June 3, 2013
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Christine Babcock is running the 5,000 meters at this week's NCAA championships.
Jeremy Taiwo is competing in the decathlon, four months after he set a world record for the heptathlon high jump.
James Alaka, one of the most accomplished sprinters in UW history, will be racing in the 200-meter dash at nationals. Alaka is also running on Washington's 4x100-meter relay team in these NCAA finals at the University of Oregon.
Sure, they all want to become All-Americans and NCAA champions in their final meets as Huskies. Yet meters can't measure how far their journeys have been just to get back to Hayward Field in Eugene for their final runs as Dawgs.
That's why each senior intends to enjoy every moment of the championships -- even Monday's bus ride down I-5 from Seattle.
"This last year has been so down - I was going to say `up and down,' but no, it's just been down," Alaka said over his cell phone just before the team bus stopped for lunch somewhere between Seattle and Eugene. "But at the same time, it's been a really, really enjoyable experience for me this last year here at U-Dub.
"I haven't really competed well. But just from the people around me running so well and being so supportive of me, I just appreciate things a lot more."
Babcock shares that appreciation.
It's been a really, really enjoyable experience for me this last year here ... From the people around me running so well and being so supportive of me, I just appreciate things a lot more.
The two-time All-American had one of the best cross-country and then track seasons ever for a Husky freshman in the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009, leading the cross country team to its first NCAA title. Then she developed a swollen foot that went without a conclusive diagnosis for months. After that, she suffered an Achilles tendon injury. Combined, those cost her most of two competition years. This has been her second track season of full health since the pain, and she's made her first NCAA indoor and now outdoor nationals in four, long years.
Two weeks ago in Austin, Texas, in Babcock's NCAA debut at 5,000 meters, the former 1,500 ace qualified fourth in her heat. She will join teammate Megan Goethals in the 5k national finals in Eugene.
"I feel like I've been through a lot," Babcock said. "It's exciting, and (the NCAAs are) a cool capstone to my collegiate career. But it wasn't something I was gunning for. It kind of more just happened.
"I've been able to take a step back from track and not being in it for so long realize it's not the end-all, be-all. It is liberating. I can stand on the starting line and freshman year I would have said my identity was wrapped around track. Now I stand there and feel I know who I am as a person. It doesn't define me.
"That takes some of the pressure off."
And not just in track.
"I am someone who is a lot more prepared for the world," the graduating senior said. "I have learned a lot more about patience and perseverance and just being content in the midst of unknowns."
Taiwo also competed through a world of doubt and injury for two years.
In May 2011 he became Washington's first conference winner in the decathlon since Mike Ramos in 1986. And Taiwo did it with one arm. A torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right, dominant arm forced him to throw the javelin with his left. He competed like that at the NCAA championships in 2011, then missed all of 2012 following "Tommy John" ligament replacement surgery in his elbow, as well as pelvic surgery to correct osteitis pubis, a chronic and painful ailment that limited his training.
This is his first track season since his elbow became destroyed. He set the heptathlon high-jump record in February at the Boise State Challenge Nampa, Idaho -- though he didn't realize he had cleared 7 feet, 4½ inches until well after he had missed next at 7-5 3/4. He had told the judges before the competition that he only wanted to know his clearances in meters. He had no idea he had cleared 7-4½ until a Boise State official casually told him many minutes after the fact "I think you just jumped a world record."
His muted response: "Oh, really?"
Two weeks after setting the world record that has since been broken he hurt his hamstring long jumping at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation meet at UW's Dempsey Indoor facility. That limited him to competing only in the high jump at NCAA Indoors, instead of doing the full heptathlon.
That injury lingered through the spring. He was still without a decathlon score for the season entering last month's Pac-12 championships, and he needed a great one to qualify a final time for the NCAAs.
