Justyn Knight seeks elusive gold at final NCAA cross-country championships
Canadian rediscovered love for sport at track and field worlds in August
A top-10 debut at the track and field world championships in August changed Canadian Justyn Knight as an athlete.
While preparing for his fourth and final NCAA Division I cross-country championships this Saturday, the Syracuse senior spoke of how a confidence-boosting ninth-place performance in the men's 5,000 metres at London has altered the way he approaches racing.
"Being there without expectations, it brought me back to why I participate in a sport like this. It's because I love it," Knight said this week before travelling to Louisville, Ky. "I love the feeling of competing hard, running fast and making personal improvements.
"When you get to a certain level and everybody's watching you, sometimes you can get distracted from your love of the sport and just focus on pleasing others and trying to live up to expectations."
Justyn Knight’s high school PE teacher challenged him to do well in a 5K or get a failing grade. He won in a school record. Now he's favored to win the NCAA title and has Syracuse in the hunt for a second team title.<br><br>WATCH Taking Care Of Business: <a href="https://t.co/JmNvp3dGWa">https://t.co/JmNvp3dGWa</a> <a href="https://t.co/fxPetSBnnK">pic.twitter.com/fxPetSBnnK</a>—@milesplit
The Toronto native recalled being extremely nervous — "I hid it well" — prior to meets during his first three seasons with the Orange, who are ranked No. 3 entering the 79th annual men's NCAA championships.
Northeast Region Performer of the Year: <a href="https://twitter.com/justyn_knight?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@justyn_knight</a>... again.<br><br>Northeast Region Coach of the Year: <a href="https://twitter.com/chfox?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@chfox</a>... again.<br><br>Well deserved 🏆 for the Orange <a href="https://t.co/tnafkBFLxz">pic.twitter.com/tnafkBFLxz</a>—@CuseXCTF
"I'd always think about the competition, what would happen if I didn't live up to expectations and play out scenarios in my head, whether things went good or bad," he said.
In London, Knight sat 12th with 800 metres left in the semifinals before his patented closing kick vaulted the 21-year-old to fourth in a time of 13 minutes 30.27 seconds and a berth in the final.
This is what closing speed looks like. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TCB?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TCB</a> <a href="https://t.co/5nThxGjuFD">pic.twitter.com/5nThxGjuFD</a>—@CuseXCTF
"I go into every race trying to win, but I was stunned a little after that [heat] race," recalled Knight, who wasn't optimistic about advancing prior to the race. "There aren't a lot of people in the sport that could say they've made a world championship final."
The takeaway from world championships was that I'm a good runner and can compete with pretty much anyone at that level.— Syracuse University cross-country/track runner Justyn Knight
He composed himself, spoke with Syracuse coach Chris Fox who joined him in London, and mentally prepared for the 5,000 final three days later.
With a game plan to mimic his semifinal performance, Knight hung tight amongst the best in the world for the entirety of the final before crossing the finish line in 13:39.15, six seconds out of the medals but ahead of his friend and former NCAA cross-country rival, Patrick Tiernan of Australia.
"The takeaway from world championships was that I'm a good runner and can compete with pretty much anyone at that level," Knight said. "There are some guys I beat who were sub-13 [minute] runners or low 13:10, and I probably had no business beating them.
"But when you go into races with an open mind, believe in yourself … and not worry about what others are doing to prepare for the race, sometimes the outcome can be a lot greater than you think."
Knight has won all three NCAA cross-country races he has run this season: Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational on Oct. 13, two weeks later at the Atlantic Coast Conference championships at Louisville's E.P. Tom Sawyer Park — the site of Saturday's 10-kilometre men's race at 10 a.m. ET — and Northeast regionals a week ago in Amherst, N.Y.
Knight has come a long way since placing 143rd at his first NCAA cross-country championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the 2013 Ontario high school cross-country champion "didn't know how to race properly."
He was fourth as a sophomore and placed second a year ago on the LaVern Gibson championship cross-country course in Terre Haute, finishing behind only Tiernan.
"I think I'm going [into Saturday's race] really calm," Knight said. "I know what to expect, the hype, all the interviews I'll probably have to do.
"Patience is something I've really improved on. Sometimes I get too anxious to make a move and get a lot of anxiety if I see someone [running] beside me I'm not used to seeing. Since London, I've learned you don't have to be at the front [of the pack] all the time."