Canada's Justyn Knight no longer 'star-struck,' eyes NCAA track title
Toronto native hopes to realize dream Friday at historic Hayward Field
Justyn Knight spent the early part of this week battling allergies from the Oregon heat and fielding questions about fellow Canadian and popular rapper/singer Drake.
"I guess everybody knows I'm a fan now," the Syracuse junior track star said, laughing, over the phone from the site of this week's NCAA track and field championships. "Hopefully, he'll put me in a song one day but I'd have to compete with [Canadian Olympic sprinter] Andre De Grasse for a running lyric."
Talking about Drake provided the ideal escape for the 22-year-old Toronto native who is in Eugene for the fourth time in as many years, this time seeking his first NCAA title, with the men's 5,000 metres scheduled for 10:25 p.m. ET on Friday.
A more relaxed and confident Knight arrived in Eugene after easily winning his heat race in 14 minutes 13.64 seconds to qualify for his third consecutive NCAA outdoor championship.
In early May, Knight made headlines by setting a world standard and breaking a Syracuse record with a personal-best time of 13:17.51 at the Payton Jordan Invitational in California. He went on to capture the 5,000 at the Atlantic Coast Conference in 13:52.38, more than two seconds ahead of North Carolina State's George Parsons.
"In order for me to be truly happy with my accomplishments, I would hope to get the win [Friday]. That would make my dreams come true," said Knight, who also repeated as ACC indoor champion in the 5,000 in late February and finished 0.3 seconds off his main rival Edward Cheserek's winning time in the 3,000 at the NCAA Division I indoor track championships in mid-March.
Cheserek, meanwhile, will not be part of Friday's 24-man field after he withdrew from NCAAs two weeks ago with a lower back strain. A senior at the University of Oregon, Cheserek is the two-time defending champion in the 5,000 and the most accomplished U.S. college runner in history with 17 titles.
"I'm going in with a healthy mind, not thinking it's going to be easy or overly hard," said Knight, who beat Cheserek for the first time in November, finishing second at the NCAA cross-country championships while the latter was fourth.
"Your previous times and accomplishments really don't matter. It depends on who [is in top form] on that day. I know it's going to be a fight to the finish because a lot of other guys are going to want what I want and I have to stay mentally focused."
XC: ✔️<br>Indoor: ✔️<br>Outdoor: ✔️<a href="https://twitter.com/justyn_knight">@justyn_knight</a> completes the <a href="https://twitter.com/USTFCCCA">@USTFCCCA</a> regional awards sweep this season! 💪 <a href="https://t.co/f9w4HCoKrq">pic.twitter.com/f9w4HCoKrq</a>—@CuseXCTF
Knight placed sixth (13:50.96) in the 5,000 at NCAAs as a freshman in 2015 and 10th (13:40.40) as a sophomore last spring. He believes he has learned how to balance having fun during race week and distracting himself while also staying mentally sharp.
"I can't waste too much energy fooling around or always being outside hanging out with people," said Knight, who was recently named Syracuse's top male athlete for the second year in a row. "I also don't want to be locked up in my room all day making myself nervous."
Friday will be Knight's "chill day" as he plans to listen to Drake, walk to breakfast and lunch and watch a few episodes of the criminal series White Collar on Netflix.
Officially finished Season 1 of White Collar. The finale was crazy 😭—@justyn_knight
He'll then make his way to historic Hayward Field, which is hosting the event for a 15th time. Knight represented Canada there before a crowd of 8,937 for the 5,000 final at the IAAF World Junior Championships in 2014.
"I'll never forget with one lap to go, I was closing in on guys that had passed me earlier in the race. Just hearing all the fans cheering gave me a [boost] and I feel it might be a similar atmosphere [Friday] if I'm in that position," said Knight, who will fly home after Friday's race to attend his brother Jaryd's graduation from the University of Toronto on Monday.
"I've never seen as many fans come to watch a track meet as I have here. "It can be overwhelming in your freshman year, but coming in for my third year will be all right. The star-struck moment with Hayward Field has sunk in."