Since I got home from my mission, I’ve been thinking big. Not everyone who sets a goal to make the Olympic team makes the team, but 100 percent of the guys who made it set that goal. I want to be an Olympian. —Shaquille Walker
Ed Eyestone, the BYU track coach, was hoping to keep his latest star-in-waiting, Shaquille Walker, a secret a little longer, but the word is out, and it’s entirely Walker’s fault. Three races, three wins, three national-class times, three defeated Olympians, a couple of records — that will put your name out there.
Eyestone is calling Shaquille Walker (yes, after the basketball player) a “freakish” talent. How he landed at BYU is as unlikely as his fast start to the 2015 season, and the short version of it is this: A black, Southern Baptist from Georgia meets girl, follows her to seminary class, joins the Mormon Church, signs with BYU over the objections of teachers and friends, serves a mission and here he is.
Just six months removed from a mission to England, he was expected to use this season to gradually regain his fitness and ease back into competition. Instead, he has delivered a trio of eye-opening performances.
In his first official competition in more than two years, Walker won the rarely contested 500-meter run in Provo with a time of 1:01.05, fastest in the nation this season and not far off the collegiate record of 1:00.63.
In the Washington Invitation in Seattle, he not only won the 800-meter run, he set a meet and indoor school record of 1:47.44, third fastest time in the U.S. this season and the fastest indoor time ever produced by a Utah collegian.
A week later he won the 600-meter run at the New Mexico Classic in Albuquerque in 1:17.32, third fastest in the nation this season.
“He got stuck behind a couple of guys and it took until the last straightaway to get by them,” says Eyestone. “He could’ve run a second faster.”
In his last two races, Walker has dispatched three U.S. Olympians — Lopez Lomong, Evan Jaeger and Jarrin Solmon — plus Olympic Trials finalist Mark Wieczorek. Eyestone, a two-time Olympic distance runner who is normally an understated man, gushes about Walker.
“He’s the best, most natural freakishly talented middle-distance runner we’ve ever had,” says Eyestone. “I think he’s going to surpass Agberto Guimaraes before it’s all done.”
Guimaraes holds BYU’s outdoor school record of 1:46.50 set in 1980, the same year he placed fourth in the Olympic Games.
Walker was born in the Chicago area but his family moved to Richmond, Georgia, when he was a boy to escape the rough street life. His mom Brenda is a city bus driver and his father Gemini a salesman. Shaquille and his identical twin brother are the middle of six children, all boys.
The twins were expected to be a boy and a girl and names were chosen accordingly: Gemille and Breshawnay. Shaquille, the second of the twins to be born, was supposed to be Breshawnay, but that didn’t work for a boy so he was named Shaquille Brashawn Walker, almost exactly the same as basketball player Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal.
Shaq steered clear of trouble and focused on sports and school. He earned a 3.95 grade point average and developed into a middle-distance star, albeit reluctantly. After a 12th-place finish at the state meet during his freshman season, he told his coach he was finished with the sport. He said the same thing the following year when he finished second.
He won state championships in the 800 the next two years and produced times of 1:51.7 for 800 meters and 47.5 for 400, which merited attention from major universities. Following his junior year, he narrowed his choices to Stanford and BYU.
“All my teachers and friends wanted to make the decision for me — go to Stanford,” he says. “They thought I was making a big mistake when I chose BYU. The teachers told me, ‘You’re not even a Mormon. You’re not going to like it.’ ”
Injuries forced him to stop training for three months in the fall and winter of his senior year. “It played a role in me looking for something else,” he says. That something else was religion. He had befriended an LDS girl at school a year earlier and she had convinced him to attend early morning LDS seminary class with her several times. When he found himself without running as a senior, Walker began to attend seminary more frequently. “The main reason was because they had breakfast,” he says. “I never thought about joining the church.”
As he tells it, seminary students were urged to try personal prayer. He tried it for a couple of months and then quit for a couple of months when he believed it “didn’t work.” Let him tell the rest of the story.
“I had this random thought in March that I should pray and read the Book of Mormon,” he says. “I went up to my room late one night and as I read I got these weird feelings and I was wondering, what is this book doing to me? And in the middle of it I felt I should pray. I got an answer. It was clear.” He called the missionaries the next day. He was baptized three weeks before he graduated.
“My parents weren’t supportive for a couple of months,” he says, “but once I got to BYU and they saw how much I loved the school they were supportive.”
Walker was all in. Three months after he joined the church, he was called to serve as executive secretary in his student ward in Provo, which meant working two full nights each week. Following his freshman year, he left for Manchester, England, to serve a two-year mission (by the end of his mission he was serving as assistant to the mission president).
“The story gets cooler,” says Walker. “While I was on my mission, my mom wrote and asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I told her all I wanted was for them to feed the local missionaries because they’d be hungry. My brothers got baptized. And my parents took the lessons when I got home and my mom is reading the Book of Mormon. Maybe seeing the change in me and my brothers did it.”
As a freshman, Walker broke 1:50 five times in the 800, his best being a 1:49.39 effort in which he ran negative splits (the second lap faster than the first). He anchored BYU’s 4 x 400 with blistering splits of 45.7 at the NCAA regional championships and 45.6 at the NCAA finals. That summer, he won the USA junior (19 and under) nationals and represented the U.S. in the world junior championships in Barcelona before leaving on the mission.
He estimates that he ran a total of 25-30 miles during the next two years. When he returned to Provo last August and resumed training, he was understandably out of shape. During his first workout with the team, he got halfway through a four-mile run before he quit and walked home.
“With each passing week his aerobic endurance improved, but his anaerobic speed was practically there from day one,” says Eyestone.
In January, Walker ran a time trial 600 in 1:16.22 — the American record is 1:15.60 — despite being told by Eyestone to slow down because he thought he was running the first 400 meters (49 seconds) too fast. “I thought he was going to die, but he didn’t,” says Eyestone.
A week later Walker busted the fast 800 in Seattle and suddenly track aficionados were asking online, “Who is this guy?” Says Eyestone, “It’s been kind of nice not having everyone know who he is, but running 1:47 will definitely put you on the grid.”
Walker, a polite, outgoing pre-dental major who makes friends easily, has a slight build (about 5-foot-9, 140 pound), but he possesses natural anaerobic (speed) endurance and strength — “a big engine in a light frame,” is how his coach puts it. He was a tentative racer before his mission, usually trying to run from the back, but now he runs aggressively and attacks his races with confidence.
“When he won junior nationals right before leaving on his mission, I think he started to believe that he could be one of the best,” says Eyestone.
“Since I got home from my mission, I’ve been thinking big,” says Walker. “Not everyone who sets a goal to make the Olympic team makes the team, but 100 percent of the guys who made it set that goal. I want to be an Olympian.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]