May 12, 2006
by Andre Bayard
Shane Charles is no stranger to the record books.
The UW senior holds Washington's indoor school record in the 800 meters, and helped Washington's 4x400-meter relay squad break a 30-year-old record at last year's Pac-10 Championships.
Charles' accomplishments are even more notable in his native country of Grenada, where he set the Grenadian junior national record in the 400-meter hurdles as a prep, and captured Grenada's national title in the event in 2003.
This year, Charles made history of both kinds, breaking the senior national record with a time of 50.12 seconds in April's WSU Dual, while climbing to second in UW history in the event. Charles' time is the second-fastest in the nation this year, and is ranked No. 1 in the Pac-10 Conference entering this weekend's Pac-10 Championships in Eugene, Ore.
"I feel very proud of that record," says Charles. "Where I come from, I am the only one doing the 400-meter hurdles."
That Charles would excel on the track is no surprise -- in the Caribbean, where the warm temperatures create ideal running conditions, track and field is among the premier outdoor activities.
"I started running when I was really young, because I just loved it," Charles says. "But that was just for fun. I started to take it seriously when I was about 13 years old. When I was in primary school, I ran cross-country, and I got second in the championship race. My coach, who was also my cousin, was surprised that I was able to run like that."
Charles' cousin saw potential and encouraged his younger relative to run with older athletes and develop his skills. Training with older and more developed athletes was daunting for Charles, but he knew that if he wanted to improve, he needed to challenge himself.
"Even though the bigger guys would leave me behind, I would still fight and try to finish my workout," says Charles. "I believe that all of that helped me get stronger mentally and physically to compete against anybody."
Charles quickly caught up to the older athletes, and was soon ready to qualify for the CARIFTA Games, the championships for Caribbean track and field. When the Games came to Grenada in 2000, Charles worked towards a qualifying mark in the 400-meter dash, but fell just short. His coach, however, saw potential in the young Charles, and encouraged him to try a different event -- the 400-meter hurdles.
At first, it was a struggle. Running came naturally to Charles, but the hurdles weren't about running. Success in the hurdles required the development of a new set of skills, including timing, coordination and endurance.
"It was a struggle for me learning the hurdles," he says. But I made the best out of that situation, and I went out everyday, and worked as hard as I could to get better at it."
It didn't take long before Charles was flying over the hurdles, and up the national rankings. In 2001, Charles finished a hurdles race in 53.89 seconds -- the fastest ever for a Grenadian junior-age (under-20) hurdler, and fast enough to catch the eye of assistant coach at U.S. colleges, who frequently scour the Caribbean rankings in hopes of discovering the next Ato Boldon or Asafa Powell.
Charles enrolled in 2002 at Central Arizona Junior College, where he would quickly become one of the top junior-college prospects in the nation. Charles earned first-team all-conference honors in the hurdles in 2003, then followed up his collegiate season with a win in the hurdles at Grenada's national championships, and an eighth-place finish in the 4x400 meters at the Pan-American Games.
In 2004, Charles earned a second-straight all-conference honor, won the hurdles at the regional meet and took second at the National Junior College Championships. With numerous options to continue his career at the Division-I level, Charles took a number of recruiting visits. What he discovered surprised him.
"I was looking for a place to get better in the hurdles, and to get my degree, but when I was looking at other schools, everyone was just talking about their Nike gear, and what they have," he says. "I really wasn't looking forward to that. When I visited UW, though, I just knew this would be a good place to start my future in athletics, and in my education."
The change from Grenada to Arizona had been relatively smooth, but the change from Arizona to Seattle was more of a shock. The weather was an obvious change -- with Seattle's winter rain and cold representing a significant difference from the year-round sun of Charles' previous homes -- but more subtle, yet more significant, was the perception of track and field in the community at large.
In Grenada, track meets are attended by thousands of spectators, who roar and cheer with the same enthusiasm of a football or basketball crowd in the United States. Crowds for collegiate meets in the states, though, generally consist of a handful of family and friends, with a sprinkling of track and field devotees mixed in. A large crowd might number 500 spectators; for a championship meet, maybe 1,000.
"There is a big difference," says Charles. "Over here, people go crazy for football and basketball, but hardly anyone comes out for a track meet. Back in the Caribbean, though, the stadiums will be packed. People are there to watch the event -- they do not care who is running or playing. They just go out for the love of the sport."
