Harden’s final hurdles
Two years ago, Collin Harden ended his season as an honorable mention All-American by placing 22nd in the NCAA Track and Field Championships in the 400-meter hurdles for the Youngstown State men’s team at The University of Texas at Austin.
Last June, the Girard High School alum turned to distance exercises around the north-side of the YSU campus following the cancellation of the 2020 season as a way to keep his mind occupied and his body conditioned for a potential fifth season.
Fast forward to today, when Harden will compete in the same event in the Division I nationals at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon.
Following a wacky, wild, and weird academic year that included spring football, a fan-less Beeghly Center, a three-meet cross country season, plenty of COVID protocols and an Outdoor Horizon League track meet that concluded inside, he is one athlete left at the end of the road for the Penguins.
Harden doesn’t view it that way.
“I’m definitely proud of myself, definitely proud of my accomplishments, and definitely proud of my coaches,” Harden said. “But, it’s not about being the last. I’m just happy that my teammates have pushed me. I rarely do things for myself.
“I’m doing things for my old coaches, my old mentors, my old schools. It’s not just about myself. I’m doing things for other people because they pushed me to get where I am.”
Harden finds himself competing on ESPN2 against other sprinters from the likes of LSU, BYU, Maryland, Texas A&M, Oregon, Oklahoma and USC.
He’ll also be among one of the first batch of athletes to compete at Oregon’s newly renovated Hayward Field, a completely new state-of-the-art facility with a $270 million price tag. It opened for competition during April after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the christening by nearly a year.
Being the home of the Ducks track and field programs since 1921, Hayward Field will also host U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials later this summer, creating a unique atmosphere that Harden looks to thrive in.
“When you go against the best of the best, that means you’re actually a part of the best of the best,” Harden said. “So, I’m just happy that I got to where I am, and I’m glad the competition is where they are because we just want to push each other. Everybody is here to be pushed, and everybody wants to win. I’m glad that I’m in that type of mindset.”
Youngstown State has been represented at the NCAA nationals during the outdoor season four consecutive years, with Warren John F. Kennedy grad Chad Zallow making it to the biggest stage back in 2017 and 2018.
Harden has been spending up to eight hours per day watching his race film to improve his technique, speed and endurance. He’s seeking what he can tweak during a race to improve his times ever so slightly, working to perfect nearly every aspect of his craft.
Sprints coach David Townsend has coached many runners over the years, but athletes like Harden just stand out in different ways.
“The first thing is the guy has to be coachable, and with Collin in this 400-meter hurdle, our goal is 13 steps between each hurdle,” Townsend explained. “He’s been able to achieve that, and he’s achieved that without even knowing as he gets stronger.
“He’s a student of the game, and he’s a student of his race, so he doesn’t panic. In a lot of the races, you’ll see that he’s coming up at the last part of the race, and coming in really strong, so we know he has a lot left.”
Harden will start in lane four in his prelim this evening, which airs at 7 p.m. It’s a departure from the ninth lane that he’s normally placed in.
That should allow him to see the other runners in the final one-third of the race, which he normally wouldn’t see in lane nine.
YSU coach Brian Gorby hopes that will push Harden to be more aggressive than normal.
Harden will be representing YSU, Girard and the Mahoning Valley, and trying to overcome the unique challenges of the past few seasons.
“We’ve always been a results-do-our-talking type of program and he just represents that,” Gorby said. “He gets out there and works his tail off. Coach Townsend and him get it done consistently, every day.
“You don’t see a whole lot out there on social media. Collin isn’t one to post too much out on what he’s doing here and there. He’s just a pure results, hard-working kind of grit-city type of a kid.”
Harden will compete in the third and final preliminary heat. The top two in each heat, along with the next three fastest times, will advance to the final, which is Friday night.
With this being his final collegiate meet, the former YSU Male Student Athlete of the Year just wants to lay it all on the line against an elite group.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, you’re definitely able to compete on the big stage or you wouldn’t be here,” he said. “You definitely work hard to get where you’re at.
“You just want to be in a mood about wanting to be the best.”