Hurdlers push each other to the top

They have taken different paths, but together on the track of Saint Augustine’s University each day, Bershawn “Batman” Jackson and Johnny Dutch are preparing to compete in the 400-meter hurdles at the World Championships in late August.

Jackson edged out Dutch for first in the event at the USATF Track & Field Championships June 27 in Eugene, Ore., to punch tickets to the IAAF World Championships in their first year training together. Although Jackson and Dutch are at different points in their careers – at 32 Jackson is nearing the end while Dutch, 26, is still in his prime – they have pushed each other to the pinnacle of the sport.

Jackson is ranked No. 1 and Dutch No. 2 in the world, and the duo have run the five-best outdoor times in the 400-meter hurdles this season. In Eugene, Jackson bested his training partner by 0.14 seconds, crossing the finish line in 48.09 seconds to claim his record-tying fifth national title.

“We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses – we’ve been running against each other for half a decade,” Dutch said. “We know what we both are capable of doing, so to bring that to practice each day, we know that’s going to push each other – that’s the biggest thing. He’s run sub-48, I’ve run sub-48 in the past year. We can only push each other.”

Favored to take the top two spots in Beijing and qualify for next year’s Olympic Games in Brazil, Jackson and Dutch train with two other qualifiers for the World Championships, Jeffery Gibson of the Bahamas and Jamaica’s Roxroy Cato.

The quartet train under St. Aug’s track coach George Williams, who has won 36 NCAA championships and is confident Jackson and Dutch will continue pushing each other in Beijing.

“They train well together, they accept each other very well,” Williams said. “They all do as I ask in the training, so nobody is jealous of the other. Whatever time it is, they just run.

Any given day, it could be either one of them at any time; that’s what I like about them. And they know that. If they go as they are, I think you’ll see 1-2 in the World Championships. I don’t know which one, but it’s going to be a 1-2.”

‘Perseverance is everything’

Having the training group and Williams’ guidance has been especially important for Jackson, who got his “Batman” nickname because of his protruding ears. After winning the world championship in the event in 2005 and winning a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Jackson, at 29, was poised to compete for gold in the 2012 London Olympics.

But after a crashed hurdle led to a fourth-place finish in qualifying – the top-three finishers earned spots on the U.S. Olympic team – and a slew of injuries in 2013 and 2014, Jackson was no longer getting questions about his successes. Instead, he was being forced to ponder retirement.

“Mentally, I just wasn’t there. The last two years I was struggling because I just couldn’t get over that overbearing feeling of not making the (2012 Olympic) team,” he said. “This year, I finally got over it.”

Jackson was inspired to overcome doubts about his height – he is 5-foot-8 – age and an Achilles injury by the kids he coaches through Run U Xpress, a nonprofit track and field club for youths in Wake Forest. The Miami native credits his pupils for giving him the fire that has sparked his recent resurgence.

“No matter how many times I was defeated, how many times I fell, how many obstacles I couldn’t cross because I was mentally defeated, the kids kept inspiring me,” Jackson said. “When you have kids that still admire you and still look up to you, no matter what the adversity is, it’s inspiring.

“When I won my first world title, I had no emotions because I knew I was going to win. (The last few years) I went from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the mountain and I stayed there. (Winning the world championship) would mean the world to me to show the kids that perseverance is everything.”

Doubters as motivation

Jackson has used the doubters as motivation around the track of St. Aug’s since his days as a student started at 2004 after he transferred from South Carolina. But already a decorated competitor as the 2002 U.S. Junior champion in the 400-meter hurdles, Jackson needed more than a coach coming out of Miami’s Overtown neighborhood – he needed emotional guidance.

Williams, a fellow Overtown native, made sure Jackson would reach new heights under his tutelage.

“He had to grow up,” Williams said. “I had to teach him that if you don’t understand and don’t control your emotions, that you’ll be right back down in that same neighborhood.”

In addition to adjusting workouts to keep Jackson fresh, Williams’ continuing emotional support has Jackson back on top of the world rankings.

“You have to encourage people that this is not the end of the road,” Williams said. “I kept him focused on what he wants to do. When you have the ups and downs, you have to deal with them. You can’t give up. I supported him just like a father would support his own kid. I kept him believing in the future.”

Jackson, who said his ultimate goal is to win the gold medal at next year’s Olympics in Brazil, will race in Switzerland, Monaco and London before returning to Raleigh to prepare for the World Championships. Despite opportunities to change where he trains, Jackson explained that he has fallen in love with the area since his college days – the perfect place to raise his three kids.

“The people here are so nice. St. Augustine University saved my life. It’s the place that jump-started my career and jump-started my future as far as being a dad – that’s why I never left,” Jackson said.

Welcomed with open arms

Like Jackson, Dutch faced the prospect of quitting the sport after failing to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team and battling injuries before his recent success. A graduate of South Carolina, the Clayton native won last year’s 400-meter hurdles at the USATF Track & Field Championships with a time of 48.93 seconds to claim his first national title.

Then Dutch made a major career move, convinced by Williams’ belief that he could help Dutch’s technique even more, to join the decorated training group at St. Aug’s. Although he is in his first year training back near his hometown, Dutch has kept pace with Jackson, posting four times better than 48.5 seconds this season to enter the meets in Monaco and London as well as the World Championships with even more confidence.

“I was nervous about joining the camp about a year ago because I just moved home switching to a new coach, but they welcomed me with open arms and ever since then, it’s been a pleasure,” Dutch said. “There’s nothing but positive energy around and that translates over to the track.”

Although he pushes Jackson in practice each day and runs similar times, Dutch has a much different style.

Jackson prefers to conserve energy at the start of his races and explode through the finish line – his training partner takes a much more aggressive approach.

“You’ve got two kids that don’t like to lose, but you’ve got two different styles of running. Johnny is a hard, go get it, come get me, I’m going to put it on you (type of runner),” Williams said. “I like that style. He adapted to the program real quick. Most people don’t adapt to my program that well because we work hard. I’ve seen him on the track crawling, but he’ll still complete his workout.”

Jackson is focusing on staying patient and staying mentally sharp in his bid for another world championship. Dutch, however, is working on efficiency with his technique and his finishing kick as he prepares to contend for his first world title, likely knowing that it will take a strong finish to knock off his training partner.

“The biggest thing right now is my closing, being able to hold my speed coming off the last hurdle. The last 30 meters of my race I’ve kind of died off, so I’m working on staying strong all the way through the finish line,” Dutch said.

The nine-time state high school champion has his own style and own journey. But like Jackson, he has recently found time outside of training to coach youths in the area. Dutch served as the hurdles coach for Southeast Raleigh High School last season.

“Being able to give back and give my advice, my expertise to kids that really want to do the same thing… to be a role model – it’s a big thing,” he said. “Sometimes it’s all about giving back and passing it forward to the younger generation.”