Olympic Gold Medal Small Part of Reggie Witherspoon’s Journey
March 25, 2009 by Jay Hicks
Photo courtesy of Danny Wariner.
From Pasadena to Marietta to Waco to Beijing and Back.
FOR REGGIE WITHERSPOOON ATHLETICS HAS BEEN BUILT UPON THESE CITIES.
In breaking down the season of his second year pro 400/200-meter career, it is his journey, his life that is as significant as his accomplishments. Sprinter Reggie Witherspoon runs professional track and field not merely for the journey - from the starting blocks to the finish line – but to win races.
This track existence has put the 23-year-old where he is today: among a rare group in track history as an Olympic gold medalist as a part of the 4×400 meter relay in Beijing; 44.99 pr over 400-meters; and 20.30 pr at 200-meters; and a financially successful summer. Witherspoon, or “Spoonlove” as his friends call him, is a success born in finding and knowing himself amidst the sport’s complexities.
REGGIE WITHERSPOON’S JOURNEY WINDS THROUGH AMERICA’S STREETS.
Tough streets, starting in a state that rings synonymous with gang violence, car jackings and the Rodney King beatings, then flies through the Southern city recognized as home of the Civil Rights Movement where Reggie grew up in after the age of 11, dreaming of a much different life.
It plows through a campus mostly known for Florida Gator football, and even while running 45.5 seconds as a college freshmen and racking up All-American relay honors he was still overshadowed by Kerron Clement. It rolls through two years at Baylor University, known as home of legend Michael Johnson and then back to Atlanta, GA.
And today, the journey settles into a lazy-day cruise, comfortable and far from complete in Waco.
Pasadena, California – nestled 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, widely recognized for hosting the Rose Bowl football game and Tournament of Roses Parade – but despite Pasadena’s upscale reputation, the city had and still has an extensive gang problem.
Pasadena is where he grew up until the age of eleven. “Pasadena was tough. Growing up in a single parent home was difficult with six other siblings,” said Witherspoon.
“But it [Pasadena] has made me who I am today. Growing up in those rough times and going without things makes me appreciate things more. I appreciate and thank God for everything that I do that is positive.“
Witherspoon was following his older brother a little too closely and found himself getting in trouble. The final straw was getting caught swimming during after hours at a Pasadena public pool with his brother, his mother - Pearl Grice, knew he was capable of big things. She knew Witherspoon didn’t fit into the gang scene so she sent him to be with his father, Ronald Witherspoon, in Marietta, GA., a suburb of Atlanta.
“She shipped me out to Georgia and told me to not come back until I make something of myself,“ said Witherspoon.
Having his pick of colleges, Reggie went on to the University of Florida, an 8-hour drive away from Marietta. But once there, the former Georgia Athlete of the Year did not completely get along with coach Mike Halloway. As a sophomore Witherspoon led the 4×400 meter relay to All-American honors but he struggled to live up to his own expectations.
So he left.
“I had a lot of people in my ear, as I was trying to do my college selection on my own. I went on college visits by myself and actually committed to Baylor and then a week before signing I backed out and signed with Florida.”
Reggie transferred to Baylor – the school he originally committed to before deciding to head to Gainesville. “I needed a new start to get away and re-dedicate myself to what I was doing. “
His coach Michael Ford said, “I think early on when Reggie first got to Baylor, he was fragile mentality. He didn’t want to get pushed as hard as he needed to be. Now, having a bit of success has made him more hungry.”
How quickly things began to turn around.
In the winter of 2006, Witherspoon became a hot commodity. He became the first athlete in Big 12 history to win both the indoor conference title in the 200 and 400-meters in route to the highest point earner.
“In 2007, I focused more on the 200 my senior year. I never broken 21 seconds before coming to Baylor, and then I ran 20.3. I never thought Baylor could transform my career. “
He ran 1st leg on 2007 NCAA Outdoor champ 4×400m relay and racked up countless number of individual All-American honors during his stint in Bear country.
Coach Michael Ford said, “Reggie is blessed with speed. He is probably most fluid runner that I have coached with great raw 200-meter speed. The key to his success involves getting stronger from a speed endurance perspective.”
FAST FORWARD TO THE 2008 U.S. OLYMPIC TRIALS IN EUGENE, OREGON
“After the first round it was my season’s best of 45.9, and coach Ford though that it looked easy. “
Coach Ford told me that if I make the finals then I will go to the Olympics. He told me that all I need to do is run the same race and finish it up strongly.
The 400-meter was supposed to be a warm up for the 200-meters. Going into the U.S. Olympic Trials ranked #22 on the 400-meter, and came out with a fourth place finish (45.01) in the 400 meters, earning Witherspoon a ticket to the Beijing Olympic Games as a member of the 4 x 400 meter relay pool.
Not knowing if he would get the shot to hit the track – Witherspoon was tapped at the last minute to run third leg on the U.S. men’s 4×400 relay team that won its opening round and was awarded a gold medal when Team USA finished first in the final.
The Olympic success allowed Witherspoon to earn a good living running on the IAAF Golden League circuit throughout Europe. Success has not gone to Witherspoon’s head, he still drives the same late model Mitsubishi Eclipse and lives in same apartment with his roommates.
While Reggie Witherspoon wants to assume the mantle as one of the world’s top ranked 400-meter runners, he is content to leave the fame for someone else. “I am not comfortable being noticed, said the former Baylor standout runner. “Now walking to classes at Baylor, people recognize me,” said Witherspoon.
Off the track you can expect Witherspoon to make you laugh. He is capable of holding court with impersonations, funny stories, and practical jokes to his friends and coach.
However, the Olympian is not predictable, but rather sophisticated. His favorite iPod singers are Ne-Yo, Maroon 5, The Commodores, and The O’Jays.
WITHERSPOON’S GOALS FOR 2009?
“My family is in Pasadena and Marietta, but I don’t get back there very often because there is not a lot positive there for me,” he shares. Waco is the place he calls home, training with Jeremy Wariner, Darold Williamson and Sanjay Aryes while finishing up his degree at Baylor.
“The goals for Reggie are 44.3 to 44.5 in the 400 and ranked top 10 in the world,” said Ford.
“My confidence is up. I haven’t felt this confident since high school,” said Witherspoon. “It is going to be a good year, if I stay healthy. I want to run sub 44.5 seconds and sub-20s. A great shot to run under 20 seconds this year.”
Witherspoon’s life has come full circle. Going back home to see his mother, will be easy for him. Witherspoon has more than made something of himself, in fact he is someone any mother in the world can be proud to call their own.
All photographs provided courtesy of Danny Wariner.
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