After the “relief” of his spectacular World Championships win in 2019, Donavan Brazier is running with less pressure on his shoulders heading into an Olympic year. Tokyo 2020 caught up with him to talk about everything from missing out on Rio 2016, to finding redemption in Doha and a possible future in the NFL.
Living in the now
Donavan Brazier isn’t taking anything for granted. Not anymore.
Four years ago and at only 19 years old, the college freshman lined up in the USA’s Olympic Trials having just set the fastest time ever by a collegiate 800m runner: 1:43.55 in the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
In one race, the Michigan-born athlete had gone from “not being an NCAA favourite, to potentially bringing home a medal for the United States” - all before he had even made the Olympic team.
And that’s when things started to unravel. Brazier finished 19th in the Olympic Trials in a time of 1:48.13 - four seconds outside his personal best - and failed to qualify for the Olympics.
“I think all the camaraderie and all the chatter and everything just kind of got to my head,” he explains in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.
A year later at the 2017 World Championships in London, Brazier again faced disappointment. As the reigning U.S. Champion, expectation was once again high, and as he watched his main rivals struggle in the heats, Brazier allowed himself to dream about winning.
“I was like, I’m gonna make this final and I’m gonna medal and it’s all gonna be good,” he recalls.
But instead of returning home with a medal around his neck, Brazier failed to make the final, crashing out in the semis in a time of 1:46.27.
“That was again a learning experience for me,” says Brazier. “And that’s why I always say now I have to live in the moment.”
From disappointment to glory
After the disappointments of Rio 2016 and the 2017 World Championships, Brazier’s finest moment to date came in last year’s World Championships in Doha. The final saw him showcase a newfound tactical nouse, as he exorcised the demons of previous championships with a dominant win in the 800m final.
As he crossed the line, a jubilant Brazier mouthed the words, “Thank you”.
“I think there was a huge bit of relief that went off my chest when I crossed that line in 2019, because you know at the very least I’m a world champion at that point,” Brazier explains. “But it goes back to living in the moment, I’m just so grateful for that.”
But even with the relief of becoming the USA’s first ever 800m world champion and American record holder - all in the space of one minute and 42 seconds - Brazier knew that greatness comes at a price.
“I think I run with less pressure on me, but I still acknowledge that there is a bit of a target on my back.
“You know, I'm the young guy that's fresh off of a world lead and a world title. So I know that people are looking at me to beat me and they're always going to be gunning for me.”
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All potential means is that you haven’t done it yet
Rudisha’s heir in the making?
Just before the biggest race of his life, Donavan Brazier got a visit from a living legend and the man who holds the current 800m world record set at the London 2012 Olympic Games: David Rudisha.
“As soon as I see Rudisha I just light up with joy!” Brazier remembers enthusiastically. “And I was like, ‘Mr. Rudisha, It’s such an honour!’ because I’ve never actually met this man, shook hands with him or seen him in person.”
But Rudisha wasn’t just there to meet Brazier, he had a message for him. He told the 23-year-old that in his eyes he could win the final.
“It just added more confidence in myself, knowing that the greatest 800 metre runner of all time said that he chose me to be the favourite for the 2019 world champs,” says Brazier with obvious pride.
But since that 2019 race, there have been suggestions that Brazier may go on to do what many have deemed impossible - and break Rudisha’s eight-year-old world record of 1:40.91.
Duane Solomon, the U.S. athlete who finished 4th in Rudisha's record-breaking race in London, is 100% confident that Brazier has what it takes to beat that mark, saying, “I know eventually he’s going to break the world record in 800.”
But Brazier himself is more circumspect when pushed on the subject.
“I think every year I try a little bit harder, there hasn’t been a year yet where I’ve been doggedly tired and gone after everything with every ounce of strength that I’ve wanted.
“In the past couple of years, I’ve tried a little harder and I’ve just kind of pushed my body more. So I’m definitely not at the point in my career where I’m content with what I’ve done.
“I still think I have a lot of potential. But all potential means is that you haven’t done it yet.”
From the track to the football field?
Recently, Brazier caused ripples in the athletics community when he suggested that he could one day play in the NFL. And while it’s not the most common route for an athlete to take, it has been done before - notably when Tokyo 1964 100m champion Bob Hayes went on to win the Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys.
“Anybody that’s really successful at anything they do, I feel like they can be successful at anything they try really hard at,” Brazier explains.
“I wasn’t always the best athlete, in eighth grade I struggled to make my 4x8 [4x800m relay] team. And I worked on it, I beat on my craft and I had natural instincts and natural ability as well... Eventually I got a college scholarship, I got an NCAA title as well and out of that I got a world title.
“So I feel like, why can’t I do that for the NFL as well?”
And 56 years on from the first Tokyo Games when Bob Hayes equalled the 100m world record before going on to a hugely successful NFL career, Brazier is confident he can follow in his footsteps - perhaps even joining the same team that Hayes made his name with.
“I want to say Detroit Lions,” Brazier explains, when discussing which franchise he would eventually like to play for. “But realistically, I’d like to play for Miami or maybe a Dallas Cowboys or someplace warmer like that.”
Tokyo 2020 in his sights
Heading into an Olympic year, Brazier has been a model of consistency, winning 10 races on the trot before calling time on the season following his August Diamond League victory in Stockholm.
It is something that he puts down to a training regime that has given him a heightened tactical awareness.
“We’ve done a better job at building a good base block and having all sorts of versatility when it comes to running,” he explains.
“So I used to be the type of runner that would only run from the front, and that usually never worked out for me, so we kind of learn different ways that I can run tactically.”
And now with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, Brazier will be hoping to bring all the knowledge he has gained over the past four years in order to achieve his destiny as a runner.
But with his new motto of living in the moment, the world champion will be taking things one step at a time.
“I’m 23 years old and I haven’t made an Olympic team yet, so I’m still just trying to finally make one and be proud to say that I’m an Olympian.”