Now healthy, Oliver determined to shine

Now healthy, Oliver determined to shine

Published Jun. 18, 2012 6:54 p.m. ET

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — David Oliver learned his lesson early.

One of America’s best 110-meter hurdlers — and a man with a shot at Olympic gold in London this August — made the mistake back in 2005 of showing up 15 minutes late to practice under the guidance of his new track coach, Brooks Johnson.

It wasn’t because Oliver accidentally overslept or decided to just to take the morning off to rest his aching muscles. He was simply being a good guy, driving a friend to Orlando International Airport before doubling back to Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.

Johnson, one of the sport’s most respected coaches, wasn’t impressed.

“He kicked me out of practice,” Oliver recalls with a smile on a steamy morning last week after practice. “He just told me to go home — and I’d only been here for two weeks.”

Oliver figured out right then that he needed to stick to the rules and to learn to roll with Johnson’s demanding, detail-oriented approach as a coach. Oliver had played football in addition to running track at Denver East High School and later at Howard University in Washington, D.C. And his gridiron experience as a star wide receiver equipped him with the insight into handling Johnson’s tough-love style.

“A lot of people can’t deal with him because he’s very aggressive and abrasive, but you know, playing football all those years of my life just reminded me of a football coach who yells and screams,” Oliver said. “You have to be able to decipher what the real meaning of everything is. And if you don’t have that ability, then you’re not going to last out here.”

You might wonder how many athletes who started out training under Johnson back then are still working with him these days at Disney.

“Just me,” Oliver said.

Of course, that’s hardly the 30-year-old’s claim to fame. Four years ago, he won a bronze medal in the 110 hurdles in the 2008 Olympics at Beijing and is the U.S. record holder for the event with a time of 12.89, a time that still ranks as the third fastest in the world. Oliver actually broke the American record twice in 2010 — going undefeated in his final 15 races that year.

His 2011 season was marred by pelvis injury caused by the constant pounding he endures as an elite hurdler. But he still managed to post the fastest 110-meter hurdle time in the world at 12.94, his second straight year ranking as the fastest high hurdler on the planet.

And these days, the 6-2, 205-pounder with rippling muscles worthy of any NFL roster has been sweating it out in Johnson’s grueling training sessions here, dreaming of another shot at an Olympic medal. The next step along the way is the U.S. Olympic Team Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Wash., running from Thursday through July 1.

His most recent race in Eugene on June 2 didn’t go so well. Competing in the Prefountaine Classic, Oliver lined up in the blocks against China’s Liu Xiang, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in Athens and a former 110-meter world record holder. But the much-anticipated showdown was more of a letdown, with Xiang winning easily in a time of 12.87 seconds and Oliver getting off to a bad start and finishing fifth at 13.13 behind three other Americans (Aries Merritt at 12.96, Jason Richardson at 13.11 and Dexter Faulk at 13.12).

That disappointing finish aside, Oliver is no longer running in pain for a change and feels good with the trials approaching.

“Injuries are a part of it, and the pelvis problem last year was very bad,” he said. “But you just have to be mentally strong. I trust whole-heartedly in my training — whether it’s strength-training or on-the-track training, everything. So I just figured, it wasn’t my time but I’ll be back next year, which is this year. Things are progressing right where they need to be going into these trials. At the end of the day, you have to be strong enough to run three races in less than 24 hours.

“We train very hard. And at the end of the day, I know there are not going to be three Americans who have the ability to beat me at that point.”

In fact, Oliver maintains that the gold is there for the taking this time around. “You just have to get it done,” he said. “It’s just about executing. … It’s just one race, like everything else, but it is the most important race. And you have to be geared up. I’m just excited. I get excited for every race — it can be the Disney meet out here in March or the Florida Relays in Gainesville in April or the Olympic Trials.

“I know it’s not my birthright to be this high level athlete, having a great job and a great career. I don’t take anything for granted.”

Still, Oliver always reminds himself of one thing: If he executes the hurdling techniques he has honed with Johnson the way he’s capable of doing, he can wind up standing on the first-place podium in London.

“I’m not faster than most of the guys that I run against as far as just flat speed,” he said. “I’m not a great starter. But I am very strong. So as far as a technique standpoint, the most important part of your technique is who spends the least time in the air from take-off to touchdown. And nobody’s hitting the numbers that I do when I’m on.

“That’s the most important thing. Some people may look aesthetically pleasing or better. But the bottom line is who is the fastest from take-off to touchdown — because you can’t make up time in the air — and nobody’s faster than me.”

He’s certainly come a long way from the frustrating, eight-hour practices he endured early on with Johnson. The coach was relentless, making Oliver train over and over on a five-meter stretch of track, breaking down every aspect of hurdling technique and training on the lower women’s hurdles.

But little by little, Oliver mastered the disciplined approach preached by Johnson, who coached his first athlete in the 1960 Rome Games and has had a competitor in every Olympics since 1968.

"The main thing I learned when I came here was the nuances of the technique,” Oliver said. “I was very raw, just running off of sheer aggression and stuff. I didn’t really know what I was doing back in college.”

Oliver didn’t even take up hurdling until he was a junior and wound up winning the state 5A championship as a senior. That paved the way to Howard, where he played football and continued improving on the track. But Oliver wound up getting booted from the team for missing several practices. The coach contacted his mother, Brenda Chambers, a former 400-meter hurdling star at the University of Colorado who had raised Oliver by herself. After hearing that her son’s scholarship might be revoked, she read him the riot act. And that became a turning point.

Oliver shaped up and got serious, and the results soon spoke for themselves. He became the first two-time All-American in any sport from Howard, where he graduated from with a degree in business administration. He was unable to compete in the 2004 Olympic Trials due to an injury, but knew he hurdling was his future. Prior to leaving Howard, he contacted Johnson, and one year later was heading south to Disney.

"There’s nothing more than you can ask for here,” he said. “It’s definitely a far cry from when I was in college. We didn’t even have an eight-lane track and 10 hurdles to go over. And I come down here, and it’s the best facility ever. You’re driving in and you see the big sign, ‘Where Dreams Come True.’ We’re all definitely trying to chase a dream. It’s definitely a good reminder.”

And, of course, he needs no reminder about one thing he learned long ago from Johnson — be prepared to work and, unless you’ve cleared it ahead of time, don’t ever dare to be late.

“He’s demanding from the time you set foot in that gate over there until the time you leave,” Oliver said. “You come to practice one minute late, it’s not going to be a nice situation. It’s all about learning to handle yourself. You figure if you can’t handle yourself in a supportive environment as we have here, how are you going to handle yourself in a hostile environment with 80,000 people looking at you at the Olympic Games?

“You have to be held to a very high standard. He expects nothing but greatness out of us. And he instills things in you that you may not think about yourself. But you just take it and run with it.”

Now, Oliver hopes to run — and leap — all the way to Olympic gold.