Meet days are filled with strict routines and preparations during the final moments leading up to the events. Junior hurdler Keiron Stewart’s to-do list is a few items shorter than most competitors.
“I never get a pre-meet massage during warm-ups like everyone else on the team,” Stewart said. “And I don’t have to worry about putting on socks before I lace up my spikes.”
Most athletes wouldn’t even consider the thought of competing in their first event without a massage or forgetting to put on their socks. But for Stewart, these are two rituals he doesn’t follow.
During his junior year of high school at Kingston College in Kingston, Jamaica, Stewart allowed one of the trainers to give him a rub down to loosen up his muscles before the races began. The Jamaica native was a little hesitant to suddenly alter his pre-meet routine, but for reasons he still isn’t sure of — he gave in and got a massage.
“The first time I let a trainer give me a rub down during warm ups was my last”, he said with a smirk. “I lost my race that day so needless to say, I will never do that again.”
And he won’t likely forget to take off his socks before putting on his racing spikes. This superstitious act is one he inherited from one of his fellow teammates in high school.
As a new member to the track team, the logistics and insider tricks of the sport were unfamiliar to Stewart at that time.
“I’ll never forget the day one of my buddies was talking to me at practice,” Stewart said. “He simply pulled me aside and suggested that I not wear any socks at the next meet, assuring me that I would be able to run a lot faster.”
The upcoming meet was the annual Gibson Relays held at National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica. Once again a sense of hesitancy crept up, but Stewart pushed it aside and decided to give it a try. He even convinced the members of his 4x400 relay team to jump on the bandwagon and run sockless.
“That day, we ran like we never had before”, Stewart said. “We broke the previous Gibson relay record, and set a new one when we crossed the finish line at 3:09.22.”
It was a dream come true for the emerging track star, and looking back, it seems all a result of one single spontaneous decision he made as a 14-year-old freshman.
To the untrained eye, Stewart looks as if he’s been a track star for most of his life — with his natural speed and graceful hurdling technique. But actually, his track career began almost by accident.
“I was about 14 years old when I decided to represent my class in a benefit my school was having,” Stewart said. “It was an open track meet and for some reason, I felt as if I should run in it. The race was very different from the ones here in the U.S. The track was all grass; the lanes were marked with something that looked like black grease, and one lap around was equal to only 300 meters.”
He clocked in a winning time at around 47 seconds, immediately turning the heads of every track coach present.
After taking notice, the coaches made a beeline to Stewart and asked him to join the team. Undoubtedly, his acceptance of the offer was life-changing from that moment on. But the birth of a new talent meant letting go of another.
His first sport was cricket, and Stewart was one of the best batters of his age. At cricket, he was a natural, but track took an unfamiliar level of effort and hard work. After trying to balance the two and compete in both, Stewart let go of cricket and decided to set his focus on becoming a stronger runner.
“I couldn’t take the hits anymore”, Stewart said. “I was constantly getting hurt by the throws, and my teammates had gotten a lot bigger than before.”
And it turns out his 5-foot-11-inch agile frame was perfect for leaping over hurdles. Stewart grew tired of running sprints apart from all his friends during practice, so he volunteered to give hurdling a try. Eventually, he worked out the kinks and now holds the Jamaican national junior record in the 110-meter hurdles.
But the aggressive yet humble competitor is still awestruck when he thinks of the journey that led him to Texas. After a strong season as a freshman, Stewart won the Big 12 Indoor Championship title in the 60-meter hurdles, setting a school record with a time of 7.66 seconds. But it’s his performance at the 2011 NCAA Outdoor Championships that remains most vivid in his mind.
“I will never forget how I felt hitting the hurdle,” Stewart said.
“I was so confident and ready to win, ready to cross that finish line. But something happened and I hit it hard. Everyone else gained an edge, and I ended up in fifth.”
Coming off a personal best and UT record time in the 110-meter hurdles, Stewart surged ahead into first place before colliding with the eighth hurdle. In a fraction of a second, his season goal fell apart. Stewart didn’t walk away with a gold, but he didn’t allow the twinge from the loss to get into his head.
“I was upset after the race, but only for a split second,” Stewart said. “Then the next thought I had was getting back to practice and training hard to achieve a new goal. It made no sense for me to drag that memory around with me when there was nothing I could do to change the outcome.”
For Stewart, it’s all about executing the smallest technical mechanics properly, trying his hardest and finishing the race.
“There is no room for error in this race, or in this sport,” Stewart said. “Even the favorites fall sometimes.”
Next weekend, the all-American will compete in the Big 12 Indoor Championships, eyeing a top finish in the 60-meter hurdles.
And you can guarantee his speedy, sockless feet will carry him leaps and bounds above his competitors.
Printed on Friday, February 24, 2012 as: Big 12 Track and Field