St. Louisan and recent Hazelwood West High School graduate Justin Robinson ran the third-fastest time ever for a high schooler and the fastest time in the World this year in the 400-meter dash with a 44.91 clocking at an American Track League meet outside of Atlanta, Saturday.
The Covid-19 pandemic postponed March’s World Indoor Track and Field Championships and the 2020 Summer Olympics while causing the cancellation of most track and field competitions around the World since mid-March. However, a limited number of meets have been held around the country and even more in Europe and elsewhere in the World since July.
Robinson and coach Sean Burris of the Gateway City United Athletics Club ventured south for the chance to race. Robinson opened his 2020 outdoor track season at the American Track League’s sixth meet of the season. The league started in 2014 with meets in Bloomington, IN. and San Marcos, Texas. Then there were meets in Atlanta in 2015 and 2016 before a four-year break. Those meets were for professionals and post-collegians, while this year fields were open to a wide range of athletes, including high school and college athletes, along with pros and post-collegians. This year’s league will include seven competitions in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, Georgia at Life University’s track and field facility, to give more athletes more chances to compete in an unprecedented time with few other options.
The New Balance High School Indoor Track and Field National meet in March in New York City was cancelled before the multi-day competition began and left Robinson at home with the coronavirus cancellation costing him a chance at a second straight Indoor 400-meter national championship and the shot at a 200-meter title. Little did anyone realize then how enormous and devastating an impact the virus would have.
To date the virus has taken more than 800,000 lives worldwide and more than 170,000 lives in the United States. It has caused long-term health issues in some individuals and created fear about the complications and changing symptoms in some. It has cost trillions of dollars to the economy and left many without jobs that will never return. It has left so many millions of people unable to work and provide for themselves and their families.
So while nothing done in the world of athletics is more important that lives lost and impacted by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the cancellations of the things people enjoy and that feel like rights of passage, whether sports, music, art, prom, graduation, etc., seeing someone excel at what they do and seeing things that are usually normal, just not in these strange days, feels great.
Robinson was scheduled for the third of three sections of the Men’s 400-meter dash Saturday. His opponents were Michael Cherry, a former LSU 400 and 4×400-meter star, who’s collegiate personal best of 44.73 came at the 2017 NCAA Outdoor Championships where he placed 2nd. The next year he placed 2nd at the 2018 World Indoor Championships in the 400 and 4×400.
Cherry ran a leg of the Gold Medal winning 4×400 at the 2014 World Junior/Under-20 Championships at Oregon’s Hayward Field. Cherry also has earned three World Outdoor Championship medals with Golds in the 4×400 and Mixed 4×400 in 2019, as well as a Silver at the 2017 championships in the 4×400. The Mixed Relay time was a World Record in the fairly new mixed gender event. Cherry’s 400-meter personal record (PR) of 44.66 came in 2017. He set a 200-meter PR of 20.72 on August 10th in Florida. Cherry is sponsored by Nike.
Another Team USA veteran Robinson faced was Vernon Norwood. Norwood started his collegiate career at South Plains Junior College before becoming an NCAA champion at LSU. Norwood ran 45.10 in winning the 2015 NCAA crown. He ran 44.44 as a collegian on his home track at LSU as a senior. Norwood won the 2016 USA Indoor 400-meter title before being disqualified at the World Indoor Championships in Portland.
Norwood took 3rd in the 400 and 1st in the 4×400-meter for Team USA at the 2014 North American-Central American-Caribbean Under-23 Championships. He captured the 4×200 Gold at the 2019 World Relay Championships. At the 2018 World Indoor Championships, Norwood and Team USA earned a Silver medal. Norwood boasts wind-legal PR’s of 20.77 for the 200-meters in 2015 and 44.40 for 400-meters in 2019 at the USATF Outdoor National Championships. Norwood is sponsored by New Balance.
Great Britain’s Matthew Hudson-Smith is another sub-45.50 performer Robinson faced off in Georgia. Hudson-Smith has won the last four British 400-meter titles. In 2013 he captured the European Under-20 Championships 200-meter and 4×400 Bronze medals. He captured the 2018 European Championships 400 in 44.78. Hudson-Smith took 9th in the 400 and won a Bronze medal in the 4×400 at the 2017 World Outdoor Championships. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he placed 8th in the 400. Hudson-Smith holds PR’s of 20.60 in the 200 and 44.48 in the 400.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Machel Cedenio was the third Olympian to take to the track in Marietta, bringing he total number of athletes who competed at the World Championship to four. The three-time national champion, Cedenio has a Pan Am Junior/Under-20 4×400 Silver medal from 2011. He captured the 2014 World Junior/U20 Gold in the 400 in 2014, while taking 5th at the 2012 U-20 Champs in the open 400 and won a Bronze medal in the 4×400. Cedenio added Bronze medals from the Pan Am Senior Games 4×400, as well as an individual Silver in the 400.
Cedenio competed at the 2015, 2017, and 2019 World Outdoor Championships, capturing 4×400 1st, 2nd, and 5th-place finishes, along with two 7th-place finishes in the open 400-meters. Cedenio just missed a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a 4th-place finish in the 400 with a PR 44.01.
Ohio native and former Ohio State University 400 and 4×400-meter All-American Champ Page rounded out the field of six.
Robinson got in the starting blocks in lane 3, with his biggest competition all to his outside, within his sight. Cedenio, the reigning Olympic 400-meter 4th-placer with a 44.01 PR, was in lane 4. Norwood, the former NCAA Champ, 4×200 World Relays champion and World Indoor Champs relay medalist with a 44.40 PR was in lane 5. Michael Cherry, the World Indoor Silver medalist in the 400 and 4×400, and World Outdoor Relay medalist with a PR of 44.66 was in Lane 6. Rio Olympics 400m 8th-placer and World Championships relay medalist Matthew Hudson-Smith of Great Britain with his 44.48 PR was in lane 7, while Champ Page was in lane 2.
