Rob Oller | Fast and not so furious: Ohio State sprinters feel blessed to be Tokyo-bound
Ohio Stadium was all field and no track when the Horseshoe opened in 1922. Football was king. It took another year for the university to construct a cinder oval around the grassy rectangle.
But then things reversed. The field with a track became better known, if only briefly, for track and field. First came George Simpson, the Ohio State sprinter from Columbus East who was the “world’s fastest human” in 1929. Then Jesse Owens set three world records and tied a fourth at the 1935 Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, followed by him winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Suddenly, running fast became bigger news than running behind left tackle. Banner headlines eventually returned to Buckeyes football — and the all-weather track was removed in 1998 — but Ohio State sprinters continued to excel through the decades. And still do.
Ohio State senior Anavia Battle will represent the United States in the 200 meters at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, while graduate student Eric Harrison Jr will represent Trinidad and Tobago in the 4 x 100 relay. The duo will be joined in Tokyo by two other former Buckeyes sprinters: Christina Clemons (100 hurdles, United States) and Maggie Barrie (400 meters, Sierra Leone).
Battle qualified for Tokyo during June’s Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where she placed third in 21.95 seconds, the first time in history a women’s collegiate runner had broken 22.0.
Harrison, who graduated in May but has another year of eligibility because of COVID-19, missed the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic trials due to illness, but made the 4 x 100 relay team based on his previous best of 10.16 in the 100.
Battle hopes the success of Ohio State’s sprinters, as well as Adelaide Aquilla making it to Tokyo in the shot put, brings more national attention to Buckeyes track and field.
“We have a lot of talent on the team that goes unnoticed, and this will shed some light on it and have people look more at the program,” she said.
They’ll need to look even closer to see Battle, who is thin as a finish line.
“When I first came into Ohio State I was like 113 pounds,” said the 22-year-old, who has ballooned — ahem — into the low 120s. “It’s funny, when people see me eat it’s like, ‘Where’s all that food going?’ I have a saying that whatever my body craves is what my body needs, and sometimes that gets me in trouble.”
As an incoming freshman from metro Detroit, Battle’s body mass index was considered obese compared to her strength, which ranked somewhere between zero and none.
“In high school I couldn’t even squat the bar,” she said, managing to laugh at her weakness, which has improved considerably in college.
Battle’s mental fragility may have been even more detrimental to performance than her lack of strength. Unlike many sprinters who hide insecurity behind false bravado, she openly struggled with self-doubt and worry.
It’s taken four years of smart coaching and compassionate counseling, not to mention peppermint oil and deep-breathing exercises, but finally she enters the track knowing she can stride with the best.
“I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been around them,” she said of competing against world-class athletes. “I think, 'You belong. I am one of these people.' And some who are watching me warm up, they’re scared of me. I used to be that person.”
Harrison knows he belongs, too. It’s just not always clear where. The sprinter from Washington, D.C., competed for the U.S. in the world junior championships in Finland in 2018, but also always wanted to compete in the red and black of Trinidad and Tobago to honor family heritage. The 22-year-old holds dual citizenship, his mother having been born in the Caribbean nation.
“I got to experience having USA on my back as a freshman, and after that I told my family I wanted to make the switch,” he said. “My great grandmother came over first. She’s the reason we’re here today.”
Harrison is immersed in the Trinidad and Tobago culture, most noticeably at the dinner table, where his mother provides a steady diet of curry shrimp, stewed chicken and pepper mangos. High on his bucket list is experiencing Carnival in his adopted country.
But first, there is Tokyo to experience.
“I don’t want to get there and get too focused to the point where I don’t enjoy the Olympics in Tokyo,” he said. “Athletes often get caught up in their head space, to where they completely miss the experience.”
It goes by fast. Sprinters, of all people, should know that.