The Day You Learn An Olympic Dream Can Be Won And Lost

* Trey Cunningham (second from right) competes at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 110mH

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

"It was the same 10 hurdles I had run all year. The distance was the same. The height was the same. The same number of steps required to run the race was the same. That's how I felt on the start line, "It's another race to put on a performance."

By Trey Cunningham - Winfield City (AL) High School, Class of 2017

Florida State University '21

    I remember that Thursday being hot, and not only in the temperature sense. This was the first time I laced up my track spikes to hurdle in a month. June 24, 2021 was also the day before the first round of the 110 meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Trials. It would be my first real "practice" since I strained my hamstring 20 minutes to the gun at the NCAA East Regional meet. But I went through the warmup with no pain or regret in making the flight out to Eugene, even though I wasn't sure if I would run. Throughout the warmup my body felt ready to go, ready to perform its first explosive task since my hamstring went haywire a few weeks prior. My nerves were hot with the consistent thought of, "Can I do this? Will I make it over these literal hurdles?"

    The protocol was a pitch count; keep it to the bare minimum needed to perform. Pre-meet consisted of two block starts, two times over two hurdles and one time over three hurdles. The goal was zero pain. Seven hurdles total is all I did before I would have to run a full set of 10 hurdles on one of the biggest stages in track and field. But this didn't daunt me.

    I knew it was in me to perform at the highest level. The countless hours of training, sweat, frustration and races prepared me to walk out on that track with confidence and the sheer pleasure of being able to compete.

    I remember Friday being even hotter. On this day, June 25, some people learned their Olympic dream was lost. The heat may have gotten the best of them or they had become completely overwhelmed. The preliminary round is always surrounded by nerves. Favorites to win barely make it to the next round, fail to make it or show why they shine so brightly. The feeling of excitement was bursting out of me because I was getting to do what I love to do. I loved performing on that stage.

    Warmup went great; the one and two-thirds of a hamstring I was working with were moving fluidly. Coach Kane reminded me why we were here -- ultimately to have fun -- and off I went. Down under the stadium we went to the only place of relief from the scorching heat. I remember hearing the constant buzz of the stadium. I reminded myself that I deserved to be there. Then I put the tracking chip in my bib, pinned it to my numbers and checked to see if my spikes were tight enough.

    We walked on to the track and there was this stark realization that came over me: The stadium engulfs and magnifies any doubt you have. The stadium isn't at full capacity, but the new Hayward Field lets it be known that the crowd was there. The blocks are set, the track is digging into my left knee on the ground and my fingers are burning because it's well over 100 degrees.

    The crowd goes quiet, a gun is shot in the air and then I'm flying. By the time I get to hurdle six, I realized I could make it through all 10 hurdles. I crossed the line ecstatic because I finished the race. Little did I know the race concluded with a new personal best of 13.23. There was a hug from coach after that race because of all the people who came together to get me on that start line, staying positive in an unlucky situation, he reminded me that the Olympic dream isn't just a dream but a present reality.

    Saturday was the hottest day yet. But while temperatures reached 103 degrees in Eugene, what was happening on the track was pretty crazy: Times were all-time level fast. I knew on June 26 that nothing else mattered except the 20 hurdles in my way that day.

    Once again, I went through a warmup and checked for any differences in my body. There was no pain in the hamstring. Better yet, the nerves were gone because of the previous day's performance and a determination to make the Olympic team. Mentally and physically, I was ready to go. The only thing left was to get out of the way of my own body.

    I remember those brief 20 minutes before the semi-final. Coach gave me a reminder of why we were there. When we were brought out to the track, the crowd was even more electrifying. Once again, a confluence of events took place: The track dug into my knee; I pushed my feet on to the pedals; my fingers were singed from the track. The gun went off and five personal best times are set in my semi alone. I run 13.21.

    After the race, I remember being wired, ready to run again. Coach told me to relax; there's time before I have to go through another short warmup. The competition continued inside the stadium, but it felt so far removed from where I was. I pushed fluids into my body so I wouldn't cramp and I relaxed so I didn't tax my nervous system; More than anything, I stayed in the moment. The time in-between the semi-final and the final felt like it took forever.

    Finally, Coach gave the go-ahead my final warmup. It was short; no hurdling. This was all mental. Stay positive. The call room was quiet and filled with focus. For the third time, we were taken under the stadium. For the third time, I pushed my healing hamstring to its limit. For the third time, I got to do what I love to do. 

    It was the same 10 hurdles I had run all year. The distance was the same. The height was the same. The same number of steps required to run the race was the same. That's how I felt on the start line, "It's another race to put on a performance."

    The gun was up, it fired, and then it fired again. The field wasn't given a green card, but video shows someone should have been disqualified. The starter sets us off again and I was in it. I was in the running for a spot on the Olympic team. We all cross the line, and I knew I was second, third, or fourth. I was tired, tired from rehabbing this injury, tired from pushing my body to the limit, tired from everyone asking what happened.

    I sat and waited for the times to come up. They popped up. I ran 13.21 again and finished in fourth-place. I remember laying down in exhaustion; sure enough, though I did not feel defeated.

    I battled through difficult odds of an injury that could have ended my season. I showed the competitors around me and the world what I could do even when I am hurt. I had a team behind me. I know it will be in my future, too. My head was held high because I had two personal bests and equaled it in the final.

    The Olympic trials left me optimistic about what's next. How fast will I go next year? I can't wait to find out, but now it is time to rest up for next year.

    This next year I will finish out my collegiate career at FSU and have another shot at making a U.S. team.

    Related Links: 

    U.S. Olympic Trials coverage