Shaq on track for summer Olympics

Shaquille Walker warms up with the team during track practice. Preparation for the Olympics is just as mental as it is physical. (Natalie Bothwell)

A name like Shaq carries a sports legacy unlike any other. BYU’s Shaq is on track to his own legacy.

BYU track runner Shaquille Walker won the gold medal last summer at the World University Games in Korea in the men’s 800-meter. Last month he broke the indoor track 800-meter record at the Washington Invitational with a time of 1:46.97.  He passed Ryan Waite, who held the record with 1:48.49 in 2013.

For Shaq, setting records is just one step closer to the Olympics.

A junior from Richmond Hill, Georgia, Shaq has been called a “freak of nature” and “coach’s dream” by his coaches. His record-breaking speed is just one half of what he needs to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The other half lies in his mind.

“He is passionate about his craft,” said BYU head track and field coach Ed Eyestone. “He’s a freak of nature in terms of the talent department. He can certainly thank his earthly parents for endowing him with some amazing talent in terms of the 800-meter. Because of his build, his physique and his nature, the sky is the limit as far as what he can accomplish.”

Shaq has a personal best time of 1:45.5 in the outdoor 800-meter race and holds yet another first place BYU record. He believes it will take about 1:44.8 to finish top three in the Olympic trials in July in Eugene, Oregon and make the USA Olympic track team.

The BYU track and field team has sent athletes to every Olympic games since 1968, but Shaq would become the first BYU runner ever to represent the U.S. in the 800-meter race.

Shaving off a fraction of a second will require more than just running.

“Fitness is one thing,” Shaq said. “But if my mind isn’t right, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t run as well.”

Shaq said the direction from BYU mental strength coach Craig Manning has been one of the biggest influences in improving the way he feels about himself as a runner.

“His performance trajectory is on course for the Olympics,” Manning said in an email. “He just needs to keep doing everything he is doing to stay on the course. An athlete like Shaq is extremely positive and disciplined, a coach’s dream.”

Shaq was introduced to the LDS Church by a friend in high school and was baptized in April 2011, said his running improved after he returned home a year and a half ago from serving in the England Manchester Mission.

“It was the mental skills I learned on my mission,” Shaq said. “The mental skills to put up with hard things. Not even just put up with, but to enjoy hard things, and to enjoy a challenge. Enjoy improvement. Enjoy being better. Enjoy learning.”

Shaq’s achievements prove nothing is impossible with a strong mentality.

Shaq took fifth place in the 800-meter at the NCAA Championships last year. He also anchored BYU’s sprint medley team that finished with the second-best time in the nation. His performance on the 4×400 meter team merited them the best time in BYU’s history.

“I’ve been 100 percent healthy for the first time in the past eight months, so that’s a miracle,” Shaq said. “Everything is just perfect right now. And it’s making a perfect storm, so hopefully I can just keep improving with it.”

An exercise science major with plans to go to dental school, Shaq hopes to run professionally after BYU track. But for now, he’s focused on running as fast as he can at each meet. It’s just one step at a time to get to the Olympics.

Eyestone agrees.

“The road to Rio is firmly in his sights,” Eyestone said.

Listen to Shaq discussing his conversion.

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