Britton Wilson doubles like nobody else in track and field
Sprinter Britton Wilson regularly updates a vision board in her apartment living room. As of last week, there were two numbers on it among a collage of pictures: 48 and 52.
The 48 is for the 400m. Wilson’s short-term goal is to become the third U.S. woman to break 49 seconds in the one-lap event after Olympic gold medalists Sanya Richards-Ross and Valerie Brisco-Hooks.
The 52 is for the 400m hurdles. She wants to become the 10th U.S. woman to break 53 seconds in that event.
They are not far-fetched ambitions. Wilson, a University of Arkansas junior, has already run 49.13 in the flat 400m and 53.08 in the 400m hurdles. She is the only woman to rank among the 25 fastest in history in both events. She is the fourth-fastest American all-time in the flat 400m, passing Allyson Felix last month.
At this week’s NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Austin, Texas, Wilson will bid to become the first person to win Division I titles in the same year in both the 400m and the 400m hurdles.
On Thursday night, she will race the 400m semifinals just after 9 p.m. local time. A half-hour later, she will race the 400m hurdles semifinals. If she advances, she will race the two finals Saturday with a scheduled 24 minutes in between.
In most cases, a runner would only race twice in that short of a turnaround for the 100m or 200m. Wilson is not only attempting a rarity, but she is also the clear top seed in both events.
Last year, Wilson won both at the SEC Championships with about an hour in between the finals, then entered only the hurdles at the NCAA Championships. She won all of those races. This year, Wilson again won both at SECs. Afterward, she met with coach Chris Johnson, who asked what she wanted to do at NCAAs. Wilson chose both.
“I wanted to see how much I can challenge myself and how far I can push myself,” she said.
Ask those who know Wilson best, and they will tell you that her plan, while unprecedented, is not audacious for her.
Her high school coach will tell you that Wilson ran a nation-leading 300m hurdles time on a Friday night in Richmond, Virginia. She got home around 11. The next morning, she went to another meet and ran the fastest flat 400m in Virginia high school history.
Her mom, who nicknamed her “baby giraffe” in middle school for her early running form, will tell you about the 2018 state championships. Wilson stopped en route to the meet at a CVS to pick up medication for a stomach virus. Once they arrived, nobody could find her. Wilson was in a portable bathroom. When she got out, she looked so out of sorts that adults told her not to race. She checked herself in anyway, then won the 400m and the 200m.
Wilson herself will tell you about the 2017 state championships race the family has come to call by the first two words of its YouTube title.
“So I run track, and if you’re wondering if I’m good or not, here’s one of my highlights,” she said, setting up the story in a TikTok video.
Wilson, then a sophomore, was desperately trying to catch a senior in the adjacent lane in the home stretch of the 400m final. Feet from the finish line, Wilson fell. She scraped her knee (above her tall, pink Victoria’s Secret socks), shoulder (there’s still a scar) and head. For a moment, her legs flung above her body. Wilson then crawled across the finish line to secure second place.
Mom LeYuani rushed from behind a fence to find her daughter under a tent. Nearly as quickly, the finish was already spreading on social media.
LeYuani watched the video in sight of her daughter, but didn’t tell her about it. Determined, Wilson said she was staying in the meet to race the 200m later that day. She did. She won in a personal-best time.
LeYuani remembers Wilson moaning in the backseat of the car on the two-hour drive home. Tylenol lessened the suffering, but didn’t eliminate it.
Wilson has athletic genes. Her mom, a second-grade teacher who has worked in classrooms for 26 years, was a long jumper in school. She taught her kids that event by sprinting from the dining room, through the kitchen, into the family room and then launching nearly into the fireplace.
Her dad, Vince, started at point guard for Virginia Commonwealth, then was the first American to play in the top Russian professional basketball league, according to a contact with the current iteration of the league. Wilson, while on an international exchange program in Russia, said he was asked to play for Spartak Leningrad in 1990 by its head coach, Vladimir Kondrashin. Kondrashin was also the head coach of the 1972 Soviet Olympic team that beat the U.S. in that infamous final.
Wilson, whom the family calls by her middle name, “Rose,” was all-state in track and all-county in chorus. She taught herself how to play the guitar.
She first matriculated at the University of Tennessee in 2019. Her freshman year coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out the outdoor season. In her down time, she auditioned virtually for “American Idol” and made it as far as seeing Ryan Seacrest on a screen.
As a sophomore, she was running slower than she was in high school. Looking for solutions, Wilson stopped eating.
“A lot of things contributed to my mental health not being the best,” she said on a University of Arkansas athletics podcast. “I had a lot of physical issues. I was in and out of doctors.”
She confided in her parents and decided to transfer. She said that if it wasn’t for Arkansas, the first and only school that she visited, she probably would have quit the sport.
“You have athletes that compete at a very high level, but you also have those athletes that are so mentally strong, they can overcome a lot of things,” Vince said.
Wilson has thrived under coach Johnson, whose older brother, Boogie, coaches 2016 Olympic 400m hurdles champion Dalilah Muhammad.
"[Johnson] is always listening to how we feel, and he hears us instead of just dismissing it,” Wilson said. “He knows he’s a great coach, and he knows his training works, but he’s also going to hear me out if something doesn’t feel right.”
Last year, Wilson’s first in Fayetteville, she chopped two seconds off her 400m personal best and three seconds off her 400m hurdles personal best. She capped a full NCAA indoor and outdoor slate by winning the NCAA 400m hurdles title. She then went eight tenths faster at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, which is often where collegians run slower after exhausting seasons. Wilson placed second to Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone to make the world championships team.
Then at worlds, Wilson was fifth in the 400m hurdles. Two days later, Wilson was thrilled to be picked for the women’s 4x400m relay the day of the final. She handed the baton to McLaughlin-Levrone -- whom she raced once in high school, when Wilson was a sophomore and McLaughlin-Levrone was a senior -- and won a gold medal.
“She admired and adored Sydney,” said Gene Scott, her high school coach. “You remember the old commercial, ‘Be Like Mike?’ She wanted to be like Sydney.”
After this week’s NCAAs come the USATF Outdoor Championships in early July. There, the 400m final and 400m hurdles semifinals are 15 minutes apart. Told of that schedule, Wilson said running both is “doable,” but she’d probably race just one event this year. Her coach said they’ll decide after NCAAs.
Wilson is ranked second in the world in 2023 in both events.
At NCAAs, USAs and worlds (if she makes the team), Wilson will get into the blocks and look down. If she peeks inside her right hand, she will see a tattoo on the inside of one finger reading “24K.” Wilson and her mom both got that tattoo -- the first for each -- to commemorate the world championships relay gold medal.
After worlds, Wilson spent about two months in a boot and on crutches to alleviate stress reactions in both shins, pain that she raced through last summer. She had messed up her kidneys and stomach by taking four ibuprofen a day. She swam, biked and tread carefully on a treadmill while unable to run last fall.
This spring, she got another tattoo -- the word “Baby” in memory of her half Pekingese, half poodle that died last summer. She got it on her left hand, “so when my hands are in the blocks, if somebody takes a picture of me, you’ll see it,” she said.
On Saturday, Wilson plans to put her hands on the track twice in a span of 25 minutes. Many will watch.
“She wants to accomplish something that’s never been done before,” Johnson said.
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