As the fast feet and emboldened strides of Dalilah Muhammad pushed toward the finish line of the women’s 400 meter hurdles in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, most watching the event wouldn;t know that Cal State University, Northridge was also headed into the spotlight.
On Thursday, Aug. 18, Muhammad became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in the 400 meter hurdles.
“It’s so exciting,” Muhammad said to reporters in Rio after the victory. “This means so much; I’ve been working so hard for this. The last two years haven’t been the best but to finally be where I’m supposed to be at the right time, and I’m so happy about that.”
And as she crossed the finish line, the announcers were extolling the fact that Muhammad had been training at CSUN prior to the Olympics.
The shoutout was heard by millions, considering the race and Olympics were broadcast worldwide.
CSUN officials, naturally, were thrilled.
“Dalilah’s success is a testament to her focus and commitment to comprehensive excellence,” noted Athletic Director Dr. Brandon Martin.
“We are fortunate to have one of the top hurdle specialists in the world in our program. Dalilah’s success is a proven model for our track-and-field student-athletes to follow. This is a victory for the entire CSUN family.”
No one was more thrilled than Lawrence Johnson, the CSUN assistant track coach who had been training Muhammad intensely since February after the 26-year-old athlete decided to depart from her previous coach Yolanda Demus.
“Usually you make a coaching change in fall. But she was extremely loyal, and was trying to figure out what she wanted to do,” Johnson said. “We had a conversation. I told her, ‘the thing I ask of you is to work hard, be on time, and allow me to guide your career. Trust the words coming out of my mouth and we will make some things happen.’
“It is difficult for a mature athlete to have a complete stranger say to them ‘believe in me.’ But she said she would do it. And it meant I had to be involved in every aspect of her career.”
The track facility at Northridge was a perfect place to train, Johnson added.
“I’ve been to lots of tracks. But the Northridge track is a real jewel,” the coach said. “It’s set up with wide lanes, has grass around it, and there’s a weight room next to the outdoor track. We had so much support there for the athletes. No other place felt like home like it did and does.”
Johnson, a hurdle specialist, said he changed Muhammad’s track workouts, eating habits, weightlifting schedule — “a complete overhaul.” And Muhammad was not the only runner training with Johnson at the CSUN track. He was also retooling Brianna Rollins, the US champion in the 100 meter hurdles, and Kristi Castlin, the US runner-up in the 100 meter hurdles.
“Brianna had been with me since Clemson, and I had coached Kristi at Virginia Tech,” Johnson said. “The one thing we all talked about was ‘the process’: understanding what it would take to make the Olympic team and to be on the [medals] podium. We gave them all a step-by-step program that we wanted them to stick to. We checked things off when we got things done. And they all stuck to the process.”
Rollins (gold) and Collins (bronze) were part of the US sweep in the women’s 110 meter hurdles on Aug. 17. It was the first ever sweep in the event, first introduced at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and it came one day after the American men had been shut out of the 110 hurdles for the first time (in a non-boycotted Olympics).
But Muhammad certainly put on her own great performance.
Johnson said he had an inkling that Muhammad — who was born in Jamaica, Queens, in New York City, and was a four-time All-American at USC before signing a professional contract with Nike after graduation — was on course to make the US Olympic team as her workouts were getting quicker and stronger.
“Three weeks before [the US Trials] we had her in a heavy training cycle,” the coach said. “I was looking at my stopwatch [at her interval times] — she was moving fast. I was thinking ‘if you can put this together at the race, we might have something special.’ You can see some things happening at practice, when they’re more relaxed, but she took it to the next level at the race. It showed me that she believed in me as much as I believed in her.”
On July 10, in Eugene, Ore., Muhammad won the 400 meter hurdles at the USA Olympic Trials in 52.88 seconds. It was the fastest time in the world this year and the first time anyone had run under 53 seconds in the past three years.
Then came Rio.
In winning the gold medal in 53.13, Muhammad soared over every hurdle and fended off Denmark’s Peterson, who set a Danish national record with her time of 53.55 to earn the silver medal. Ashley Spencer of the US got the bronze medal with a personal best 55.72. Both Muhammad and Spencer are first-time Olympians.
Before Muhammad’s triumph, US women had previously won seven medals — of which five were silver — since the 400 meters became a women’s Olympic event in 1984.
Johnson, who went to Rio to support all three women in their races, returned to the USA on Tuesday, Aug. 23, still beaming.
“To see them all come together, and go out and perform the way we drew it up was so rewarding,” the coach said. “They were paying attention, and they bought into what we were doing. If you believe in the message you can make dreams come true. And they believed in the message.
“I don’t know if you could write a better ending.”