He seized one, rising up for a career-best 7,998 points. He lost by a mere three points, the closest conference decathlon competition ever, and his score was the best ever by a second-place finisher in the league. It was high enough that he will be competing at the 2013 U.S. Track and Field Championships June 20-23 in Des Moines, Iowa.
And he did all 10 events - the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter run on one day, the 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1500-meter run on a second day - on an injured knee, as Taiwo was hit with a bout of patella tendinitis at the Pac-12 multis in Los Angeles.
That's why he chuckles and calls getting to go to the NCAA championships one final time with Babcock and Alaka "a little bonus that we deserve one last time in college."
Since becoming the first Husky sprinter to win back-to-back conference titles 13 months ago, little has gone right for Alaka. The three-time conference champion and five-time honorable mention All-America from the NCAA finals in 2011 and '12 was set to make Great Britain's team for last summer's Olympics. It was going to be personally grand; the track events were being run 20 minutes from his home in southeast London.
Then he tore his already sore hamstring 100 meters into Great Britain's 200-meter qualifying for the London Games.
The hamstring has been, as he says, "ridiculously tight" since the first race of Washington's current outdoor track season. Last month he basically gutted his way back to these NCAA finals, pulling the tight hamstring with him.
"I don't see it as redemption, as much," Alaka says of this final chance at the outdoor nationals. "I honestly want to do well at the NCAA championships, but because of my injuries since last summer and in the last year really I'm just happy to compete, to be on the line. I intend to enjoy every minute of being at Hayward."
After the NCAAs, Alaka is planning on going home to train in hopes of competing in July's United Kingdom championships. After that, he'd like to return to UW in late September "and help the team any way I can, if the coaches want me," he said with a laugh.
Alaka has two quarters left before graduating with a degree in the comparative history of ideas. He intends to come back for a final UW indoor season in the fall and winter academic terms.
To him, helping next year's Huskies would be payback.
"I'm surrounded by great people here, to be honest," he said. "Qualifying at the NCAA regionals was definitely the result of teamwork for me. My whole team brought me through every step. My relay team was super encouraging to me before my 200 race. Our trainers did a great job. My coaches knew exactly what to say at the perfect moments.
"I am just so grateful to them for being in the NCAA finals."
Babcock joked that her newfound perspective in dealing with the unknown will come in handy at the end of this month, "because I don't know actually know what I'll be doing after June."
The native of Irvine, Calif., is graduating next week with a degree in early childhood education and family studies. She has a wowing 3.93 grade-point average and has been a Pac-12 scholar athlete of the year for cross country. She and Taiwo were named last week to the Capital One academic all-district team for track and cross country.
Babcock wants to keep running professionally for at least the next year. She has plans to then go to graduate school, maybe back in her native Southern California - "maybe someplace with more sun" -- to become an occupational therapist.
Taiwo has a 3.54 cumulative grade point average. He will receive his UW degree next week in Latin American studies, with a minor in global health.
"He's going to conquer the world," Babcock joked, while sitting next to him Friday on campus.
He wants to work at a non-profit to provide preventative care and education on local, grass-roots levels in a Spanish-speaking community. He is contemplating a stint in the Peace Corps to explore his interests, "but if I apply right now I wouldn't be as completely ambitious as I want to be in track," he says.
"My immediate plan is to finish this meet and feel good with being done with college," he said, smiling.
People now just see me for being Jeremy. I'm not destined just to do track ... That's just a small part of who I am.
Taiwo's father Joseph competed for Nigeria at the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, placing ninth both times in the triple jump. His mother Irene attended UW law school.
Their son, like Babcock, sounds self-assured about who he is as he leaves UW.
That's what five years of injuries and perseverance can build in a young adult.
"It's kind of like Christine. I was struggling with the injuries and wondering if I wanted to do this for sure," Taiwo says of track. "Then the sprints coach, Coach (Raul) Sheen, was helping me realize that track doesn't really define me. For a lot of people, I think it does.
"People now just see me for being Jeremy. I'm not destined just to do track, like my dad did. That's just a small part of who I am."