The Texas Tech University high-jump standout and Idalou native surges into Olympic bid.
Overcome by emotion, Bradley Adkins dropped to his knees.
On a cool, wet track at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, the Texas Tech University senior high jumper saw everything he'd worked for, everything he'd dreamt about, happening right before his eyes. With a spot on the Olympic track and field team up for grabs, Adkins had done what he needed to, clearing the bar at 7-feet 5-inches to maintain a third-place standing among the final seven men remaining at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
He also was one of only three competitors remaining who had already achieved the Olympic Standard, meaning someone behind him would have to clear 7-6 to pass him and possibly take his spot on the Olympic team. Deante Kemper, in fourth place, passed on his final attempt at 7-5 to attack the 7-6 height as Adkins could only watch.
Adkins was in. He's an Olympian
“It was such a relief,” Adkins recalled. “I remember standing there by my coach and after Kemper missed and I knew I was in, I just dropped to my knees and thanked God. I thanked him for this opportunity and for blessing me with this. Looking back, after all the struggles, all the ups and downs of the season, to be able to be at this point, it is so surreal. It's just an awesome experience.”
Adkins will now head to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to compete for Team USA in the 2016 Olympic Games. The high jump qualifying round is scheduled for Sunday (Aug. 14) with the finals slated for Tuesday (Aug. 16). It is the fulfillment of a dream that will put a cap on a tremendous collegiate career in the Red and Black.
“We had a student-athlete class my freshman year, and I put this as one of my goals that I wanted to do Rio 2016,” Adkins said. “But to actually think I could fully achieve that didn't happen until I jumped 7-6 my junior year at indoor nationals. I realized then I could do this and that I'm good enough to potentially give the Olympics a shot. It's been a dream and something I've wanted to achieve, but for it to actually happen and come to pass is so surreal and humbling at the same time.”
Though, given the tremendous success Adkins achieved over a four-year college career, it's anything but surprising.
The Idalou native made an immediate impact upon stepping onto the Texas Tech campus. As a freshman he finished third at the Big 12 Indoor Championships and tied for third at the Big 12 Outdoor Championships, which earned him a spot at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. His effort earned him honorable mention All-America honors.
“My freshman year was tough but I was just trying to go out there and compete,” Adkins said. “I wanted to soak in as much as I could and try to work on things technically. I had to break a lot of old habits but I still tried to soak it in, learn as much as I could and compete.”
It helped Adkins there was a change in the Texas Tech coaching staff. James Thomas took over as the Texas Tech jumps coach after Adkins already had signed his letter of intent, and initially Adkins wondered if he'd made the right choice. Turns out, the pairing of Adkins and Thomas proved critical, especially after Adkins' struggles as a senior.
“He's always pushing us to compete,” Adkins said. “He has brought so much competitiveness. Jumping against NCAA champions in practice, you've got to come with it, with high intensity. This year, especially, he never lost faith in me, was always positive and knew I could do it.”
Adkins' drive to succeed is found not just on the track. A marketing and management major, Adkins puts the same effort into his classwork and is just a few hours shy of earning his degree.
Bob McDonald, a professor of marketing in the Rawls College of Business who was also a track and field athlete, said Adkins doesn't do just enough to get by despite having a very time-consuming extracurricular schedule. In a personal selling class taught by McDonald, students were required to raise $300 for a local nonprofit organization. Adkins raised $800.
“He is an excellent student, one of the best in each class,” McDonald said. “He works hard and always stays on top of his work despite his hectic competition schedule. He strives to excel. I am confident he was also motivated by his compassion to help others.”
Adkins continued his athletic success through his sophomore and junior years, earning three first-team and one second-team All-America honors through the indoor and outdoor seasons. He even captured the title at the Big 12 outdoor meet as a sophomore and was poised to be a team leader after finishing second at both the indoor and outdoor NCAA championships in 2015.
Little did Adkins know his biggest challenge was still ahead of him.
Adkins was ready to call it quits. Hang up the spikes for good.
Riding a tractor on the family's Idalou farm – as he likes to do when away from school – Adkins had a pretty revealing conversation with God, admittedly more out of frustration than seeking answers.
He'd just come off a disappointing senior season in which he shouldered great expectations going into the fall. He had finished second in the high jump in both the indoor and outdoor national championships in 2015 and, with JaCorian Duffield having graduated, was going to be the focus in the event.
But Adkins struggled in 2016. Despite earning All-America honors in both indoor and outdoor and reaching the Olympic standard when he cleared 7-6 at a meet on Feb. 13, he finished ninth at the indoor national championships and third at the Big 12 Conference championships, then managed only a sixth-place finish at outdoor nationals after finishing second at the Big 12 outdoor championships.
“I think he felt a lot of pressure this year as a collegian that he was supposed to be the best, and maybe that was hard for him to handle,” Texas Tech track and field coach Wes Kittley said. “The proudest thing to me is his attitude. He kept going through it all.”
Little did Kittley or the other coaches know, however, those struggles had a profound effect on Adkins' mentality by the end of the year, so much so that he thought he was done.
“Throughout the year I was trying, learning a lot, growing and trying to stay positive and endure through this,” Adkins said. “I just tried to shake it off and go to the next meet, thinking the breakthrough was about to come, and it didn't. So after nationals I came back and was sitting there on the tractor and I just started praying. Right there, I hung it up and was done with jumping because it wasn't what God wanted for me.”
Adkins might have thought he was done. But he was just about the only one.
Two days later, Adkins said, he started receiving encouragement from others. A person in the airport recognized him and stopped him, telling him he would see Rio this year, and it wouldn't be from Texas. That began to refuel the competitive fire within Adkins.
