From his high school days at Kenowa Hills, Donavan Brazier was in a different league.
The native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, always knew that he wanted to be an 800m runner.
“I first got into running because of my dad (John Brazier) who competed in college,” said Brazier. “I knew I had some background in running and I did it in the beginning, like every other American kid, as a social thing and to make friends. I started in middle school with the 800m actually, so I was never a kid to bounce around with other disciplines. When I started running, the 800m was my event and I stayed true to that.”
The precocious Brazier continued his meteoric rise and soon received a scholarship to Texas A&M where, under the guidance of Alleyne Francique, a two-time world indoor 400m champion from Grenada, he became NCAA champion in his freshman year in 2016. Brazier’s jaw dropping 1:43.55 run that Friday evening was historic as he broke Jim Ryun’s collegiate record, which celebrated its 50th anniversary that same day. It was to be Brazier’s last collegiate race.
Olympic ambitions provide a wake-up call
The youthful exuberance gave him high expectations and Olympic ambitions, but the task of qualifying for a Rio Olympic team spot proved a bridge too far.
“Unfortunately, I did not qualify for the team that year, I was 19 years old and after a long NCAA season I somehow could not manage to bring it together for another three weeks at the Olympic trials,” he said.
“I think ever since that learning experience of not making the team or going to my first Olympics was a big wake up call and realisation that things are not going to come so easily.”
The following year Brazier won the first of his two national titles to punch his ticket to the World Championships in London. However, that proved another teachable moment. After winning his heat comfortably, Brazier crashed out in the semi-finals after finishing a disappointing seventh in 1:46.27. A frustrating 2018 season followed, with a first round disqualification at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham and an Achilles injury put the brakes on his outdoor season.
These setbacks have served as motivation as Brazier arrives in Doha ranked second in the world after a stellar 2019 season.
He kicked off the year at the Millrose Games in New York with a 1:44.41 national indoor record, however, a rampaging Michael Saruni of Kenya, who broke several records en route to victory, denied him his first win there.
“I have had good races there including the 1000 metres in 2017,” Brazier said. “I have been targeting the American 800m record and I was finally able to break that barrier this year and get that monkey off my back. Unfortunately, I have never been able to come up with a win at Millrose, so that’s my one thing that I would like to check off my bucket list.”
Moving outdoors in May, Brazier would taste defeat in the opening Diamond League meeting in Doha in a high quality race behind Nigel Amos and Emmanuel Korir in a then season’s best 1:44.70. That was his only loss of the season. After his nail-biting victory at the Golden Gala in Rome over Amos followed by his second US title, Brazier turned up for the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich where he produced a scintillating run.
Diamond League triumph
Brazier, who prides himself as being an angler, was trailing in eighth position at the bell. He moved to sixth with 200m to go and in one fell swoop rounded three opponents coming off the top curve. It was all or nothing in the home straight. Amos had a huge lead and although tiring, looked a sure winner but Brazier found an extra gear in the last 40 metres to reel him in and score a stunning victory in a new personal best of 1:42.70.
“I ran with patience,” he said. “I did not go out with their quick pace and I was able to bring it around that second lap a little faster and caught Nigel with a few steps to go. It was a very quick race.”
This was in keeping with Brazier’s recent habit of running negative splits and timing his races to perfection.
“The beauty and bad thing about running is that you can never be that happy - because you can always get faster and add more achievements and accolades. I do not have the world or American record; there are still a lot more things to break before I can say I am satisfied with that time.”
Johnny Gray is the US record holder with 1:42.60, which has stood for 34 years. Gray coached Brazier briefly but things did not work out.
“I respect Coach Gray a lot, he has done great things,” Brazier said. “We talk every now and then. Whenever I run a good race, he will always congratulate me about it. I went for a month to train with his camp with Duane Solomon. However, the training regimen he had and what I was doing at Texas A&M was not matching up and I decided to go back to Texas A&M. I believe that if I was a couple years more mature at the time, I would have been able to survive instead of sink. It was like a swim or sink training camp. My body was not developed to handle the training and I felt that I was on my way to injury.”
Brazier feels that with Kenya’s world record holder David Rudisha, who has not competed since the Rio Olympics, missing in action, opportunities are aplenty for the next rising star of the event.
“I think when Rudisha was out there, he was the one with the target on his back and everyone expected him to win and it was just a matter of who is coming in second or third. Now with Rudisha missing there are no decided spots and everyone is wondering who will fill those spots.”
His plans for Doha are simple. “It’s just all about competing at this point. “The last time I ran at a world championship, I did not make it past the semis. I need to make sure I am taking it round by round and day-by-day respecting all competitors. If I am looking at heat sheets and thinking, it is going to be easy then that is not going to happen, as this is the world championships. Everybody is the best of the best.
“I am definitely expecting everybody to be at the top of his game. I am expecting to give my top performance as well, and whatever that is I will be happy with it as long as I know I put everything possible out there. I just know though that I have so much potential tapped inside of me that I am fairly confident that I should come out with the result I will be happy with.”
The 800m heats get underway tomorrow (28), with the semi-finals on Sunday (29) and the final on Tuesday (10).
Noel Francis for the IAAF