While Austin Hollimon’s proficiency with musical notes in high school as a trombone player had him thinking about attending the Juilliard School of Music, a letter from a coach took his life in a new direction.
“Coming through high school, I was a classic trombonist,” said Hollimon, a native of Decatur, Ga.
“I studied with one of the best teachers in Atlanta; I had been playing since the fifth grade. I didn’t run track sophomore year. The coach at our school, Napoleon Cobb, who had trained Olympians, sent me a letter. He had seen me running in PE class and said I should come out for track because I could do amazing things.”
It didn’t take long for Hollimon to meet Cobb’s expectations. “My parents were skeptical, I did track my junior year and I ran under 48 seconds in the 400 meters,” said Hollimon.
“If you break 48 seconds in the 400 meters, you get on the radar of college programs. I had schools like Michigan, Georgia, and Georgia Tech reaching out to me.”
The Princeton University men’s track team reached out to Hollimon and he came to New Jersey in 2008.
“I was concerned; I was afraid I would come up here and get worse,” said Hollimon, reflecting on his freshman year at Princeton.
“I had seen superstars in high school who came to college and couldn’t match their PR. Mike Eddy, a 400 runner, was my gold standard for work ethic and getting better in the 400.”
Hollimon ended up winning a lot of gold medals for the Tigers, including six Ivy League Heptagonal titles and an NCAA indoor title in the distance medley relay this past winter. Last week, he culminated his Princeton career by competing in the 400 hurdles and the 4×400 relay at the NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore.
For Hollimon, getting better and better at track during his college years became a 24/7 enterprise.
“Track for me went from being an activity that I put a lot into, to being a passion that I was committed to,” said Hollimon.
“I wanted to learn the sport. I didn’t just want to work out my body, I studied the sport and I changed my diet.”
In early 2011, Hollimon produced a breakthrough that showed him he could hang with the best in the sport.
“I think in junior year when I ran a 46.4 and dropped my PR from a 46.8 in the very first meet of the season, that is the moment where I realized I could run with the best in the country,” said Hollimon. “All we had done was strength work with only a week of speed work.”
Over his Princeton career, Hollimon has drawn strength from competing on relays.
“I have never run 45 seconds in an open 400 but I always go 45 seconds in a relay,” said Hollimon, who ran the 400 leg for the NCAA champion DMR team.
“There is something powerful about running with your brothers. We were not expected to be able to compete on the national level and yet we won. Running an individual race is great but it is not as fulfilling as competing with your three brothers.”
During his junior year, Hollimon received another missive from coach Cobb which changed his individual focus to the 400 hurdles from the 400.
“Coach Cobb sent me another letter, these letters are serious,” said Hollimon with a laugh.
“In that letter, he said that in order for me to achieve that greatness, I had to be serious and come home and train with him. He thought that by pursuing the hurdles, I could end up being in the Olympics. It would require a return to home to purse this dream. My parents were not going to let me leave without graduating from Princeton My father asked the simple question, he said you have never run hurdles in your life, how is it that you are going to make it to the Olympics?”
Inspired by the example of Edwin Moses, who had never raced in the hurdles before 1976 but went on to win the Olympic gold medal that year in the Montreal Summer Games, Hollimon took two semesters off from school and went home to learn his new event.
“It came naturally; I did my first hurdles race at the Florida Relays and I ran a 50.6 even though I clipped the eight hurdle,” said Hollimon.
“Bershawn Jackson and Johnny Dutch were in the race and I finished third. It showed me that I have some ability to run that race. At the end of the day, if I made it, my life would be revolutionized. If I didn’t, I would be ready to do well at the college level.”
Hollimon ended up making the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials but suffered a setback as he hit a hurdle on his final turn in his opening heat and fell to end up in last place.
“The experience I had was a confidence builder,” asserted Hollimon. “I was right there; if I didn’t hit the seven hurdle I think I would have won that heat. Even though I fell on a national stage and had to deal with media questions in the toughest moment of my life, it was a good experience. I needed to show grace when they asked me how do you feel. I got an outpouring of support from friends and strangers.”
Upon returning to Princeton in January for his final semester, it took Hollimon a while to get up to speed.
“Things didn’t go as well as I had hoped,” said Hollimon. “It was very cold when I got back. I was trying to do some of the training stuff. I didn’t feel my body was responding. It was a challenge to go to class and do the things that college students have to do. I had gotten used to training all the time.”
Utilizing that training, Hollimon won the 400 hurdles at the Outdoor Heps and then went on to clock a time of 51.02 to win his heat at the NCAA East regional and qualify for the national championship meet.
“I was slightly concerned; in the open 400 at the Heps, I had the slowest time I have had in college,” said Hollimon.
“I ran a 48.1 when I was in the 45.6 range. I was confused. I was defending champion in 400 hurdles and I had a good performance. At the regionals, I had an even better time, I was feeling good about my race execution.”
While Hollimon didn’t execute as well as he hoped at the NCAA meet, placing eighth in his heat in 400 hurdles in 54.82 as he was hampered by the flu and then helping the 4×400 take seventh in its heat, his college experience has involved a lot more than success on the track.
“I like the perspective at Princeton; the athletes here are not glorified or deified,” said Hollimon.
“One of the great lessons is that character always counted more around campus than what I did on the track. Who I am is more important than what I do as an athlete. That is a wonderful lesson for me.
Hollimon is taking some important lessons with him as he leaves Princeton.
“I realize that they are teaching us here to teach ourselves,” said Hollimon, who will be taking part in Teach for America in Washington, D.C. as he trains for a shot at the 2016 Summer Olympics
“When I got into the 400 hurdles, I did film study. It is not just the physical; it is the mental, emotional, and spiritual. It is all encompassing.”
In hitting the right note as he shifted his focus to track at Princeton, Hollimon made his high school coach look like a prophet.