UNM sprinters quickly click in 4x400 relay - Albuquerque Journal

UNM sprinters quickly click in 4×400 relay

From left, Victor Akhalu, Jovahn Williamson, Rivaldo Leacock and Jevon O’Bryant make up the University of New Mexico 4×400-meter men’s relay team. They are discussing their season and training on May 28 at UNM. Akhalu is the first leg on the relay team, Williamson the second leg, Leacock the third leg and O’Bryant is the anchor. They hold the school record in the event in 3 minutes, 4.98 seconds. (Steve Virgen/Journal)

When Jovahn Williamson arrived in Albuquerque from Harvard University last year, he said he experienced a huge culture shock in his transition from Boston to the Duke City.

He came to the University of New Mexico to run on the track team and enter the 2-year Business Administration program. Yet he knew he could quickly make friends, who became motivators as part of the Lobos’ 4×400-meter relay team. In addition to the change in culture, Williamson had to adapt to his surroundings.

“This was a new experience for me with the dry environment and high altitude,” said Williamson, the second leg on the relay team. “I’m learning a lot about this place.”

Williamson is one of four new arrivals on that relay team that finished in 3 minutes, 4.98 seconds and broke a school record (3:05.00) that had stood since 1977 and also qualified a men’s 4×400 relay team to the four-day NCAA Outdoor Championships that start on Wednesday in Eugene, Oregon. It’s the first time the Lobos have had a 4×400 men’s relay team at the NCAAs since 1966.

Victor Akhalu (first leg), Rivaldo Leacock (third leg) and Jevon O’Bryant (anchor) are also in their first year on the UNM team.

“We do well because we are all driven to get better and succeed,” said Williamson, who graduated from Harvard with a degree in applied mathematics. “From the first day of practice, we’ve been grinding together. The grass field runs, the track runs; being in the weight room; we’ve just been grinding together. That motivation to succeed really motivated us to get better.”

Even the Lobos’ sprints coach, Bob Thurnhoffer, is in his first year at UNM after 12 years coaching at Loyola University Chicago.

The Lobos’ former sprints coach, Kurt Henry (now at Texas A&M), left UNM with a parting gift of recruiting four valuable sprinters for the record-breaking 4×400 relay team.

“I remember the very first practice out on that soccer field, Sept. 7,” Thurnhoffer said after practice on May 31. “Right after the workout we talked about how this is day one in our journey to get to Eugene in the 4×4, which had not been done since 1966. That’s something that hasn’t been seen in Albuquerque before. I felt like we had the talent. We had the motivation. We aim for the sky and that’s what we worked towards the whole year and here we are. It’s a good group of guys. We get along well. We all click really well. They’re extremely motivated.”

Thurnhoffer said he’s been coaching for nearly 20 years and had never seen the intense training the quartet delivered throughout the season.

“I told them that anything is possible based on what they’re doing,” Thurnhoffer said. “The goal now is to make the final, which I think we can do. Usually 3:02 or 3:04 to make it. The teams are so tight. I absolutely think we can make that final, so that’s what we’re aiming for.”

The men’s 4×400 semifinal is scheduled for Wednesday at 8:48 p.m. MT. The final is Friday at 9:21 p.m.

Each of the UNM sprinters improved remarkably throughout the season. Williamson had some catching up to do as he was held out a bit longer while not being allowed to train as much during the coronavirus pandemic while at Harvard.

Leacock, the relay team’s third leg, has made this season memorable as an individual because he also broke a school record twice in the 400-meter hurdles (49.63 seconds). He ran the event in 50.04 seconds earlier in the season to break a UNM mark that had stood for 44 years.

“You dream of stuff of just wanting to run fast and break the records that were there for over 40 years,” said Leacock, who is from Barbados. “When you’re progressing as an athlete you can work to achieve more.”

Akhalu, who speaks at least four languages (English, French, Spanish and Nigerian tribal languages), said he enjoys being the first leg of the relay team because he wants the responsibility to set the pace for the team. During practice, being first also means a lot.

“We try to outwork each other,” Akhalu said. “We can be better each day. I know my teammate is going to be better than me each day, so I have to push myself. We made up our mind to take that team effort to Eugene.”

Williamson also qualified to the NCAAs in the 400 meters in 45.39 seconds to place third at the NCAA Regionals in Fayetteville, Arkansas on May 27. O’Bryant ran a personal best in 45.67 seconds and also advances to the NCAAs.

“We put the work in since September,” said O’Bryant, who transferred in from Barton County Community College in Kansas. “It just shows the work is paying off. Us being together. Us bonding with each other just shows the importance of that as a relay team. I trust in all of them. It’s a blessing.”

The men’s 4x400m relay race came with drama at the regional. After protests that led to UCLA and BYU being disqualified on lane violations, the Lobos officially qualified on time to punch their ticket to Eugene.

UNM is sending 11 Lobos (four men, seven women) to the NCAA Outdoor Championships, the most since 2009, New Mexico coach Joe Franklin said.

“To have this many compete and score is just outstanding,” Franklin said. “It shows the continued tradition and success of the program. … to have that many people be in the turquoise and be able to represent New Mexico at the national championships is just special.”

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