The story of Sisyphus pushing a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back and hit him in perpetuity, is often used as an analogy to describe futile and backbreaking tasks. But imagine if Sisyphus simply pushed the boulder uphill for a challenge, got to the top and then pushed it back down because he believed he could do it faster.
That would be a fairly accurate way to describe the mindset of Baylor freshman track athlete Maxwell Willis.
During the indoor season he finished fifth at the NCAA meet in the 200-meter dash, running a 20.69. It was an indoor personal best and the sixth-fastest time in school history. With that performance Willis became an All-American in his first college season.
But the 18 year-old Willis said he felt the same after that race as he does every other race.
“After a race I’m never shocked because I know I can do better,” he said.
And Willis believes hard work is how he will get better.
“Some people are afraid to hurt,” he said. “You can’t be afraid to hurt in track, because it’s going to hurt. If you’re afraid to go out there and attack the track then you’re going to be running scared because you’ll be focused on so much stuff. I’m blind to that stuff.”
He followed up his indoor performance with a 10.08 100-meter dash at the Baylor Invitational and is hoping to excel even further at the Michael Johnson Invitational on Saturday at Clyde Hart Track and Field Stadium.
“I’m really excited because this is the Michael Johnson meet,” Willis said. “I was kind of hoping he would be here so I could meet him. I’m trying to take down his 200 time before I graduate so I really want to meet him so I can ask him how he gets off the blocks and see if he can teach me as much as possible.”
Beyond the lofty goals he set for himself, expectations for Willis are now sky high. But he isn’t letting the pressure get to him.”
“I’m kind of happy because I haven’t really been thinking about times or what I’m going to run,” Willis said. “I just go out here and run. I go to practice and train really hard and give it my all when the gun goes off and see if I can shock myself.”
Willis grew up in Maryland. When he was in the eighth grade, his team traveled to a meet in Texas and he ran faster than he ever had before. From that moment on Willis knew he wanted to attend college in Texas.
“It’s the heat,” Willis said. “When the heat touches me, it’s a whole different story.”
When the time came for Willis to choose a school, he had plenty of suitors.
“I would get phone calls every day from A&M, TCU, Kentucky and like, everywhere,” he said. “They would come back to back and I would have to think. I went to visits and I would compare the facilities, coaches and the environment. And it came down to TCU, A&M and Baylor.”
So Willis decided to visit TCU and Baylor. He went to TCU first, and was impressed. But when he arrived in Waco and saw Baylor, he fell in love.
“It just blew everything out of the water,” Willis said. “The facilities, the people, I just had a vibe like I belonged here.”
Getting into the record books at Baylor is no easy task. Willis has shares those pages with some elite company. He has heard the whispers from those who think he could be the next Michael Johnson or Travon Bromell, but Willis is more focused on being his own man than following in anyone’s footsteps.
“I don’t really think about that too much,” he said. “I think about what I’m supposed to do, like execute my races. I don’t think about what I can achieve after the race or before. I just tell myself to calm down, it’s really not a big deal, it’s just another day, another race and I just come out here and give it my all.”
Willis started running track when he was four years old. Speed came to him naturally but he really started enjoying track once his coaches started to harness his potential. He also played football from a young age. But he suffered a significant knee injury playing football his freshman year or high school that took him almost 12 months to recover from.
“I was hitting scholarship times in track but I already messed my leg up playing football,” Willis said. “I couldn’t even go to school for two weeks. That time with myself, and god, I just realized I had to stop playing football and focus on track.”
Willis knows the opportunity to go pro could be just around the corner. But for now, he said he doesn’t want to go pro early and is focused on leaving Baylor with a degree and as much track training and practice as possible.
Willis’ main goal for his college career is to have fun and not worry about times and events. But he admitted that there is one event he has his eyes on.
“Before I graduate I want to win the NCAA championship,” he said. “No matter how it is, I’m going to get one. I’m just taking my time, praying and putting in the effort where it belongs. That’s what I’ve been doing all year and I’ve been coming out on top in a lot of races.”