Like a kid on summer vacation saddled with a hard case of cabin fever, Wil London couldn’t wait to get outside.
The 2017 indoor track season for the Baylor sophomore sprinter is one he’d rather forget. London failed to reach the NCAA Indoor Championships in either the open 400 or the 4x400-meter relay. He didn’t rip off the kind of times he was running only months before.
“This year I kind of expected to always have those fast times every race that I ran,” London said. “Coach (Clyde Hart) told me that was my downfall of this indoor season, and me not running a fast time, because that I expected to go out there and do it. I mean, it’s not a bad thing, but I didn’t have the same ‘it factor’ that I had. But I finally found it again, and I can take my steps one step at a time.”
London didn’t feel quite right during the indoor season. Looking back, he thinks his body wasn’t fully recovered from a long 2016 season that stretched all the way to the U.S. Olympic Trials and ultimately to the IAAF Under-20 World Championships in August.
But “Little Wil” is back. Back to putting up big-time performances, back to gathering steam again. Two weeks ago, London dashed to his second straight Big 12 outdoor title in the 400, clocking in at 45.72 seconds in the final, just ahead of his Baylor teammate, George Caddick (46.13).
“Having to have my body go through all that running through the summer, and then come back and have another great season again, that’s pretty hard,” London said. “I don’t know a whole lot of people who can do that. I just put a lot of consideration into that, maybe this is not my indoor season. Come back next year, but also have a great outdoor season.”
Nobody on the Baylor track and field team has been enthralled by the magic of Quarter-Miler U any longer than London. As a kid running summer track at the old Hart-Patterson Track Complex in Waco, London pictured himself emblazoned in a bright green and gold singlet, just like Olympic champions like Michael Johnson, Jeremy Wariner and Darold Williamson.
Of course, the real rabbit he’s been chasing isn’t named Wariner or Williamson or even Harvey. It’s LeJerald “Sticks” Betters, who like London starred at Waco High before moving on to success at Baylor. London has long been motivated by bettering Betters’ performances, by carrying on the pride of the Lions.
“I talk to LeJerald every now and then,” London said. “Everybody would say, ‘You going to try to break the record?’ They’d say, ‘He’s always going to be the greatest to come out of Waco.’ I want to prove that I’m going to be that. I can’t go after Charles (Silmon), just because he’s a 100 and 200 runner, so the next-best thing is LeJerald. So I’m going to prove to people that I can stay with him or surpass him if I can.”
London actually flirted with the idea of signing elsewhere. The notion of venturing out of Waco, of seeing what the rest of the world had to offer, seemed appealing for a quick minute. As one of the top 400 runners in the state of Texas, he had plenty of options.
But then he’d remember that childhood dream, and realize he hadn’t relinquished it.
“I had other colleges in mind before Baylor, just because I had that thought that I wanted to get out of Waco, but coming here I realized that it was my dream that I always set out to do,” London said. “Watching Jeremy, Darold and LeJerald run in the green and gold, I always told myself that I wanted to. For me to come out here and set that goal that I had set for myself, accomplish that goal and reach that dream, now it’s on to the big stages and making sure I can accomplish the next dream.”
London’s opening lap at Baylor turned plenty of heads. Every figurative step or so – almost by the week – he was zipping past another goal. He achieved All-America honors during the indoor season, and was named the Big 12 freshman of the year in both the indoor and outdoor campaigns. He reached the NCAA outdoor meet in the 400, but failed to make the final after clocking 46.03 in the prelims.
He later gained valuable experience at the Olympic Trials before closing the year out by claiming a silver medal in the 400 at the IAAF Under 20 Championships, powering to the finish by passing two sprinters in the final 100 meters and finishing in 45.27 seconds. He also anchored the U.S. team to a gold in the 4x400 relay, busting off a split time of 44.82.
But it was certainly a long year, and it has taken a while for London to regain that form. Nevertheless, his coaches think he has chased it down and recovered it. And, just in time, really – considering the NCAA West Prelims, the qualifier for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, start on Thursday in Austin.
“I think Wil is one of those on our team where you could say he’s got a bigger race in him still,” Baylor coach Todd Harbour said. “I think he’s coming at the right time. Wil is ready to run fast. So is George. He is on a mission, and they’re both ready to run fast.”
Hart has called London and Caddick the “New Age Wariner and Williamson.” London admits that it is a benefit having another elite quarter-miler on the roster in the person of Caddick, as it provides a daily challenge in practice.
London is a soft-spoken, thoughtful 19-year-old – he’ll turn 20 in August — not prone to noisy outbursts. He’ll play around on Twitter, throw out a little good-natured trash talk, and he said enjoys goofing off during down time with his teammates.
But his competitive fire burns hotter than the typical barbecue smoker. Once the meet starts, all frivolity ceases.
Hey, fellow sprinters, dismiss Little Wil at your own peril.
“When we get off the bus, that’s when I turn on the competitive edge,” London said. “Because if you let your opponent see your facial expression, that can also play a part. If they see that you’re ready, it’ll show on them. That might make them nervous. I like to have a competitive edge when I get off the bus, and that’s when I’m ready to go.”