Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
Owens-Delerme adds hurdles to his repertoire
Ayden Owens-Delerme competes at the 2023 SEC Track and Field Championships in Baton Rouge, La.
FAYETTEVILLE — As the NCAA champion in the decathlon last year who finished fourth at the World Championships, University of Arkansas senior Ayden Owens-Delerme showed he can excel in 10 events.
Now make it 11.
Owens-Delerme will be back to competing in the decathlon for Puerto Rico at the Central American and Caribbean Games in San Salvador, El Salvador, and at the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, later this summer.
But at the NCAA West Outdoor Track and Field Prelims that start today in Sacramento, Calif., Owens-Delerme will run the 400-meter hurdles.
The top 12 finishers in the West and East Prelims advance to the NCAA Championships on June 7-10 in Austin, Texas.
Tonight will mark Owens-Delerme’s fourth 400 hurdles race as a collegian — all in the past four weeks — but he is the national leader in his new event.
Deciding to run the 400 hurdles this college season rather than compete in the decathlon to save wear and tear on his body after dealing with knee tendinitis, Owens-Delerme won the event at the SEC Championships in Baton Rouge in 48.26 seconds. He broke the meet record of 48.29 by Florida’s Kerron Clement in 2005 and broke the Arkansas record of 48.49 by Kemar Mowatt in 2017.
Alabama junior Chris Robin was running with Owens-Delerme coming off the eighth of 10 hurdles in the SEC final, but he finished second in 48.36.
“I just stuck to my race plan, and if I’m neck-and-neck with anybody coming into the home stretch, I’m pretty confident that I have the strength to push through and win,” Owens-Delerme said. “That’s what the decathlon taught me.
“When it comes down to it, I have that extra juice. I have that extra training that I can fall back on.
“Even though I respect the guys that do the [400 hurdles], and respect the event, they don’t train as decathletes like I do.”
After Owens-Delerme won, he pointed to the crowd, then dropped to the track at LSU’s Bernie Moore Stadium and did 10 push-ups.
“Doing the push-ups was spontaneous,” Owens-Delerme said. “Whenever you win a race like that, and have a massive personal best, I’m so excited that the emotion kind of overwhelms me — to the point where I begin to do things without even realizing it.”
The No. 1-ranked Razorbacks won the SEC title with 149 points — 60 ahead of second-place Florida — and Arkansas Coach Chris Bucknam said he appreciated Owens-Delerme for wanting to contribute to the team effort.
“To Ayden’s credit, when [he and assistant coach Travis Geopfert] decided doing the decathlon at the SEC meet wasn’t the best long-term plan for him, he was willing to do a new event,” Bucknam said. “He wanted to find a way to help the team.
“So he and Travis hatched this plan to run the 400 hurdles, and lo and behold, Ayden showed he can do it.”
Bucknam said he never expected Owens-Delerme to win and set meet and school records.
“Just an incredible performance,” Bucknam said. “It’s mind-boggling to think he could master that event so quickly, because it’s a tough race to run and very technical.
“There’s a certain stride pattern you have to hit, but Ayden nailed it. He just took his 13 strides through eight hurdles and switched to 15 on the last two.
“Then nobody’s going to beat him the last 100 meters. He’s got that unbelievable ability to smell the finish line.”
Arkansas junior Marcus Weaver, who finished second in the decathlon at the SEC meet, said it was “crazy” watching Owens-Delerme win the 400 hurdles.
“But knowing Ayden, I wasn’t necessarily shocked by him winning, because he’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen,” Weaver said. “Ayden is truly gifted. He can run an event three times and be the national leader. That’s pretty cool.”
Geopfert said the original plan was for Ayden-Owens to run on the relays at the SEC meet.
“Then I slept on it for a day and came up with the idea of him running the 400 hurdles,” Geopfert said. “I said, ‘This is either genius or stupidity. There’s no in-between.’ ”
Owens-Delerme made it a brilliant move.
“When we brought up the hurdles, Ayden got his head wrapped around that idea,” Geopfert said. “He was all in.”
Owens-Delerme, who grew up in Pittsburgh, won three Pennsylvania high school state titles in the 300 hurdles and won the 400 hurdles as a 16-year-old at the 2016 United States Track and Field Junior Olympics when he ran 53.13 and also won the decathlon in Sacramento.
That was Owens-Delerme’s only 400 hurdles race until he ran 50.28 at the LSU Invitational on April 24. In his second 400 hurdles race as a collegian, he ran 49.12 in the SEC meet prelims.
“I’ve done the 400 hurdles in college three times, and each time I’ve had extreme success in terms of dropping my personal best,” Owens-Delerme said. “I’ve continued to improve. I hope to continue that trajectory.
“Obviously, continuing to drop a second each time I run the race isn’t possible. But what I plan on doing is giving it my best and making sure I’m the first one crossing the finish line, no matter what meet I’m at.”
Geopfert said he doesn’t want to put a ceiling on what Owens-Delerme can do in the 400 hurdles.
“For only running three races total, Ayden makes good decisions within the race, because they’re split-second decisions,” Geopfert said. “He’s got to continue to focus on executing that.
“Then we’ll see where it goes. But you can’t put limits on Ayden.”
NCAA Outdoor Track and Field West Prelims
WHEN Today through Saturday. Men’s events will be today and Friday. Women’s events Thursday and Saturday.
WHERE Sacramento, Calif.
WHO Arkansas’ No. 1-ranked men’s team has a record 44 entries with 34 athletes in 16 events. The Razorbacks’ No. 5 women’s team has a national-leading 34 entries with 29 athletes in 13 events.
FORMAT The top 12 finishers in each event advance to the NCAA Championships on June 7-10 in Austin, Texas.
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