“Things like that, speaking encouragement to me, speaking confidence in me, hearing that got me motivated because I was done,” Adkins said. “God wasn't done. He's going to use me. He spoke to me and said Rio is the plan, and from that moment, it was like, ‘OK, we've got this and we're going to do this.' Seeing the path God brought me through to this point is so incredible. I wouldn't change that for the world.”
The effect almost was instantaneous on Adkins' workouts. Kittley said Adkins had one of his best workouts of the year the day before leaving for Oregon, and Kittley noticed the change in his protégé.
“I was on the plane with him on Wednesday when he was going to the trials and I was going to Indianapolis to recruit,” Kittley said. “He was like, ‘Coach, I'm ready to go.' He had that faith and a great practice the Tuesday before. That's part of the old Bradley.”
The foundation for the old Bradley was established long before he arrived at Texas Tech. Thanks to a pedigree developed at Idalou High School, Adkins knew quickly what it took to win.
As a junior, Adkins was a member of the Wildcats' state champion football and basketball teams during the 2010-11 school year. Idalou became the first Class 2A school and only the sixth school (at the time) in the history of Texas high school athletics to capture football and boys basketball state titles in the same season.
Later that spring, Adkins cleared 7-foot for the first time, doing so at the UIL State Track and Field Meet in Austin. But he finished second, behind eventual teammate JaCorian Duffield.
As a senior, Adkins again helped lead the Idalou basketball team back to Austin, but the Wildcats came up short, losing to White Oak in the semifinals. Adkins then returned to Austin a few months later for the state track meet, and again finished second in the high jump, though he did win gold in the 110-meter hurdles.
Those two years' worth of success, however, formed the foundation for what Adkins would become over the next four years.
“It helped me be a competitor,” Adkins said. “Having all that success, I just hated to lose at that point and it definitely kept that competitive edge and fire within me. So that's kind of something I brought to the table at Texas Tech. I've done a lot of losing this year but I was still able to keep competing, staying positive and keep working and fighting through those tough times.”
Long before Adkins had finished his high school résumé, and especially after jumping 7-0 at the state track meet his junior year, he began to attract a lot of attention from schools across the country. Most importantly, he caught the eye of a coach who came from the same background and knew how good small-town athletes can be.
“For me, being a West Texas guy from a small town, we were so fortunate to be able to recruit him and sell him on coming to Texas Tech,” said Kittle, a native of Rule. “He's a local kid, a farm boy raised just like me and so it's thrilling to me for him to be a West Texas kid and the first one from his hometown to every go to the Olympic Games. We can say the last time he put on a Red Raider uniform he made the Olympic team. It doesn't get much better than that.”
Kittley actually recruited Adkins at a basketball game in Lamesa and noticed his athleticism dunking the basketball. But he also noticed Adkins' toughness and how his parents had him well-grounded.
And one of the keys to Adkins' collegiate success might be his proximity to his hometown. It's not unusual to find Adkins back working on the family farm when he's not in class or training.
“We joke with him that he has to run home and jump on a tractor, or a cloud is coming up so he'll be jumping on top of a module to tarp it down so it doesn't get rained on.” Kittley said. “But everyone knows about his work ethic, his toughness, which means a lot. He's been the perfect student-athlete academically and in leading our team, working hard, paying the price in the weight room and being a spiritual leader of our team, which is very important to me. He's done it the right way and for him to be this close to Lubbock, his family, everybody, nobody is more of a Red Raider than him. It just makes me proud to see somebody that really deserves it have something good happen to him.”
Blame it on Rio
As much of an achievement as just making the U.S. Olympic team is, it's evident that's not good enough for Adkins.
Backed by a renewed confidence, Adkins goes into the Olympics certain of his abilities and how that will translate to competing in Rio, even if he's not sure where that effort will place him when it's all said and done.
That doesn't mean there aren't concerns. One of the areas that both Kittley and Adkins identified as leading to the jumper's struggles this season was his approach, particularly the last three steps approaching the bar before his leap. Kittley calls it “getting long,” and is part of the reason why the coach was somewhat surprised Adkins qualified, not because of his abilities but because of his inconsistencies.
That inconsistency, however, seems to have disappeared.
“I don't know that he turned a corner other than he never gave up and never changed giving his best effort every time,” Kittley said. “He may have thought the year was over but when the show came on he still bore down and did what he knew to do, and I think that makes the difference.”
Kittley has sent close to 20 former athletes to the Olympics, including Adkins and former standout sprinter Gil Roberts to Rio. Knowing what Adkins has gone through, Kittley is sure Adkins will have some awestruck moments but will be ready when the lights come on.
“I think the opening ceremony will be where he's going to feel the most nervous and realize what this thing is all about,” Kittley said. “But it will be the same thing once he gets his spikes on that first day on Sunday. I think he will realize, OK, he's in his element, this is what he's fixin' to do. I'm going to tell him to do what he's always done and that is go out and compete. I think that light will come on.”
The Rio Olympics have drawn some criticism and concern for health issues surrounding the city, particularly the Zika virus. But there are concerns about the Olympic village where the competitors are housed. Adkins, though, is not that worried, having received advice and methods from the U.S. Olympic Committee on how to stay healthy.
“They're already taking a lot of precautionary steps,” Adkins said. “We know what to do and what not to do. Our job now is just to go down there, say our prayers and hope for the best.”
Adkins, however, isn't leaving it up to hope. He's also not going to Rio just to show up, either. That competitive fuel, the work ethic formed so long ago, will be on display for the world to see.
“The goal right now is to just go down there and compete,” Adkins said. “I know if I go down there like I know I can and jump like I know I can and push myself, I can finish very high. Whether that's a gold medal or not, I don't know. But my goal is not to just go down there and show up. I want to go down there and compete and make them take notice. I'm going to shock the world, whatever that looks like.”