Unleashed: Running For the (Purple and) Gold
May 30, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - How much does James Alaka love the University of Washington?
The World's Fastest Dawg signed with UW half a world away from his native London in 2010 - without ever visiting campus. He loved the genuine enthusiasm of Huskies' sprint coach Raul Sheen, and loved that Seattle was eons away from the isolated farms of Iowa, where he almost signed instead.
Since then, wearing his characteristic sunglasses in races - day or night - and leaping like a pogo stick just before crouching into the starting blocks each time, Washington's junior and track captain has been a blur. He swept the 100 meters and 200 meters at the 2011 Pac-10 championships. Last month Alaka became the first Husky to win consecutive conference sprint titles with a career-best 20.45 seconds as champion of the 200.
That time has him qualified for trials next month in his native Great Britain for another meet you may have heard of: The Olympics this summer.
As of last week, Alaka owned England's fastest time this year in the 200, under the Olympic "A" standard. And his wind-aided 10.22 in the 100 from last week's NCAA preliminaries in Austin, Texas, has him under the "B" standard for the Olympics' other glamour event in track and field.
The world's biggest sporting spectacle just happens to be in August about 20 minutes from his home in southeast London. He's watched the new Olympic track stadium being built in east London on his last few trips home from school, last year and this past Christmas.
Alaka has to finish in the top three in England's Olympic trials that begin June 22 in Birmingham. He will fly home for those June 13 to begin training, four days after the NCAA championships.
"I think I have the capabilities to do it. And I definitely have the confidence," he says of becoming the first Husky to run in one of the Olympics' two marquee sprints since 1952, when Bob Hutchinson ran the 100 and 200 for Canada.
"So hopefully it can be the ideal summer. It really could be. It would really be a greatopportunity to run in front of my friends and family in the city where I grew up."
Yet get this: Alaka says winning a national championship and becoming an All-American for the Huskies at his third consecutive appearance at next week's NCAA championships would mean more.
Winning in Des Moines, Iowa, would be the culmination of a goal he and his sprints coach have had since he stepped on campus two years ago.
"It's always been a goal of mine and Coach (Raul) Sheen's to go to Des Moines and the NCAAs and be able to really compete. And whatever happens there, mark a supposedly great collegiate season and go on to the Olympics," Alaka said Tuesday, wearing a Team Great Britain singlet with the Union Jack flag on it and sitting on a foam roll on the artificial turf of UW's Dempsey Indoor facility before yet another workout.
"I've wanted to be an All-American since I was a freshman here, and I haven't been able to accomplish it individually. So this opportunity I have right now is just as big as making the Olympic team."
His friends and family would shower him with pride and admiration. Agents would swarm him after the Games, asking him to turn pro on Europe's lucrative track tour.
Yet Alaka has already made up his mind: he's coming back to UW next academic year to graduate and lead a surging Huskies track program through his senior season.
That's come gold, fame, hometown heroism - whatever.
Now that's a team captain.
"There's no point in leaving after my junior year, so close to your degree," he says. "The college experience, I want to finish it off. Even if I ran a 9.8 or whatever (in London), I'm not leaving.
The college experience, I want to finish it off. Even if I ran a 9.8 or whatever (in London), I'm not leaving.
"And I owe it to my teammates, too. They've stuck by me and helped me out, in all situations. I'd feel bad if I didn't come back and help us do something big next year, because I know as a team we are capable of doing some really big things, actually."
Sheen is as impressed with that as he is with Alaka's zooming times.
"It says a lot about him as a teammate, and what the Husky spirit is all about," his coach says. "What he does here at the University of Washington has always come first. And his mentality has always been, `After that, then I will take a shot at the Olympic Games.'
"There's a lot of loyalty there, the commitment. Probably a lot of appreciation for what the institution has done for him. It's pretty cool to see that."
Sheen, a former runner at Idaho State and the 2008 West region assistant of the year at Long Beach State, has been in constant contact with Alaka's national-team coaches in England. He's shared Alaka's Husky training plans with British relay coordinator Tony Lester for about a year now.
