Steven Solomon's record-breaking 400-meter run in Melbourne on Saturday was satisfying on many levels for both Solomon and Stanford associate head coach Jody Stewart.
In his first meet in his home country in two years, Solomon blasted to a 45.36, winning by nearly a second and shattering a Stanford record that stood since 1994. Solomon earned a spot on Australia's team for the Commonwealth Games.
"He's ecstatic," Stewart said. "And we're excited for him."
Wearing his Stanford uniform, the sophomore broke the Stanford mark of 45.85 by Rene Rodriguez. It also was the fifth-fastest outdoor time in the world this year, and superior to any time by an American.
There are several reasons to be excited.
No. 1: He's back.
Solomon hadn't approached the 44.97 he ran at the 2012 London Olympics, until now. After suffering from a back injury early last year, it truly was a miracle for Solomon to recover enough to run third at the Pac-12 Championships and reach the final of the World Championships in Moscow as the leadoff in Australia's 4x400 relay in the same year. But it's taken this long to fully regain the strength and speed.
No. 2: The training program is paying off.
The back is healed and the training program is on full throttle. However, Solomon's schedule is tricky. While Stanford athletes hope to reach the NCAA Championships in June, Solomon annually has international goals -- the Olympics in 2016, the World Championships in 2015, and the Commonwealth Games this year.
The plan is to strike a balance between Solomon's international needs and Stanford's. This causes tricky questions, such as when to peak and when not to, because their important meets for each are months apart. Stewart had to get a little creative.
For the NCAA Indoor Championships, Solomon ran only the distance medley relay -- and did it very well. His 400 leg, which sometimes is overlooked in comparison to the longer distances on the relay, was pivotal to Stanford's victory. Solomon took the baton in second, but raced into the lead and extended it all the way through. His split was 45.75 on the 200-meter banked track, not an ideal path for his tall frame, but more than a second faster than everyone else in the field and two seconds faster than all but three.
The NCAA Indoors was the first goal in a small taper that extended to the Aussie nationals.
"I give him a lot of credit," Stewart said. "It shows a lot of maturity because he stayed patient throughout the process. It wasn't about peaking at the NCAA's. For him, the goal was to race at Commonwealths, and the major part was winning that national championship meet. He went out there and achieved that."
The goal was to expend as little energy as possible during the first two rounds, and unleash it all in the final. He was able to do that with winning runs of 47.59 in the first round and 46.78 in the semifinal.
"I'm really pleased with how the Championships played out," wrote Solomon in an e-mail shortly after the competition. "I was meticulous in my recovery between rounds and I think that played a key role in my success in the final.
"I felt great during all three races. The heats were fairly relaxed -- I was able to get out well over the first 200 meters of the race and then relax the top bend and the final straight. The semifinal played out in a similar fashion -- an aggressive first 200 allowed me to make up the stagger quite early, and then run a controlled and relaxed race."
The final was one of those races that every runner dreams about with all the training and experience bursting forth in a coalescence of energy and strength and confidence.
"The final was a great run and one that I am particularly proud of," Solomon wrote. "Coach Stewart has instilled in me throughout the indoor season the importance of being aggressive over the first 100 meters of the race, and I think that advice paid dividends over the weekend and particularly in the final.
"I was able to get out hard and relax down the back straight, before hitting an atrocious head wind on the top curve that persisted all the way through to the finish line. Winds were recorded as -4.4 for the women's 100 final a few races before my final and I certainly felt all that wind coming home.
"Something coach Stewart and I have been working on both on the track and in the weight room with (performance coach) Allison Ledesma is my ability to maintain good torso positioning throughout my running. The wind certainly added a challenge to that, but maybe a good one as it certainly made me pay conscious attention to it."
"The conditions on a whole were not ideal -- with the large head winds and mild/cold temperatures, but I always race the conditions at hand and was happy with my ability to control the races in the fashion that I did."
On the other side of the Atlantic, Stewart kept in touch with Solomon's progress over the course of the meet through e-mail. The results cemented the notion that they are on the right track.
"Right now, he's on pace to run sub-45," Stewart said of a standard that Solomon achieved in the Olympic semifinals with a personal best 44.97.
To get there will require a training and meet schedule that doesn't push him too hard at the wrong times.
"It's making sure that we keep in mind that he could be racing all the way until August," Stewart said. "The exciting part is he's healthy, he's feeling good, and he's racing well."
Solomon is going dial it down this week before running the 400 and 4x400 relay at Saturday's Big Meet in Berkeley. After that, he won't compete for two weeks before beginning his next phase of his competition by running the DMR at the Penn Relays. Thus begins the buildup for the NCAA's on June 11-14 and the Commonwealth Games, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, July 23-Aug. 3.
"Running 45.36 is a fantastic way to start my outdoor season," Solomon wrote. "And I'm greatly looking forward to my return to continue pushing on with training and preparing the body to be in the best position to be successful come the championship season."
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