Whenever one of his athletes gets the chance to challenge himself or herself against international competition, Todd Harbour never taps the brakes.
How could he? He remembers what those opportunities meant to him.
Baylor’s head track and field coach was once a standout miler for the Bears, claiming consecutive NCAA runner-up finishes in the 1,500 in 1979, ‘80 and ’81. During the offseason of those college years, he represented his country in various international meets, traveling to far-flung locales like Germany and Russia, and he won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games in 1979.
Now it’s Maxwell Willis’s turn to show what he can do against the world. And Harbour can’t wait to see what develops.
On Friday, Willis will take aim at a world title when he opens up competition at the Pan Am Junior Championships in Lima, Peru.
Baylor’s blond-coiffed sprinter displayed blinding speed at various points during his freshman season. He turned in season-best times of 10.08 in the 100 and 20.07 in the 200, winning Big 12 freshman of the year honors. Willis also qualified for the NCAA meet in both races.
And he didn’t stop flashing those fleet feet once the college season ended. At the USA Junior Track and Field Championships in June, he won the 100-meter title to qualify for the Junior Pan Ams before pulling up with a strained hamstring in the 200 race.
“He was destroying the field in the 200, and that’s usually his better race,” Harbour said. “So the hamstring (injury) hurt. But Mike (Baylor assistant Michael Ford) feels good about where Maxwell is at right now. He’s feeling pretty solid about his progress. Of course, he has opened it up and run a race since that meet. … But if he’s on, he’s got a great shot at winning the 100 meters.”
In fact, Willis’ seed time of 10.18 ranks as the top clocking of any sprinter in the 100-meter field in Peru, fractions of a second ahead of second-place Paulo Oliveira of Brazil. Willis, 19, stands out as one of just two Americans in the 26-runner field, the other being Tarrik “T.J.” Brock of USC.
Willis barely missed out on competing in the IAAF Under-20 World Championships last summer, before enrolling at Baylor. So the fact that he’s finally getting his international shot should have a lasting impact, Harbour said.
“I know it was a life-changing experience for me,” Harbour said. “The level of competition, seeing the world, it made such an impact. In track and field, we don’t always make the most money, but these kinds of experiences are a neat thing for our kids. … For sure, it should give him some confidence, knowing he can run with the best in the world.”
Willis will open up action in the 100-meter semifinals at 8:50 a.m. Friday. (Peru has no time difference from Texas). The final is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Friday.
He’s not the only Baylor track athlete who will spend part of his summer competing abroad, either. Baylor sophomore Wil London will compete in the 400-meter dash at the IAAF World Track and Field Championships – against a field that rivals that of the Olympics – in London, England, on Aug. 4-13.