"It's been a humbling experience for me, to be involved in this," Sheen said. "I've been lucky enough to coach some great athletes. But to be involved in this experience here with a potential Olympian, potentially in his home town, that's been fun."
ON THE VERGE OF DESTINY
To those who knew Alaka growing up, these Olympics have been his destiny since the day in 2005 the International Olympic Committee awarded these Games to London.
He was 15 then, still an accomplished youth scorer in his nation's more-favored sport - soccer -- while one year removed from winning his first English national youth sprint championship. He was sitting in math class when he and his country got the Olympic news on that day of national celebration.
Amid the excitement, his classmates' eyes fixed on the fastest teen in the United Kingdom.
"Everyone was saying to me, `You are going to be competing there!'" he remembers.
He wasn't so sure.
"I guess when I moved here I was thinking, if I don't make the 2012 Games I shouldn't be so disappointed," he says. "But then when I ran well at Pac-10s last year (winning both the 100 and 200 meters, the first such UW sweep in 11 years), it reignited that possibility.
"Last year after how I ran, it became a goal again, instead of just a dream."
At 15 he ditched that other football; he liked that track was more individual, that he was directly responsible for winning or succeeding, or not. He trained with junior coach Clarence Callendar and became an English sprinter prodigy.
Then, he left. So what do his countrymen think about him perfecting his sprinting in the U.S.?
"At first it wasn't an issue because I wasn't that quick coming over here. I was running 10.4 and 21.1. So maybe it was good that I was out of their hair for a while," he joked. "But last year when I ran pretty well at Pacs is when they started to get pretty interested."
Alaka made Britain's team for last summer's European under-23 championships and won the 100 meters there. He was on its national team at the 2011 World University Games in China in August, finishing fifth in the 100.
He said those selection processes went smoothly.
"It wasn't like I felt segregated or isolated because of my `defection,'" he said, chuckling over leaving home to run college track in the U.S.
By the way, Alaka doesn't exactly feel homesick or left out of the palpable excitement in England over the imminent Olympics.
"I'm actually kind of glad to be away from it," he says. "I know for a fact that London is buzzing with Olympic fever, and it has for the last two years. But I've been here with my own personal goals: to compete well in conference and at nationals, before I can think about my `other season,' as I like to call it.
My own personal goals: to compete well in conference and at nationals, before I can think about my `other season.'.
"It's been great. It's kept me focused and kept my head down, which has been great. I have my goals that I need to achieve first. I am still chasing that All-American certificate."
HOW UW GOT A LIKELY OLYMPIAN - VIA E-MAIL
This three-time conference champion is the middle child of three boys, "the awkward position," he joked. His family still lives in London: parents, Helen and Remi Alaka, plus brothers Richard, who works for a cell-phone company, and 17-year-old Daniel, a high-school basketball player. His father works for one of borough governments in London, and his mother is a trainer of teachers at a local education center.
After becoming England's top youth sprinter, Alaka believed that to fulfill his athletic potential he needed to go to college in America.
"Education and athletics in England, they don't really move in synch. The school doesn't help the athletics, and the athletics doesn't help the school," he says. "The two are separate programs."
Yet his impression of the U.S. wasn't exactly flattering while growing up in London.
"I mean, the stereotypes about America in England aren't exactly the best: lazy, stupid - and a lot of junk food," he said, smiling.
"The junk-food bit appealed to me. The other two, not really."
He liked candy - and still does. Bigger than that, his interest in the U.S. had been piqued by summer trips Callendar led for Alaka and his national junior track teams to Los Angeles for training. On one, in 2008, Alaka toured UCLA and was struck at its beauty, its harmony between school and sports, and the possibilities of running in a premier track conference.
Alaka used the Internet to research top U.S. track programs and found most were in the Pac-10, Southeastern Conference and Big Ten. He sent e-mails with his times to coaches in those leagues and beyond.
"Most of the coaches replied and said, `Thanks for being interested, but we don't have a scholarship for you,'" Alaka remembers. "It was kind of frustrating."
Only six programs showed any interest. Just two offered full scholarships: Iowa and Western Kentucky. Since Iowa is in the Big Ten, he closed in on committing there.
