Student Experience

They’ll Burn You Out!

October 1, 2020

James Alaka, University of Washington ’14

One thing you are guaranteed to hear once you inform people that you will be headed to the USA for university and to run track is “I hope you don’t get burnt out like the rest of them!” If not in those exact words, then some variation alluding to the immense workload a collegiate athlete faces and how it will negatively affect your flourishing career.

I am still waiting to come in contact with the “them” I was warned about; the disillusioned and burnt out track prodigy who wilted under the pressures of NCAA student-athlete life, and now drags their feet reminiscing about the gold medals they picked up as a sixteen year old.

If you don’t hear that, then you will almost get told the fable of the British athlete who travelled abroad only to be forgotten by his countrymen upon his return; I heard that story countless times.

For some reason, there is a negative stigma attached to competing as a collegiate, and the common consensus is that even if you are successful, those good performances will never translate across the Atlantic. I can attest that numerous people expressed concerns with my wanting to study abroad before I enrolled in 2010, and they also shrugged at my sporadically fruitful freshman campaign that same year. I often wonder what would have happened if I had listened to these viewpoints and bought into the paranoia. Thankfully, I was wiser, and understood that my performances would speak for themselves in due time.

Before I studied at the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!) I was a mainstay in Great Britain age group teams from 2007-2009. Initially, I was worried that my lack of visibility in the UK would hamper my chances at making further teams and also, the negative stigma that I mentioned earlier would discourage team selectors from going out on a limb and adding me to relay pools or jotting my name down on team sheets. I quickly came to the realisation that as long as I performed well, I would not be forgotten. I stayed in constant contact with my UK coach, and he in turn assured me that although I was not included in the relay team practices for the pending 2011 European U23 championships, that was purely down to my not being able to get to Brunel University on a Saturday for practice and back to Seattle in time for my 8am Russian History class on Monday.

As the season wore on, I began turning heads with my performances. The closer I got to my impending return to Britain, the more excited I became. Now, in addition to being in contact with my club coach, I was receiving emails from UKA officials, and all I needed to do was perform at the age group championships to book my seat on the plane. I had one competition left on my collegiate calendar, the NCAA championships, and then a week after that it would be time for the trials!

My inner narcissist made an appearance the day before the European U23 trials. I foolishly searched my own name on Twitter. Social media is a gift and a curse, but on that day the gift was non-existent. Three people, who shall remain nameless, felt the need to express that stigmatised view on NCAA athletes and how it pertained to me through subliminals*; that I had ran my fastest times at dubious, backwater American track meets and would not be able to replicate those performances in Europe. That I was all out of gas after a gruelling six month collegiate season. That team selectors would overlook me.

I am choosing to gloss over the next two months of 2011. Not because they were bad, but because bullet points are a lost art form.

  • I placed first (100m) and second (200m) at the England U23 Championships and qualified for the European championships.
  • I won gold (100m) and Silver (200m) medals in Ostrava at the European U23 Championships in July running a new 200m personal best.
  • I finished 5th (100m) and 4th (200m) in Shenzhen, China at the World University Games in mid-August.

Not only did I not get burnt out, I competed from January to August that year, but I also was not forgotten by the decision makers at my national governing body. Turns out that competing in one of the most competitive set ups week in week out in America aided my performance levels. Who’d have thought, huh?

*Subliminals- Popular among millennials, particularly on social media. Used to indirectly address a specific someone or something, while maintaining that your comment was just a general observation.