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Hurdler Grant Holloway Learning From Legends In Olympic Quest

by Karen Rosen

Grant Holloway (C) competes in the Men's 60m Hurdles at the the World Athletics Indoor Tour Madrid 2021 on Feb. 24, 2021 in Madrid.


Grant Holloway asks some of the greatest hurdlers in history to tell him their secrets to success.
And they do.
“In the documentary ‘The Last Dance,’ we all remember that episode with Kobe Bryant when he just walks up to Michael Jordan and asks him the question like, ‘How do I get better?’” Holloway said.
The reigning world champion is not shy about arranging calls and meetings with athletes he admires. With a personal best of 12.98 seconds, Holloway is tied for 18th all-time, ninth among Americans.
He sees each hurdler ahead of him on the all-time list as a barrier he needs to clear to reach the ultimate prizes – the world record and the Olympic gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Late last summer, Holloway was on a Zoom call with Colin Jackson, a two-time world champion and 1988 Olympic silver medalist.
“I asked him the tough questions,” Holloway said. “How do I get faster? How do I make sure that I can maintain that speed in between the hurdles?”
Jackson graciously shared his insights and Holloway took them to heart. On Feb. 24 in Madrid, Holloway broke Jackson’s 27-year-old world record in the 60-meter hurdles by .01 with a time of 7.29 seconds.
“When Colin Jackson ran the record, I wasn’t even a thought in my parents’ dictionary,” Holloway said. “For me to run it at the age of 23, I think that kind of shows the growth that I’ve had.”
And it was also a boost for Team USA, which shockingly did not medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games in Rio four years ago. Except for the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games, the United States has won at least one medal at every other Olympic Games going back to 1896, often winning two medals and five times sweeping the podium.
“I think we’re finally getting back on the map,” said Holloway, who opened his outdoor season Saturday by winning the Miramar Invitational with a wind-aided time of 13.04 seconds. (The fastest legal time this year is Jamaican Damion Thomas’ 13.22.)
The Gold Standard
The last American to win the 110-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games was Aries Merritt, who took the gold in London in 2012 and then set the current world record of 12.80 seconds in a meet later that season.
“I want what Aries has,” Holloway declared. “I want Olympic gold. I want the world record, the American record. Aries is the man to beat.” 
And yet Merritt, 35, who is still competing, has also been willing to help Holloway hone his craft.
“I have Aries on, I don’t want to say speed dial, but I definitely have his contact,” said Holloway.
He said Merritt loves watching film and breaking down races and will “give me the honest answer.”
The Chesapeake, Virginia, native also considers 2013 world champion David Oliver and 1996 Olympic gold medalist Allen Johnson among his mentors.
“When I talk to them, I figure out ways to make weaknesses my strengths, and I already know how to keep my strengths my strengths,” Holloway said.
His strength is his start while his weakness is the latter half of the race, a difficulty Merritt encountered in college and was able to overcome.
Holloway knows that whoever breaks Merritt’s world record will have to be the first hurdler to run in the 12.7s. 
“Why not me? That’s the question,” he said. “The record’s been there for so long it’s like, ‘OK, it’s time for it to go down.’”
Well, it’s only been around nine years, and the indoor record lasted three times as long. In the preliminaries in Madrid, Holloway equaled his American record of 7.32 seconds.
The final was his last chance of the season to get the world mark. However, he felt physically ill when he got in the blocks.
“My arms felt weak, hamstrings were tight, calves locked up,” Holloway said. 
And yet his heart was beating like it had at the 2019 world championships, when he was competing against “all the people that I used to watch on YouTube.”
“I felt so weak - you’re like, dang, this is not the time for this to happen,” Holloway said. “So I go out and the gun goes off and I just shoot out like a rocket and .29 pops up. Those are the moments you look for.”

No Crowd? No Problem!

The atmosphere felt strange, though, due to pandemic restrictions.

“When Colin Jackson broke the world record, he had stands filled shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow and nose to nose,” Holloway said. “When I broke the world record, there was nobody there but media. I’m a gamer. If there’s fans there, I rise to the occasion, I would have felt the crowd. I definitely felt like I could have run faster, but everything works out for a reason. I’m not sitting here wishing a different outcome.”

Despite six weeks away from competition, Holloway carried that momentum from his first world record into the outdoor season at the Miramar meet in Florida.

He crushed the field, which included his long-time rival Daniel Roberts, who finished .26 seconds behind.

“That was complete and utter dominance by Grant Holloway,” commentator Ato Boldon said on the television broadcast.

The tailwind was 2.2 meters per second, .2 over the legal limit, but Holloway said the wind wasn’t actually an advantage.

“It just throws you into the next hurdle,” he said. “I have a problem – I’m already so quick, so fast in between (the hurdles), when I get up on those hurdles, it forces me to go up and over and not through.”

Holloway has battled Roberts, who is six days older, throughout college, where Holloway represented the University of Florida and Roberts raced for the University of Kentucky. 

At the NCAA Championships, Holloway was a perfect 6-for-6 from 2017 through 2019, winning three 60-meter titles indoors and three 110-meter hurdles crowns outdoors – the last in setting his PR. He also long jumped 8.17 meters and high jumped 2.16 meters and ran relay legs for coach Mike Holloway, who is no relation.

However, when they went head-to-head at the 2019 U.S. Outdoor Championships, Roberts prevailed, 13.23 to 13.36. He was later disqualified in the first round at the world championships in Doha, Qatar, when he hit a hurdle in another lane, while Holloway went on to win the gold medal.

Season Comes to a Halt
Entering 2020, Holloway was the Olympic favorite, but then the Tokyo Games were postponed due to the pandemic.

“When Covid first hit, it definitely affected me emotionally and mentally more so than anything,” Holloway said. “As a little kid, you think about running in the Olympics … and for that dream to get pushed back a whole another year… I didn’t know if I even wanted to run the 2020 season, just because it’s like ‘Why? What am I running for?’”

He ran a meet in Monaco posting a time of 13.19 seconds, which he said was just “OK for Grant Holloway. Everybody knows I hold myself to a high standard.”

Then on August 19, Holloway ran in Budapest, “blasting out of the blocks like a world record pace,” he said. His subpar fitness – and Orlando Ortega of Spain – caught up to him and he lost by .01, 13.21 to 13.22.

“It was definitely challenging,” Holloway said of training through the pandemic, when he spent his spare time playing video games and picking up the game of golf. “Either you’re going to let adversity just keep beating you up or you’re going to stand up and fight back for yourself.”

Of course he fought back. That’s a hallmark of his career. “If you ask me, I got my (butt) whipped a lot in high school,” Holloway said. “Coming into college, I really wanted to show the world who I was.”

After sweeping the NCAA titles his freshman year, Holloway was fourth at the U.S. Championships in 2017. He just missed the world team, but defeated Oliver, “my idol, someone I looked up to, why I wear short shorts. And that’s something that gave me that momentum going into my sophomore and junior and now professional year.”

He prides himself on his progression, dropping his personal best from 13.39 in 2017 to 13.15 in 2018 and 12.98 in 2019. There’s no telling what he could have done in a normal 2020.

“I just waited my turn,” Holloway said, “and now my time is here to shine and I don’t want to miss my opportunity.”

One day, Holloway wants to share what he has learned after what he anticipates being a long and productive career.

“I hope that the next great one can call me, reach out to me via social media or Twitter, email, whatever,” Holloway said. “At that point we might have some type of VR machine where you can physically touch somebody.”

But for now, he’s trying to stay untouchable.

Karen Rosen has covered every Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1992 for newspapers, magazines and websites. Based in Atlanta, she has contributed to since 2009.