Ato Boldon knows what he's talking about. The former Trinidad & Tobago sprinter, a four-time Olympic medalist, current NBC track and field analyst and the sprint coach of Briana Williams, has been covering the sport for over 15 years and has been a part of it for over three decades. He provides work as a consultant with clients in the NFL and also coaches his own track club, Born 2 Do It, in the Fort Lauderdale area, working specifically with a few athletes who are rising stars with Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica (Khalifa St. Fort above). We sat down with Boldon in 2017 and asked him about the state of track and field, specifically high schoolers with high aspirations. Read the interview below to get Boldon's thoughts on what it takes to turn pro in track and field before college.
What does it take to join the Born 2 Do It Track Club?
I give them an honest assessment. I say to them, you know what, I think there's something there, or I don't think. It's not a question of I don't think your child is good. What I tell them: I don't think your child can hang with what we do here.
When you see our start practices and you see our time trials, you have to be ready to roll. Khalifa (St. Fort) is No. 3 in the world in the 200m last year and Brianna (Williams) is the fastest freshman in two events. We have a high quality group. If you send your kid here, it's going to be tough.
Is going pro the right decision for super talented high school athletes who likely have great times or marks that compare to professional athletes?
I think it's almost never the right choice. To which people would say, 'Hey, but Khalifa went pro.' Khalifa went pro because she had a course that I charted because I have already traveled the path and I could see where she could do it and it would still benefit her.
She's already ran for her country, she's been to the Olympic Games, she's won a World Championship medal, so I knew it wouldn't be the same as a Candace Hill or a Kayla Whitney or some of the others who have turned pro. And quite frankly, the rate of pro success from high school athletes turning pro is not that high. So I would always say go to college at least a year or two.
OK, so what are the exceptions?
Having said that, you look at the household names in American track and field: Sanya Richards-Ross, Justin Gatlin, Treyvon Bromell. What do they all have in common? They all left school early. If you can control the amount of races you're going to run for the next four years, by all means go.
At UCLA, I think I maybe ran 20 races my last year, because I had a coach who understood. This is someone who needs his races on the other side of graduation, not here. And that's not always the case.
I can show you a million cases right now of athletes who were All-World going into an institution. And they come out and you go, 'Whatever happened to fill in the blank?' And that's because they got run into the ground. And it's not something that gets talked about a lot, but it's something that I've been very, very keen and aware of and something I wanted to be very careful of Khalifa not getting in the direction of.
How do you know if someone is ready to turn pro (video)?
Every individual is different. The athletes I coach, I can give you their strengths, their weaknesses and why this one should be going to this school and why one shouldn't be going to this school. (I know) why Khalifa went pro when she did and has still continued to improve. Every case is different.
The whole problem with that is people think the whole going pro thing is just based on times. And it's not. Because you can have an athlete who hits a time and they'll never get back there. If you go pro based on that one time or that one day or that one 2.0 wind, and it doesn't happen again. So now what?
You have mortgaged that child's future based on that one race. My decision to take Khalifa pro wasn't based on one race. I know that girl like she's my daughter. I know how she competes. I know what she's capable of long term, because I've been covering the sport for 15 years. So I know there are a lot of parents out there who are like, 'My kid ran..' Just be very careful with that decision. It is the right decision for a select few, but it's not a decision for everyone.
And I can tell you, that when I'm at track meets now, that's the No. 1 thing parents came up to me with" Hey, 'My son ran 10.19' should he be able to? No. They look at me like, 'What? But he ran 10.19?' He ran 10.19 once. What's his second best time? Oh, 10.26. Huh. What's his third?10.33. No. Not ready.
What's the state of American high school track and field right now?
I think that we have had an embarrassment of riches lately. Candace Hill is the best in high school sprinter in our history. She's run 10.98, yes. But she's run 11.0. And another 11.0. And another 11.0. She hasn't lost a single race to youth or junior competition.
You can't look at your child unless they have those kind of credentials and you can go, 'Oh, she's close to that time, let's go.' Some of the others. Trayvon (Bromell) left school early, he didn't go straight. Noah Lyles (out of Virginia). That is a once in a long-time talent. And I think because you had those types of talents, who quite frankly have done well since they made the decision, at least so far, there's a chance for people to look at and say 'My son was second to him.
We're going pro.' It just so happens in the last two to three years, we've had some exceptional, best ever or close to the best ever in high school. Noah Lyles ran 20.09 seconds at the Olympic Trials as a high school senior. He has a lot of times to back it up. He was the world junior champion in the 100. Unless your kid has that kind of resume, then it's probably not the decision.