Wearing one of the many USA Track and Field team uniforms he has earned over the last two years, Robinson had a strong push out of the blocks after the starter’s pistol went off. He rounded the first turn and headed down the backstretch. All four of his competitors to his outside were noticeably taller with longer strides than the 5-9 Robinson. Robinson kept cranking. His feet hitting the track at a faster rate than his taller competition to the outside. One-hundred and fifty meters in, Robinson was making up ground on Cedenio, Norwood, and Hudson-Smith in lanes 5, 6, and 8, with his tall, upright posture, smooth strides and high arm lift.
Michael Cherry in lane 7 was keeping pace. At 200-meters, Robinson had caught Cedenio. 25-meters later, he passed Norwood, two lanes to his outside. Robinson was making up the stagger on Cherry and Hudson-Smith in lanes 7 and 8. Robinson just barely edged Cherry to the 300-meter mark. He then powered home, arms pumping with his right arm lifting high and outside before swinging back, around and inward while his left arm lifted a little lower and towards the middle of his chest with each upswing while staying away from his body on the downswing on each alternating stride and swing. Wearing the newest uniform Nike gave their athletes for the 2020 season, Cherry urgently lifted his knees high on each stride and pushed his arms down, trying to get his longer levers to move faster and catch Robinson. He couldn’t quite do it. None of them could.
Robison leaned at the tape, having increased his lead on Cherry over the last 100-meter. 44.91! Justin Robinson had run the third-fastest time ever for a US high schooler, in his 2020 outdoor debut. The time also made him the first ever high schooler to run under 45-seconds for the 400-meters twice. With his 44.91 and his June 2019, 44.84 at the Great Southwest Track and Field Classic in Albuquerque, NM., Robinson now owns the 2nd and 3rd fastest times ever for a high schooler.
Cherry finished in 44.98. Not only did Robinson beat a talented field of professionals with great resumes, but his time is the fastest in the World this year. Not just the fastest time for an athlete under 20-years old, the 18-year old’s time is the fastest anyone in the World has run in this odd year.
World Athletics, the global governing body for the sport of track and field and formerly known as IAAF, publishes statistics with the top marks and times of thousands and thousands of performances around the World each year and of All-Time. It publishes records and many top lists than can be filtered with different variables. One filter is “Age Category”. It’s options are: Senior, Under-20, and Under-18. Robinson, not quite five months after his 18th birthday, now sits atop the Under-20 and Senior 400-meter lists!
Robinson already owns the age 17-year-old and Under-18 age group World Record with his 44.84 clocking from last year. The age 18-year-old World Record is 44.60 by Grenada’s Kirani James in 2011. The Under-20 and 19-year-old World Record is 43.87 by Steve Lewis of the USA in 1988. The only high schooler to run faster than Robinson is Darrell Robinson of Tacoma, Washington who went 44.69 in 1982. Robinson now owns four of the top eight times ever for a US high schooler. In addition to his two sub-45-second clockings, he also ran 45.04A and 45.07 in his amazing 2019 season that included the Pan Am Junior Games Gold medal and the Pan Am Senior Games Bronze medal.
Soon after the race, Robinson was both thrilled with his performance and relieved that he got to race again. “I’m just extremely happy that I was able to get a race in this season and to get out there and compete with those guys, of their caliber, is just truly a blessing. I’m extremely happy.”
How did he survive the last five months not knowing if or when he would be able to compete this season? This season that was to be historic, in that it was one of the most anticipated in American High School track and field history. How did he not go mad waiting and hoping? “(It’s just about) having a good support system behind me, really it’s all about them, together. I just kept praying on it and just kept hoping for the best, that I could go and have a race in store. Then a couple of weeks ago coach (Sean Burris) was telling me I might have an opportunity to run soon, so I just got excited again, and got motivated to start training (really hard) again.
The frustration and feelings of disappointment, along with thoughts of giving up and just waiting for next year did try to overwhelm him, but Robinson battled through to stay positive and stay ready. “In the beginning, in April and March I was thinking about it a lot. Then as the season progressed, that kind of faded away and I just started hoping and praying a little bit more that I’d have an opportunity to run and (I) tried to get more focused on training and the (chance to run).”
Robinson said after a 5-month layoff from competition and lining up to race the other stars in his race were not cause for nervousness or anxiety. “It was pretty normal. I didn’t really think about how long since I last competed. I just thought about being ready to run and I’m just extremely happy.” Robinson was able to focus on himself and his race and not his outstanding competitors or the circumstance of opening his senior season in the middle of August. “The main focus was on my race, but I still had that thought in the back of my head that I’m ready for this first meet, I’m ready to explode and just go out there and have fun.”
“The first few steps I was looking at those guys and then after that, after I started accelerating, I started focusing in on my own race strategy and my own self. I kept a level mind and I didn’t think about anyone else except myself.”
The moment Robinson crossed the finish line brought many emotions. “A little bit of excitement and then relief, that I got the first race out of the way. Then a little more excitement that I got to run and hoping I can get some more races in this season.”
Robinson was pleased with the day, both the result and the opportunity, though his time wasn’t the day’s most important goal. “For me, I wasn’t really focused on time, just execution and getting the first race out of the way. But I’m still extremely happy with my time, like you said the 3rd-fastest time in high school ever ran, so it’s pretty amazing.”
It was a great start to the 2020 outdoor track and field season for Justin Robinson, not when or where anyone expected a year ago. Hopefully he’ll get another chance or two to add to his amazing high school resume before he moves on.
Robinson will look for another chance or two to race before calling it a season. Robinson signed with Arizona State University last fall.