After recurring injuries and a near-disqualification in the trials, the Texas Tech alumnus is ready to represent the United States.
Gil Roberts remembers watching the Olympics as a child. He was blown away by the athletes he saw on television and yearned to compete at that level. Now, two decades later, the 27-year-old is getting his chance.
Roberts, a Texas Tech University alumnus and former track and field All-American, is headed to Rio de Janeiro to compete in the Olympics.
“Michael Johnson was somebody I really respected,” Roberts said. “He was the ultimate champion, the ultimate competitor, and I always hoped to be like him one day. Obviously I haven't reached that level yet, but hopefully I can do some special things.”
Red Raider runner
Johnson, holder of four Olympic gold medals, is the only man to win both the 200-meter and 400-meter dash events at the same Olympics – a feat he achieved in 1996 in Atlanta. To this day, he holds the world and Olympic records in the 400-meter. Like his idol, Roberts focused on the longer race.
“It's always been my main event,” Roberts said. “I've always tried to focus the most on the 400-meter – it's a passion of mine. It's always been like a child to me; I've been nurturing it since the start of my career.”
An Oklahoma City native, Roberts ran track for Millwood High School. In his first 400-meter race under the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the soon-to-be junior recorded a time of 47.47 seconds on July 3, 2005. By summer 2007, the recent high school graduate had improved his time to 46.16 – a good sign for Texas Tech, where Roberts had signed and passed on opportunities from other powerhouse programs recruiting him: Louisiana State, Florida State, Baylor, Florida and Oklahoma.
“I recruited Gil out of high school,” said Texas Tech track and field head coach Wes Kittley. “I saw him run at the state track meet his senior year and just really thought he was an outstanding runner. We got him on a visit and put a little pressure on him to sign, and we got him signed. I felt really fortunate to beat out a lot of big schools because I knew he had the potential to be great.”
Despite a disappointing freshman year, in which recurring hamstring injuries held him back, Roberts had a No. 1 national ranking as a sophomore. In 2009, Lubbock hosted the Big 12 outdoor track and field championships for the first time, and at that time, Baylor had won the men's 400-meter in every Big 12 championship since 2000. Roberts put an end to that streak, running a school-record 44.86 – the fourth-fastest time in the world that year. His time was faster than those of three Olympic medalists who ran the same track only 10 days earlier. Roberts recalled it as his favorite moment competing at Texas Tech.
“It's kind of indescribable,” he said. “Obviously I felt relief and happiness that I won, but it was more than that. It let me know that I could be something special in the 400-meter in the United States and even the world. Once you start at the 44-second range, you start to separate yourself in another league. It kind of allowed me to elevate my career.
“It was a great feeling: just one of those races that turned out perfect. Everything was executed properly, and coach Kittley had me ready. I knew what I needed to do, and it was special for me because I got to share that with Texas Tech fans and everybody from Lubbock.”
In March 2012, he won a gold medal at the IAAF World Championships, running the anchor leg on the American men's 4x400-meter relay team. Just two weeks earlier, he'd won the 400-meter title at the U.S. Indoor Championships. But injuries plagued him through the late-spring outdoor season.
“He was very muscular and I think that was some of the problem with his recurring injuries – he was very inflexible, so that's what we worked on the most, trying to improve his flexibility,” Kittley said. “He was always really strong – we did get him stronger, but his strength is his greatest asset, probably – and he has really good speed. So he had speed and strength, now we had to work on his flexibility, and I think that's where we improved it the most.”
The six-time All-American, who held four of the top five school records, graduated in May 2012 with a degree in sociology, but he was already looking ahead.
Olympic trials and tribulations
In late June 2012, Roberts found himself at the Olympic trials in the 400-meter semifinal race. For the first half, he was among the leaders. But he faded in the last leg.
“He's had kind of an up-and-down career because of injuries, but when he's healthy, he is really good,” Kittley said. “He has a tendency to go way too hard. He's very aggressive. You've got to run fast but you've got to be under control, and he gets a little excited at times. He's the best I've ever had, as a coach, who can run rounds hard every time, but if you make three rounds, by that third round if you've really extended yourself in the first two, it does come back to bite you a little bit.”
Roberts finished 12th, missing out on his dream of representing the United States in the 2012 Olympics.