Fortunately for Charles, there were two other sprinters on the UW team who knew exactly what that transition was like. Sprinters Davaon Spence and Patrick Davidson, natives of Jamaica, were each entering their senior seasons at Washington. and were able to ease Charles into the life of a Caribbean sprinter at a Pacific Northwest college.
"They played a really big part in my life," says Charles. "They encouraged me everyday, and when I went out running, and to lift weights, they knew that I was doing my best, and they were just always helping me to get better."
In addition to lending training support, Spence and Davidson provided a comfort zone for Charles, helping him to keep from becoming homesick during the months away from the islands. The year-round educational and training demands placed upon the Division-I student-athlete have prevented Charles from returning to Grenada since 2004. Even when he does return home, he is unable to escape the desire to run.
"I usually go home every year," he says,. "but I haven't been home in two years now. Usually, though, when I go home in the summer, I just go there to run and train. I really do not have time to hang out with friends or to see relatives."
It is those sacrifices -- missing his home, missing his family -- which drive Charles to train so hard, to prove by his success that it was all worthwhile. Every time he lowers the national record, sets a school record or achieves a Pac-10 or national honor, it reaffirms his decision to come to the States, while spreading the name of Grenadian sprinting across the U.S.
"I feel proud of all my accomplishments," he says. "When I go home, my fellow Caribbean and Grenadians hear what I am doing over here, so everyone comes out to see the great improvement I have made, and they want to be a part of it."
Having set school and national records, and earned All-America indoors with UW's 4x400-meter relay team, there are truthfully only a handful of accomplishments left for Charles to achieve -- Pac-10 and NCAA titles.
The senior will have a shot at the former this weekend. Charles enters the 2006 Pac-10 Championships at Oregon as the favorite in the 400-meter hurdles, his time of 50.12 seconds the third-fastest in the nation this year.
Before he can win, however, Charles needs to be sure he gets around the track -- something he has failed to do in each of his last two 400-meter hurdles starts at Oregon's Hayward Field, having stumbled over the second hurdle at last year's West Regional meet, and false-started in April's Pepsi Invitational.
Charles' fall at the Regional meet denied the junior a spot in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA Championships -- ranked ninth nationally at the time, he had needed only to complete the race to guarantee at least a provisional berth, but injured his ankle in the fall and was unable to finish.
"All last outdoor season, I was not able to get a very good start in the hurdles," he says. "But going to Oregon for regionals, I was feeling real good when I practiced out of the blocks. I wanted to keep that good feeling all the way up to my race.
"When my race came, I was still feeling good," he continues, "But when I got out of the blocks, I was running too fast. On the second hurdle I didn't get my leg up high enough, and ended up flipping over it."
Many would have been crushed by the missed opportunity. Charles simply stood up, brushed it off, and returned the following day to lead UW's 4x400-meter relay squad to a third-place finish and an NCAA berth. Charles' placed 10th with the relay at the NCAA Championships, then guided the relay to third at the NCAA meet indoors this year.
Charles returns to Hayward Field this weekend focused not on the opportunity missed, but on the opportunity before him.
"I know that there are always ups and downs," he says. "That was only my third fall in the hurdles in all of my years, so it just made me stronger. I never think about that hurdle. I just go out there and do my best."
His best is all Charles knows how to give -- fortunately for him, and for the Huskies, "his" best also happens to be among the best in the NCAA, and in his native land. Charles says, though, that becoming the best isn't a matter of talent -- it's a matter of how hard you are willing to work.
"Just keep working hard, and never give up," he says. "I was a 400-meter runner, and I was not that great, but I never gave up. When my coach told me I had to run the 400-meter hurdles, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no technique at all. But everyday after school I ran on the track, and worked on it, to try and perfect it. I wasn't the best athlete, but I worked hard every day."
Whatever happens this weekend. and throughout the rest of the season, Charles will give his best. He can accept no less from himself -- not with all of the sacrifices he has made, leaving his family and friends behind, striving to be the best student, the best athlete.
Mostly, though, Charles simply wants to be the best representative of his nation -- and with it his family and everyone he knows -- that he can be.
That alone should make his fellow Grenadians proud.