Nov. 3, 2000
by Micah Dunham
Unless you've been "down under" a rock lately, you've probably heard of current Husky sprinter Ja'Warren Hooker, one of the six members of the United States' gold medal-winning 4x400 meter relay team -- said to be the fastest team the USA has to offer -- at the recently-concluded Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
What you may not have known, however, is that the "four" in 4x400 represents the number of runners in the race, meaning two of the six team members would not be on the track when the starting gun fired. When it came time for the USA coaches to choose the four, they decided to go with experience -- the only element in which Hooker could be found lacking in respect to the others.
So on the night of September 30, Hooker -- along with 110,000 others in attendance at Stadium Australia -- watched Alvin Harrison, Antonio Pettigrew, Calvin Harrison, and Michael Johnson take the gold. He looked on with mixed emotions as his teammates ran to victory. The Husky senior was enamored that the team had won the gold, but disheartened that he had made it all this way and wasn't able to run.
"It was kind of disappointing, but I guess that's all part of being young and competing," the 1998 NCAA 55-meter indoor national champion says.
At the age of 22, Hooker's best years are still ahead of him, a scary thought for his competitors considering what he has already accomplished.
During the 2000 collegiate season, Hooker set two University of Washington records with a 400-meter time of 44.91, and a mark of 20.23 in the 200-meters that broke a 19-year old Husky record and was the 18th-fastest in the world at that point during the 2000 season.
Hooker closed out the collegiate season with 100 and 200-meter titles at the conference meet, Pac-10 Athlete of the Year honors for the second time in his career ('98), and sixth-place finishes in the 100 and 200 at the NCAA Championships.
In July, it was off to the Olympic Trials in Sacramento to try to qualify for the Sydney games.
Hooker proved he was up for the task, running to victory in the 400-meter semi-final in a time of 44.78 seconds, beating out soon-to-be Olympic gold medalists Calvin Harrison and Pettigrew.
By virtue of his victory, Hooker drew a preferred inside lane in the final, lined up next to one of the top athletes the world has ever seen in 1996 gold medalist and reigning world-record holder Michael Johnson, in an event that was not even Hooker's forte.
"I was in lane four and he was in five," he recalls. "The whole situation was a little different, being that I only trained for the quarter (400-meters) for about a month before that. So to go out there, get into the final, and then have somebody like Michael Johnson outside of me was a little stressful."
Needing a top-three finish to ensure a spot on the team, Hooker was quick out of the blocks, and to many people's surprise was leading not only Johnson but the whole field at the 100-meter mark. Unable to keep up that pace, however, against sprinters more experienced at that distance, Hooker ended up finishing 7th with time of 45.05 seconds.
"It's hard when you haven't run that event a lot,"the Husky senior says. "You don't really know your pace and that plays a factor on how you run."
USA coach John Chaplin thought Hooker ran well enough, though, and chose him to be part of the six-man pool for the 4x400 meter relay team.
"Two days after the trials I got a knock on my hotel door and they (Chaplin) told me that I was picked to be part of that pool," he recalls. "It was a blessing. My only goal throughout was to make the relay team, so I got what I wanted."
Upon arrival in Australia in September, Hooker quickly took a liking to the Olympic Village.
"It was crazy because it had everything," the first-time Olympian says. "There wasn't a thing that you had to leave there to get. You could get a haircut, go to McDonald's -- they even had a mall. I had a good time there. I met a lot of cool friends there that I am going to keep for life. Australia is a great place."
The overall experience was invaluable, and Hooker knows that not being able to compete will only make him work harder in the upcoming years, but for now he's going to take a break after basically eight-straight months of competing and training.
"After the race I was ready to get home," he says. "It had been a long summer. I'm going to take about a month and a half off and relax."
Look out for a more experienced, more focused, and more determined Ja'Warren Hooker. Look out Pac-10, and look out Athens in 2004. The 7th-fastest 400-meter runner in America now has something to prove.