For track and field, the pinnacle of the sport is competing on the world’s biggest stage at the Olympics. Regardless of where you grew up or how far you made it competitively, as a track athlete you can’t help but fantasize about representing your country on the national team. So, when I got the opportunity to meet the athletes on Team USA at this year’s Penn Relays “USA vs. the World” series, needless to say I was beyond excited. My guide for the day? Two-time Olympian and 8th-fastest 200-meter athlete in history, Wallace Spearmon Jr.
I met Wallace in the downtown Marriott lobby where the USA Track and Field (USATF) athletes were housed for the weekend. All of the athletes had arranged their own travel to arrive some time on Thursday evening to convene that Friday morning (7:45 am) as a group. I knew exactly who Wallace was, so I approached him with a less-than-cool utterance of “Wallace, hi!” Facial recognition off the table, he searched my wrists for a WHOOP. Passing that test, Wallace nodded and shook my hand.
“Are you wearing yours?” I asked. He pulled back his jacket sleeve to reveal his own strap.
“I never take it off,” he said coolly back with a little side eye, suggesting the silliness of the question. His eyes clearly conveyed what I too know about WHOOP data: Once you’re on the system, you rely on it.
Wallace had invited me to shadow him for the day as he and the other athletes went through their pre-meet practice at a neighboring college track. First, however, was breakfast. He ran across the street to a corner store to pick up apple slices and a granola bar. I would soon learn from chatting with Bernard “Beejay” Lee, another Team USA athlete, that they have to provide all of their own meals on these trips.
Successfully grabbing snacks, Wallace and I walked together to the charter buses that were awaiting the full Team USA roster. One-by-one, athletes emerged from the hotel and made their way onto the buses. As a bystander, two things became abundantly clear to me:
- Every single person in this very large entourage of athletes, trainers, coaches, and USATF support staff knows Wallace. He was greeted happily by each of them; most, in fact, included a hug.
- The athletes and coaches alike seem to treat Wallace as the unspoken captain of the team. They deferred to him to make sure every athlete was accounted for, and accordingly, he waited streetside until every person had boarded the bus.
On the ride out to the Haverford College track, the athletes joked and bantered like cousins at a family reunion. As they chatted, I was steadily introduced to each of the members of Team USA’s 4×100 meter relay. The first leg would be run by LeShon Collins, a 2016 graduate of the University of Houston. Wallace would be second. Beejay Lee, a 2015 grad of USC, would run third leg. Finally, the last leg would be run by John Teeters, a 2016 grad of Oklahoma State. Besides Wallace, all three of these guys were donning the Team USA jersey for their first appearance at Penn Relays as a professional athlete.
What struck me in learning about the life of a professional track athlete is how little time they get together to establish that sense of team I felt so readily on the bus. Take these four men as an example: Each of them trains with their own coach at their alma mater in four separate states. They’ve only met a handful of times at meets prior, and have never before run on a relay team together. After the effort at Penn, in fact, it’s likely that foursome won’t cross paths until the next Olympic year and it’s doubtful the same four will ever be on a relay together again. Despite the distance, the camaraderie and chemistry is natural amongst these men.
These conditions that underscore the reality of a professional track career demand discipline and grit. In the lonely years outside of the Olympics, it’s entirely up to the athlete to individually maintain the fitness and strength necessary to be competitive for an eventual Team USA slot. It’s an environment fraught with variables and few systems of support; as such, a professional track athlete knows their locus of control is his or her own body.
As Wallace laid on the trainer’s table he described what he likes about WHOOP metrics:
“It confirms what I already know. I didn’t sleep very well last night and my Recovery reflects it. I know what I can give in practice today.”
Wallace took his time on the table getting his muscles worked on. He joked with the trainers that, at his age, he needs to get every piece of the puzzle right (he’s only 32, but that doesn’t stop Beejay and the other guys in their early 20s from calling him “Old Man”). As the trainer wrapped up, Wallace made a point of thanking the medical team for being there. This display of gratitude was equal parts unexpected and genuine, and the strong impression it made on the trainers was evident.
Sufficiently warmed up, the relay groups separated to their respective segments of the track to practice handing off the baton. This is technical and requires precision, particularly amongst short sprinters who are barreling down the track at top end speed. The coaches looked to Wallace to set the tone; the whole practice, in fact, seemed to operate under Wallace’s watchful eye. He offhandedly mentioned something to me about being called the “Mayor of Track and Field,” which very much felt like an apropos title.
For the most part, the athletes seemed to stay focused on their own rituals and routines. They talked to one another and came together as a team nicely, but there was marked independence in how they each went about their pre-meet preparation.
The same was not true of Wallace. He pulled John (the guy running the closing leg) aside and demonstrated how to better make a target with his hand when receiving the baton. Fresh in Wallace’s memory must have been the botched handoff of training parter Tyson Gay in last year’s 4×100 meter running at Penn.
The baton exchanges finished up and the athletes went about packing up their equipment to board the bus. Wallace, again, brought up the rear. He walked the track picking up the tape and trash left behind from the practice session on the way to getting his gear.
I sat on the stands with some of the USATF staff who were there to support the practice. When I told them I was hanging out with Wallace for the day, one of them responded with the perfect summation of my first impression of him:
“I’ve tried to come up with something unlikeable about Wallace. I have yet to find one.”
The next day, LeShon, Wallace, Beejay, and John made their way into historic Franklin Field, the coliseum-like stadium that is home to the Penn Relays Carnival. They were met by the deafening exaltations of the Jamaican cheering section that’s an annual fixture lining the home stretch. Would Jamaica upset Team USA for a second year in a row? Check out the video below to see how our guys (labeled USA Red, but wearing blue) fared:
For more on The Locker about Wallace’s training methods and how he uses WHOOP, check out:
How Prioritizing Recovery Led Me to Greatness, by Wallace Spearmon Jr.