When Wil London was walking through the college recruiting process, he talked about looking for that “home away from home” that everyone seeks.
The “away from home” part being the operative phrase.
Oh, sure. London – aka “Little Wil” – is as Waco as the Traffic Circle or the Alico Building. He was born and raised here, experienced his share of glory as a Waco High Lion, then stuck around to do his thing for Baylor.
But back when he was 17, he was like every other 17-year-old on the planet. He wanted to get away, spread his wings, do his own thing.
“For a long time (after he enrolled at Baylor) he was across town and he’d come home, but he didn’t want to stay home,” said London’s dad, Wilbert, a volunteer coach for the Bears. “We assured him, and Coach (Clyde) Hart was sitting right there in our living room, that Baylor would be like living in Dallas. You’re over there, and we gave him his space.”
Ah, but life comes full circle sometimes. That’s especially true when you’re running a lap around the track. It’s even truer when you have the kind of unbreakable familial bond that London does. Over the course of the past four years competing for the Bears, he has developed a deeper gratitude for the nearby proximity of his parents and their lasting influence in his life.
“I sometimes don’t realize how great I have it, compared to my other teammates who have to fly when they go home,” Wil said.
That lesson was hammered home last fall when Wil’s mother Jacquelyn was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Suddenly, his world was thrown upside-down. The entire family was concerned about Jacquelyn’s prognosis, but it would have been much harder to deal with had Wil been off running track for somewhere like Tennessee, one of the other schools who recruited him out of high school.
“Since I first got diagnosed with the brain tumor, I was just concerned with letting him know, and the pressure he had, this being his last year,” said Jacquelyn, a tear rolling down her cheek. “He dealt with it. … There’s been a lot of prayers going out for me. Then he put it out on social media. He even had his head shaved. That was mind-boggling to me. Wil doesn’t say much, but the little things he does do, it’s overwhelming.”
London indeed shaved his head in solidarity with his mom, and dedicated this senior season to her. The good news on that front is that Jacquelyn underwent successful surgery to remove the tumor, which Wil called “a blessing.”
When Little Wil was truly, well, little, he displayed a sense of the competitive zeal which continues to manifest itself on into adulthood. His parents recalled a visit to a cousin’s house in St. Louis, and marveled when 9-month-old Wil – who had just learned to walk – started boldly attacking a staircase.
“It shocked me, he was climbing upstairs,” Jacquelyn said. “That put a real fear in me, but there’s nothing he tried that he couldn’t accomplish.”
Once the baby steps gave way to a full-on sprint, Wil began challenging cousins and friends to impromptu neighborhood races. He also played football and basketball, which he loved. But actually joining a track team? That didn’t interest him at the outset.
“Wil didn’t want to run it at all. He didn’t want to run track,” Wilbert said. “The first time we put him in the 400, he lost, didn’t get first, and I think he ended up getting fourth. They only took three to state. He walked over to me at the end of the race and said, ‘Daddy, next year, I’m going to win it and win the state.’ And he did. He won state (in TAAF) as a 9 and 10-year-old.”
It was true then, and it’s true today. London doesn’t like to lose. It happens sometimes – it happens to the best in the world – but when he toes the line before a race, whether it’s in January or April or June, one persistent thought spins through his gears: “Let’s win this thing.”
“My dad would always put me in the sports with the older kids,” London said. “It gave me that edge that I have today. I could never win sometimes, but I feel like if I didn’t do that it would probably be a little different from where I’m at today.”
Where is he today? Well, no matter what happens at this week’s NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Austin, he’ll go down as one of Baylor’s all-time great quarter-milers.
London was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2016. He’s been an All-American in both the indoor and outdoor seasons. Last month, he joined former BU great Darold Williamson as the only four-time Big 12 outdoor champion in the 400.
But he’s never really put it all together at the NCAA outdoor meet. Last year he finished eighth in the 400 final in Eugene, Oregon, running 46.20 in the final. (His outdoor personal best is 44.47.) He also finished eighth in 2017.
So he wants to go out with a golden blur. Motivation has never been an issue. He always wants to win. But now he wants to win it for his dad, who coached him and encouraged him back when that one lap around the track felt like 10 for a skinny, little 9-year-old kid. He wants to win it for his mom, as a tribute to her own fortitude in her fight against cancer.
He wants to win it for himself, too.
“When he first got here at Baylor, he said, ‘I want my own legacy at Baylor.’ So that’s why you see the records. There’s one left for him to do, and he wants it,” Wilbert said.
At the NCAA Indoor Championships in early March, London executed a sensational race in the final. He motored to a school-record time of 45.16 to finish third, his best NCAA finish to date.
Until this week? That’s the plan, said Baylor head coach Todd Harbour.
“I think he’s ready. Right now, Wil is on a mission,” Harbour said. “He hasn’t had the greatest NCAA meet, other than this year indoor he stepped up. But, he’s ready. He wants to take it to a different level. He knows this is his last opportunity to do that.”
Again, whatever happens, London can carry his head high. He recently earned his degree, something Hart promised the London family that Wil would do back when he sat in their living room during the recruiting process.
Beyond this week’s NCAA meet, Wil has hopes of dashing up the corporate ladder at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which are set for July 25-28 in Des Moines, Iowa.
World titles, Olympic medals, record-setting times. All of it is on the table for London, who has also expressed a desire to go into coaching once his running career is complete.
But before that, he has this week’s bell lap to his Baylor career to attack. He has an NCAA championship to chase.
“I just want to win,” London said. “I would like to break the school record, which is 44 flat. But I just want to win. So whatever I have to run to win the gold, I’m ready to run that.
“I envision it every day. Wednesday (and the 400 semifinals) is the day to set it up, and Friday (the final) is the day to do it. When I envision that, I know I can make it happen.”