Nilsson 13-Stepped Past 15-Year-Old 300H Record

Vance Nilsson came from outside the top 25 among prep 300 hurdlers in ’23 to the HSR. (JON ENDOW/IMAGE OF SPORT)

“ONCE I RAN 35.05, I knew it was possible.” The ’24 high school season in Arizona was one of revelation, both for Gilbert High’s Vance Nilsson and his opponents. He went undefeated in all of his individual events. In the 300H, his specialty, all season he drew closer to the High School Record of 35.02 set by Californian Reggie Wyatt back in ’09.

“I was just trying to improve my race and towards the end of the season I just kept dropping more and more… Once I got close, it’s like I was analyzing my race, just trying to figure out where I could drop more time, what else I needed to do differently, and I knew I made a couple mistakes in that [35.05] race, so I knew I could do it. I just had to put it all together, and it was my last opportunity, so there was a little bit of pressure, but it all came together.”

It was at the State finals, a meet that he had won the year before in 37.82. This time around, he sailed through the heats in 37.05, then crushed the final in a record 34.83, going 13 steps through the entire race.

“I feel like my life just changed,” Nilsson told the local paper that night. Not long after, he signed with Florida to work with fabled hurdle coach Mike Holloway.

The intermediates wasn’t the only event that the 6-3/160 (1.92/72) Nilsson excelled at this season. He also won the State crown in the 110 highs, after having run a 13.39 at the previous meet. He won both hurdles at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational, and also dabbled in the long sprints twice, ending up with bests of 21.43 and 47.38. All of these marked a big improvement over the ’23 version of Nilsson, who ran 22.63, 49.03, 14.03 and 37.42.

“I wouldn’t call myself a late bloomer,” he says, pausing for a moment before correcting himself: “Actually yeah, I would. I sort of bloomed this year. I joined a club team, did off-season training for the first time, hit the weight room pretty hard, just sort of centered my lifestyle around track for the past year, and everything lined up perfectly timing-wise.”

Nilsson reached out last year to James Smith, who guides the Arizona Flames Track Club. Smith also once coached Devin Green, the first-year Gilbert head coach, as well as his own son, James Smith II, who ran a PR 49.21 in the NCAA final last year for Texas A&M. Nilsson says the relationship between his coaches “worked very well.”

Says Smith, “Last year we had our first off-season with him, and he killed it… We’ve got a little history with long hurdlers. Vance, of course, took it to another level. But he’s getting the benefit of some of those previous guys ahead of him, as far as coaching and knowledge and training… He keeps working and he’ll push you from a coaching standpoint because he wants to do extra stuff all the time.

“But the training, I’ll be honest, is about the same. It’s what every kid puts into it. He was doing some technical things wrong and we kind of fixed that. And then, he’s got some God-given ability — you put those two together and it’s a little dangerous, you know?”

Smith adds, “He’s the first guy I’ve seen who 13-steps the entire 300. He’s the first guy that kind of just said, ‘I’m going to go for it. I’m going to 13 steps the whole race.’”

“I played all kinds of sports when I was younger,” says Nilsson. “Soccer, baseball, flag football, all that stuff. But I was always really fast in every sport. My mom, I think she kind of knew that running was going to be my thing.” She encouraged him to run community 5Ks and some cross country in elementary school.

After a stint in middle school track (“I wasn’t really that good. I wasn’t even the best on my team.”) he came back in his 9th grade after the pandemic year and hurdled 16.63 and 42.43. “I was just doing it for fun, and I was halfway decent at it, I mean, 42 isn’t horrible as a freshman, but it’s nothing special.” Then he ran 39.94 as a soph and started getting motivated. He hit the weightroom and as a junior the next year became a state champion.

Now he’s the fastest intermediate hurdler in prep history, a Gator signee, and he’s plotting his summer. The HSR was his final race over the 300 barriers. Next comes Great Southwest, USATF U20s, and Nike Nationals, all of which will be full 1-lap races.

Smith says that Nilsson will have to approach the longer race differently: “The 400H are a different monster. You can sprint a 300, but sprinting a 400 — I think you know it doesn’t work that way.”

“It’s definitely different for me,” says Nilsson, who ran 52.18 at the longer race last summer. “Especially after getting so good at the 300H. It is a very different race because the 300H, you don’t really have to think about pacing. You can just get out hard and go the whole time, just make sure you have a good set pattern, but you don’t really have to think about pacing, which I like because I can let loose and sprint and my stride opens up.

“In the 400H, you sort of have to hold back a little bit on that first backstretch and be relaxed. So we’ve adjusted my training, doing things a little bit differently, but I think I’m really excited for the summer to see what I can run.”

He doesn’t expect to be 13-stepping around the full 400. “It’s easier to hold 13 steps when you’re going faster. I think I can do it, but that’s not the main focus. The main focus is the pace of the race. And if I happen to do 13 steps all the way around, then that would be great. But I don’t have anything planned.”

Once summer is done, then it’s off to Gainesville, and Nilsson couldn’t be more excited. “I really like their professionalism and the way that they run their program, and obviously the track record that they have. Everything that you need is right there, and they’ve produced so many great athletes, and there’s a ton of people there that are going to be just like you, that want the exact same thing as you, so to be able to train with them will just help me even more.”

He sees success in his future, but he concludes with, “You know, everybody has big goals and aspirations. I’m just taking it step-by-step.”