Prize Recruit — Justin Robinson (Arizona State)

As an 11th-grader, Justin Robinson ran for Team USA at both the Junior and Senior levels. (VICTOR SAILER/PHOTO RUN)

SURE, IT WAS THE ONLY outdoor race that Justin Robinson (West, Hazelwood, Missouri) ran as a high school senior, but a world-leading 44.91 in the 400 certainly earned the teenager some deserved attention. In the COVID summer following his prep graduation year Robinson was glad to take what he could get.

“It was rocky at first,” he says of his summer. “We had a whole season planned out, then the corona came, so it was a little rocky emotionally. I got through it. I sat down with coach [Sean Burris], we started talking over stuff again. My family was there to help me get through that time.

“As far as training went, I think I did pretty well. I wish I could have gotten a few more races just to get comfortable again with competing and racing. But considering the circumstances, I think I did pretty well this year.”

Robinson’s one foray into the quarter wars came in Marietta, Georgia, on August 15. He faced a solid field: Michael Cherry, who won gold on the 4×4 in Doha; Vernon Norwood, a relay gold medalist himself; European champion Matthew Hudson-Smith, and Trinidad’s Machel Cedenio, 4th in Rio.

Yet Robinson crossed the line first. “That was real fun,” he says. “It was big bragging rights to say that I could beat some of those guys.”

The veterans probably weren’t thrilled to be beaten by an 18-year-old. “They really weren’t,” Robinson admits with a laugh. “They tried not to show it to me too much.”

But they handled it well, says Robinson: “I knew Michael from Pan-Ams. They just joked around a little bit and took pictures with me afterwards. They took me under their wing a little bit.”

The competition itself surprised him: “I didn’t really think I was going that fast in the race, but once they said I had run 44 again I was truly excited, just to know that I had the No. 1 lead. I was more stoked about that.”

Robinson feels that if there had been more to the season, he might have gone much faster. “There was definitely a lot more in the tank,” he says. “Even halfway through that race, I was thinking that I ran my first 200 way too slow, but I was just like, ‘At this point, I’ve got to finish the race.’ So I just finished and I was surprised that I even ran 44. I thought it was in the mid-45 range, honestly.”

The performance leaves prep fans with a mighty what-if, since Darrell Robinson (no relation) set the still-standing national record of 44.69 some 38 years ago. Most who have followed the current Robinson feel that only COVID kept him from shattering that record.

Robinson’s meteoric rise began the summer before his frosh year with a playground challenge from an older cousin: “It was like the 4th of July, just kids being kids running around and playing. We just all lined up and started racing. I beat him, and he was like, “Aw, it’s not a real race, we don’t have nothing like a track or anything.’ I’m like, ‘Alright dude, I beat you, whatever.’

“Then I was playing football and everybody’s all, ‘You’re so fast.’ So my cousin got me out for track.”

To say it went well is an understatement. He ran 48.03 in that first season. As a soph he improved to 46.20. Then in ’19 came his altitude-aided 44.84 PR at Albuquerque’s Great Southwest Classic. He won the Pan-Am Juniors and doubled back for bronze at the senior meet.

Now, in a virtual sense, prize recruit Robinson is attending Arizona State, though he is still back at home training with his prep mentor. He’s looking forward to when he can don a Sun Devil uniform and actually race in the NCAA.

“The plan is to have a real season,” he says, adding that he’s looking forward to training with ASU coach Dion Miller, himself a many-time all-conference sprinter for Texas Tech. “Just to go out there and compete and train with that group of guys, that would be just great itself.”

Miller knows he signed a solid recruit in Robinson. “I think he has unique ability,” he says. “He has the ability to close and finish—sometimes I think you can’t coach that. He has the ability to just focus in and finish.”

Being the latest wunderkind of the event may put some pressure on Robinson as he enters the NCAA, but Miller isn’t worried, analyzing, “He understands the landscape. Justin’s very level-headed. He doesn’t put an extreme amount of pressure on himself. He understands he’s put himself on the world scene, but he hasn’t changed. He’s just a great human being.”

Robinson already has a good idea of what he needs to work on, saying, “I most definitely need to get my foot speed down a little more. I need to build my lactic system more and get stronger.”

His goals going forward are the same as any other top American in the 1-lapper: “Just the Olympic Trials and get on a team and try to get a medal at the Olympics.”