His journey wasn't over, though. He continued training, and two years later, in June 2014, Roberts took home the gold medal from the U.S. Track and Field Championships with a time of 44.53. He tied for the fifth-fastest time in the world for the 2014 outdoor season and set a new career-best for himself. He knew he still had a chance.
Fast forward to July 2, 2016, the semifinal 400-meter race at the Olympic trials. Charged with a false start, Roberts initially was disqualified, but he was allowed to run the race under protest.
“I was devastated for him because I thought he probably did jump; I didn't know right off the bat,” Kittley said. “But at a meet of that caliber, they have electronic starting blocks. If it's a 0.1 or less than 0.1, then they assume you guessed at the gun; they believe no human can start faster than that. He ran under protest – they allow you to do that – but I assumed he was going to get disqualified at the end of the race. But when they checked it, it was above 0.1, so they gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“The false start wasn't called because of the blocks – they have a light that goes off and says you did it – a person called it. He thought Gil timed it too good. The good thing about those blocks being electronically synchronized is it proved he didn't jump. It was close, but he got by.”
Roberts crossed the finish line second and USA Track & Field officials ruled in his favor two hours later, reinstating him in the competition.
“I was thrilled because he ran so good,” Kittley said. “He'd run the round before that so good. I knew he had a great chance to make the Olympic team, and missing that opportunity would have just been awful. I cannot imagine how he felt thinking he jumped and still having to run that race knowing he's probably disqualified. With the emotions, what's going through his head, I was so proud of him for being able to keep his composure and put it out of his mind and go for it and say, ‘whatever happens, happens.' But I'm sure he thought he was probably out.”
In the finals the next day – 11 years to the day since his first IAAF race – Roberts was the fastest out of the blocks. He set the pace and led for much of the race. Two-time Olympic gold medalist LaShawn Merritt eked out a first-place finish in 43.97 seconds, but Roberts came in second place at 44.73, punching his long-awaited ticket to the Olympic Games.
“When I came across the line, my initial thought was a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” he said. “‘Thank God, I'm going to be living my dream!' For me to be able to qualify for the United States, the hardest team in the world, it's special to me. It's only half the journey, journey's not over yet, but a lot of pressure left.
“I felt great, I'm the fastest I've been in my life and the strongest stamina-wise; I'm in great shape,” Roberts said. “I worked extremely hard to make it to the Olympics this year. I was confident in my training and all the work I've put in. I had faith in God that he would allow me to run like I knew I was capable of running.”
Since graduating from Texas Tech, Roberts has been competing professionally for Nike and training in Los Angeles.
“My coach has me do different things: sometimes 200 meters, sometimes 300 meters. It's all over the place with my workouts,” he said. “He doesn't let me get accustomed to anything. He likes to test my fitness and speed, so we switch it up quite a bit. I pretty much train every day except Sundays.”
In addition to the 400-meter, Roberts is one of six athletes who USA Track & Field could include in the four-man 4x400-meter relay. But facing the world's best athletes on its biggest stage, he said he can't focus on his competitors.
“I'm back into training, focusing and trying to figure out each phase of my race so I can go out there and give the best performance I can possibly give,” he said. “I can't get caught up in how they're running; if I run my race I should be in good shape.”
Kittley said although Roberts probably isn't picked to win, anything can happen in the Olympics.
“Our other American, Merritt, beat him fairly soundly in the trials race, so I think Merritt has a little bit up on him, but I think if Gil will pace himself better, I do think he's got a great chance of getting a medal, getting on the stand in the top three,” Kittley said.
“I'm just really proud of him. Gil's had an up-and-down career, and he has just seemed to really persevere and not let it get him down to the point that it's been destructive. That says a lot because you go through so much disappointment, it's easy to give up, and he never has had that spirit about him. I've always known he's talented and can do it, but the mindset has to be there also.”
Roberts said he can't predict how he'll feel at the moment of competition, but he's certainly thankful now.
“It's been a dream of mine my entire life,” he said. “Watching the Olympics growing up with my mother, my father and my brother, we always tuned in and watched it. It's a dream come true for me to get to go to Rio and compete for my country. Nothing is better than getting to compete for the country you love. It's way bigger than me.”
The first round of the men's 400-meter is scheduled to air at 6:20 p.m. CT Friday (Aug. 12) on NBC. The semifinals will air at 6 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 13) and the finals at 6:15 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 14).