June 5, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Hearing from an athlete that he or she is “happy to be here” when going into a high-stakes event for the first time doesn’t necessarily bode well.
Yet, hearing junior Shawn Roberts begin his answer to a question about his mindset less than 24 hours prior to his first NCAA Championship qualifying race in the 800 meters begin with, “I’m really excited to be here” gave off the opposite impression.
When Roberts takes the Drake Stadium track at approximately 6:15 p.m. local time (that’s 7:15 EST), there’s little to fear about him letting his nerves get in his way. He expected to be running in this meet and isn’t letting anything or anyone get in his way.
“That was my first goal for the season,” he said. “And now that I’m here, I look at my heat for tomorrow and I feel like there’s a chance that I can make the finals. So I’m really hoping to take it through to the next round.”
In fact, the Centerville, Ohio, native almost practically feels like he is running amongst old friends. Of the eight participants in his heat, the second of the day, Roberts raced against four of them — Howard Shepard of LSU, Samuel Ellison of Villanova, Curtis Beach of Duke, and Aaron Evans of Georgia — two weekends ago in the East Regionals in Jacksonville, Fla.
Knowing what he’s facing has not only taken the edge off but added a sense of bravado and confidence.
“We know each other and how we race,” he said. “There’s another guy, Darrin Gibson out of Florida State, who I’ve raced a bunch of times. I raced him twice at the end of the season and beat him twice. The kid from Columbia, Harry McFann, is from Ohio and I’ve raced against him. The only person I haven’t raced against is Felix Kitur of VMI. So I feel like I know the race and I’m kind of confident knowing what’s going to happen and how everything’s going to play out, as long as I can run to the best of my abilities, I have a chance.”
The top two finishers from each heat, along with the two best non-winning times qualify for the final, which takes place Friday night at 6:10 p.m. local time.
(Another familiar face for Roberts — although one he doesn’t expect to see much of — is Yellow Jackets sophomore Julienne McKee, who will be representing Georgia Tech in the long jump, which starts Thursday night at 5:30 p.m., then the triple-jump, which begins Saturday at 10:00 a.m.)
Roberts, who ran Tech’s fastest 800 time this season (1:48.08), won his qualifying, and semi-final heats, running 1:48.08 then 1:49.51. The latter time finished sixth, good enough to make it to Des Moines.
Just making it isn’t enough this time and he’s planning a change of strategy accordingly.
“All season I’ve trained for the 1,500 and I went out and ran an 800,” he said. “I changed up my strategy a little bit. I tend to sit back and kick but my last two 800s I’ve gone out hard and have been in first or second place for the first 600 meters and I’ve only had to kick a little bit in the end. That was working for a little while. It didn’t work so well in the final race. I qualified but barely. So we’re going to try and go back to maybe sitting a little further back.”
“Knowing that I can go out as hard as I have been has helped a lot,” he added. “Before I was always a little afraid to go out the first 400 in 52 seconds because I didn’t think I’d be able to hold on. But I’ve done it three or four times now and so I know that it’s in my ability.”
Roberts knows how much he needs to and can push himself and how different this race is from the 1,500.
“The biggest adjustment was having to go out so hard in the first lap,” he said. “I’m used to being more relaxed. In the 1,500 you can be relaxed for a big part of the race. Like you get out in the first 100 meters then you kind of sit and relax until somebody starts to make a move. In the 800, there is no relaxing. You’re pretty much on the gas the whole time. It’s like an extended sprint. So it’s a little bit of an adjustment there.”
He also knows that he’ll have no problem getting up for the race, or getting a good night’s sleep the night before it.
“I’m going to sleep fine. I’m not the type that gets really nervous,” he said. “It’s still 800 meters. They didn’t change the distance. They didn’t change how the race is run. I’ve done it before. It’s not going to be any different.”
To keep track of how Roberts does tonight, tune in here.
To watch McKee Thursday and Saturday and Roberts, should he qualify for the finals, tune into ESPN3.com.