By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Even in the United Kingdom, a continent away, Eugene, Ore., holds a profound allure for track & field athletes.
“Everybody knows about it,” William Gray said of the city that calls itself TrackTown USA.
A University of Virginia graduate student from Brighton, England, Gray finally made it to Eugene this week. At the NCAA outdoor championships, he’ll compete Wednesday night at historic Hayward Field in the semifinals of the men’s steeplechase.
Gray, who’s seeded 20th, will race in the first of two heats. The top five finishers from each heat advance to the final, plus the two with the next best times.
“If he can sneak into that final, that would be fantastic,” said Pete Watson, who coaches Virginia’s distance runners. “There’s definitely a possibility. He’s patient, he’s smart, and you never know what happens.”
Gray, who graduated from the University of Birmingham in England, enrolled at UVA last summer. For much of Gray’s time in Charlottesville, he’s been injured, and early in the outdoor season Watson would not have predicted a trip to Eugene for him.
“Six weeks ago, no way,” Watson said. “Four weeks ago, yes, in the right situation.”
Since making his UVA debut on April 1 at the Florida Relays, Gray has steadily improved. He hasn’t trained as much as most of his peers, and so Gray fares best in races with a moderate pace, Watson said, and he took advantage of such conditions at the NCAA East Preliminaries last month in Jacksonville, Fla.
The steeplechase is a 3,000-meter race in which runners must clear seven water barriers and 28 other hurdles. Gray’s best time in the event this season — 8:45.82 — ranks seventh all-time at UVA.
“He doesn’t have a big kick, but he’s so efficient over the hurdles,” Watson said. “Definitely the reason why he’s a great steeplechaser is his technique is impeccable.
“His training [at UVA] has been really simple, just some tempo runs and strides. I just think he’s really talented. He’s got a natural engine.”
Gray is one of five Cavaliers who’ll compete at the NCAA men’s championships, along with juniors Henry Wynne (1,500 meters), Filip Mihaljevic (shot put and discus) and Jordan Young (discus) and redshirt freshman Oghenakpobo Efekoro (shot put).
Junior Cleo Boyd (10,000 meters) is UVA’s lone representative in the NCAA women’s championships, also in Eugene this week.
The UVA men enter the meet ranked No. 6 nationally. At last year’s NCAA men’s championships in Eugene, the Cavaliers finished a program-best 17th.
Gray lived this school year with teammates Iona Lake and Sarah Astin, graduate students who are also from England. Lake, in fact, graduated from the University of Birmingham (as did former UVA distance runner Vicky Fouhy).
Lake, who came to UVA in 2014, eased Gray’s transition to life in the United States.
“In terms of housing, I had no worries,” Gray said. “She just sorted the house out. She was like, `Sign here, pay this deposit, this is where we’re living.’ She’d been here for a year already, so she knew the lay of the land and what you needed to do coming over from [the UK] and how things are different.”
Taking a transfer, especially one with only one year of eligibility, can be a risky proposition for an established program, Watson said.
“You’ve got that expense of bringing them over for an official visit, just to see how they fit in with the guys,” Watson said. “You can’t get a complete picture in 48 hours, but you can get a good-enough picture.”
Gray fit in well with the team during his visit. “He liked it a lot,” Watson said, “and the boys really liked him, and I really liked his mentality. He just wanted to come over and run.”
That’s not always the case.
“A lot of transfers are running away from something,” Watson said. “But an English grad student is coming for one reason. He wants to run fast.”
Gray was expected to make a significant contribution in cross country last fall, but to his and his coaches’ disappointment, he ran little in Charlottesville until this spring.
In January 2015, back in England, Gray had suffered a stress fracture in his right calcaneus (heel bone). He resumed training too soon, and his foot started hurting again, which dashed his dream of competing at last summer’s European championships. So he shifted his focus to preparing for cross country season at UVA.
That didn’t come to pass either. After steadily building up his mileage in September, Gray recalled, “I told Watson, `I think I’m ready to get back in near full training.’ And then the next day on the run it started hurting again.”
After meeting with athletic trainer Shelley Blakey, Gray stopped running again. He was able to resume training later in the fall semester, but the pain in his foot returned while he was home in England over the holiday break.
“I was really, really down over Christmas,” said Gray, who worried that his track & field career might be over.
“It had been a year, and this was the fourth time it’d broken down. So I had that mindset of `OK, this isn’t worth it. I kind of need to move on.’ ”
He’s happy he didn’t give up. Back in Charlottesville, Dr. Joseph S. Park, a foot and ankle specialist at the UVA Medical Center, examined him in January and determined that Gray’s Achilles tendon was contributing to the problem.
“Dr. Park found that my Achilles was so short and tight, and I had basically zero range of movement in my ankle,” Gray said. “I had already taken a month off when I saw him, so he was like, `You’re good to get back into training again now, and the protocol is, we’re going to basically do a really aggressive stretching.’ The idea was to get my Achilles to take the tension off the bone.”
Gray has been healthy ever since, and he’s eager to compete in Eugene, to which Virginia’s traveling party flew Sunday.
“I don’t quite know what to expect,” Gray said last week, “but Coach Watson is going to help me with that and get me ready. There are going to be guys there that are certain to make the final, but below that I think there’s a huge pack of everyone that’s just kind of equal ability. It’s going to depend on who turns up on the day, who just does their race and doesn’t get carried away with the atmosphere and the scale of the event.”
As a boy in England, Gray played rugby, soccer and cricket, he said, and also “dabbled at golf, dabbled at table tennis, dabbled at a lot of stuff.” He didn’t start running seriously until his final two years of high school. He competed in the steeplechase, but not until Gray enrolled at the University of Birmingham did he get serious about the event and start “practicing hurdles properly.”
His coach was Luke Gunn, a former All-American in the steeplechase at Florida State
“He trains at my university, and he’s a really, really good technician to learn from,” Gray said. “Doing drills and training with him, I’ve picked up a knack for it.”
At UVA, he works with assistant coach Willie Randolph on hurdling, and “I’ve been able to learn new stuff this year easily,” Gray said. “Like before I couldn’t hurdle with both legs, whereas this year Coach Randolph’s got me hurdling with both legs with ease.”
At last month’s ACC meet, Gray said, “it was quite a smooth race. It wasn’t that congested, so you could focus on the barriers, and I was just popping over, right leg, left leg. So in terms of that, I’ve improved massively since I’ve been here working with Coach Randolph.”
Gray won Great Britain’s under-20 steeplechase championship in 2012 and the under-23 title in 2014. He’s focused this week on the NCAA meet, but he has a long-term goal too: qualifying for the IAAF’s 2017 world championships in London.
A member of the Brighton & Hove City Athletics Club in England, Gray wants to see what happens if he’s able to stay healthy for an extended period of time. “With my training now, there’s so much I can add to it,” he said. “It’s worth a shot, basically.”
Gray, who has relatives in Boston, spent this academic year in a master’s program in the Curry School of Education. At the University of Birmingham, he earned bachelor’s degrees in French and international relations, and he follows politics closely.
The U.S. presidential race fascinates him. Gray marvels at the spectacle provided this year by Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders et al.
“It’s incredible to watch,” he said, smiling. “I’m on edge. It’s a game show.”