Then he received an e-mail from the 33-year-old Sheen, who was then in his first year as a Huskies assistant to Greg Metcalf.
"I'd seen him on some lists. Then when he e-mailed me, I got excited on him and watched some film," Sheen said.
We kind of took a gamble. He didn't come on a visit or anything. ... Yeah, good gamble.
"We kind of took a gamble. He didn't come on a visit or anything. ... Yeah, good gamble."
I asked him how many runners the Husky program has signed without a campus visit or ever meeting him or her in person.
"Of his caliber? Zero."
The coup is an example of the Steve Sarkisian success plan in recruiting inside Husky athletics: endless enthusiasm and energy from young coaches attracting recruits not that much younger than them.
Yet it wasn't an instant match.
"It thought it was D.C.," Alaka says of Washington. "I thought, `I didn't know I'd have to run in D.C. That sucks a bit.'"
Then he found UW was in what is rated the best city for college kids inside one of those top track conferences. He learned of the Huskies' renowned tradition in athletics and academics. He also saw UW Track as senior heavy in sprinters that year. All-American Jordan Boase was leaving the program after the 2009 season, as was top relay man Joe Turner.
Alaka saw the void and jumped across the pond. Waaaay across.
"The more I talked to Coach Sheen, the more I could see he was a coach excited in his program. That was great to see a coach excited about what he was doing," Alaka said. "The e-mails back and forth, you could see he was genuinely excited. That was something most coaches didn't express.
"I was like, `If this is a place I can go where a coach is that excited ... that's clearly a good program. That job satisfaction - a happy coach is definitely going to be a help rather than a hindrance.
"That enthusiasm made me think, I don't even have to visit here. Let's just make it official.' And I signed here.
"It's turned out to be one of the better decisions of my life."
I asked him what his parents thought of their teenage son leaving not only home but the country and the continent to go to college 4,800 miles away - especially one he had never before visited.
"I have parents that are very supportive," he understated, chuckling.
"I told them and they were like, `Great!' I remember my dad was saying `Clearly this is the place you are supposed to be. ... Go out there, enjoy yourself and everything will fall into place. This is God's plan.'
"My parents are always so supportive. Even if I run poorly they say, `That was so great. You make me so proud.'"
And not just in sprinting. He is on, um, track to graduate with a degree in UW's unique, interdisciplinary Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program. Its students see the world in a different way, examining the interplay of ideas and their cultural, historical, and political contexts.
"I've made lifelong friends here. I've learned more than I ever would staying home in England," Alaka says. "If I went to a British school I wouldn't have learned half of what I've learned here. I mean, this is one of the best schools in the country, in the academic sense, and I'm running in one of the best conferences in the country.
"I am lucky and blessed to be in the position I am right now."
THE "FLASHMAN" SLEEPS
Alaka just looks sleek.
His Twitter handle is @flashmanjames. He wears a diamond stud in the bottom his left ear lobe, another in his upper right ear. He walks around wearing a Team Great Britain track jacket and ever-present headphones playing anything from Whitney Houston to 50 Cent to James Brown.
What does this fastest Husky like to do off the track?
"Sleep," he says immediately. "If there was a world record for sleeping, I have completely annihilated it. I am THE world's greatest sleeper. I lay claim to that."
So that's his secret! Hibernation before acceleration.
"I can be out by 11 and not wake up until 9, go to practice, then come back home and sleep from 5 till 8 - and then by out by, like, 11 again," he says, proudly. "Yeah, I love my sleep."
I asked him if it dawns on him that he's not some normal college kid sleeping in, wearing headphones, walking UW's campus. That he is perhaps two months away from competing in the highest-profile races on the world's grandest sports stage - in his home town, no less.
"Not really, to be honest," Alaka said. "The one thing I honestly try to do when I am competing is have fun. I honestly don't think about the prestige of what I am doing. I just try to enjoy myself - winning, of course, that helps to having fun. But, yeah, it doesn't dawn on me day by day, really.
"I can't get too wrapped up in that, because then it becomes not something I enjoy doing but a task."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.