traveling. You know, I sat on the porch day after day, season after season, telling myself I wasn't going to stop and I managed to get myself back up and get competing again. It took me a while to actually get over it.
“You have to stop feeling sorry for yourself and get out there and do something about it. It wasn't till I was able to walk, and able to jog, and able to run, that I was like, ‘I'm not going to let this end my career.’ I'm going to stop when I'm ready, not when something makes me stop.”
Plenty of people along the way advised Payne just let it go and get on with his life. “Absolutely,” he says. “I'm still encountering it to this day, and not even because my leg was broken, but because I'm 33. So, my thing is that I look up to Allen Johnson. Johnson was world-class till he was over 36. He ran 12.9 several times, so if he can do it, I can do it.
“I'm not saying that I'm Allen Johnson. But I look at the greats, and I look at how they were able to continue even with all the trials and tribulations they went through.”
He adds, “I kind of like it when people tell me I can't do something, because it makes me want to do it even more. I've always been a fighter. And I've never given up when people said, ‘You can't do it anymore.’ I like to go against the grain and show them.”
Working in Cincinnati with his longtime coach Brandon Hunt, Payne finally got to the point this winter where they felt he was ready to race again, after more than two years away from the starting gun.
“I couldn't focus really. It was hard,” he says. “I forgot how to handle the pressure, I forgot how to handle the anxiety. I forgot that when the gun goes off, the anxiety turns into adrenaline. It was just something that I had learn all over again.
“Having patience was something that was the key to my recovery. I'm still actually learning. I know what it takes so I do believe I will be able to come back and be at the top again.”
Training at his alma mater, Payne is now working as a volunteer assistant with the Bearcat program. With no sponsorship, he spends his days in the demanding field of home healthcare. His degree in psychology has come in handy. “I’m helping people with disabilities become stable, so that one day they can do it on their own and gain responsibility,” he explains.
“That career has helped me help myself, actually. It also helped me learn to accept help from other people, because pride is something that can really get you in trouble. I was such a prideful person that at first I was not willing to let other people help me. I was kind of ashamed of my injury, you know, like my body couldn't handle it so it gave out. I had to learn to accept help from others and be thankful and grateful, and turn around and help others.”
Now, Payne is working his way back to the big leagues, competing in the “minors” that make up the Midwest comeback circuit: Lexington, Bloomington, Cedarville, Indianapolis, Columbus. His best of 7.80 doesn’t even crack the world’s top 100; right now that’s just part of the process. He’s not running at the USATF Indoor this weekend.
“It's just a grind all over again,” he admits. “People are going to see that I'm a true athlete because true athletes fall and they get back up. You know, there are athletes that are always good, but I'm not one of them. In college, I was a walk on. I didn't run my first year at UC, and after that it gave me the drive to become conference champion. When things go against me, those are the things that drive me.
“I don't have a problem going to meets were nobody has heard of me, and running against kids who were looking up to me, and now they're beating me. I have to grind all over again. It's not something that is just going to happen. You want to get back out there and you just want to be who used to be, but I'm trying to be better than who I was.
“I know that in order to do that I have to start from the bottom and climb back up. Doing that also raises your level of confidence, because if you just want to go back out there and start winning again, and you run into some issues, then you would know how to handle it. When you go through the struggle, you appreciate it more and you work even harder.”
Payne has another big motivator driving him, his 6-year-old daughter Kaili: “She’s like, ‘Daddy, are you going to run again?’ And I say, ‘Baby, I’m going to run again.’ She's not old enough to understand what actually happened and what I’m going through, so I would just like to see her happy for me that I've accomplished another one of my goals.
“I'm going to run until I can't run anymore. That's just how I am.”
March 9, 2016