Spikes20 Nov 2019

The Way Out


Vernon Norwood at the Seiko Grand Prix (© Getty Images)

by Vernon Norwood

Where I grew up, only a small percentage of people make it out.

It’s probably the roughest, most notorious part of New Orleans: there are guys who can vouch for me on that, who could tell you all about how I came up and where I come from. When I go back there these days, people tell me I’m a neighbourhood hero. They say guys look up to me and that I paved the way for others because I made it out.

I was in a very rough place, but track and field was my way out.

Growing up, I was one of the worst persons. I have no problem admitting it. There are things that I’ve done that I’m not proud of, a lot of bad things, but if people saw me at my worst and then saw me now, they’d see how I changed my life.

As a teenager, I loved to do things like fighting, criminal activity. Stuff like that excited me when I was young. I was living with no conscience. I didn’t care about any type of consequences during those days.

It happened, and people can judge me for it if they want, but it is what it is. I don’t judge others because everyone has done something in the past. All I can ask is for God to forgive me so I can clean my spirit.

I was the youngest of three older brothers, and what helped me in the end was I learned from their mistakes. It opened my eyes quicker than what they had to see. I knew there was much more to life than the stuff I was doing.

I grew up rough, having to get things on my own. I’d try any way possible just to have it.

I know what it’s like to skip a meal, too. Many times, as a kid, I didn’t eat until 11pm at night.

You know how people say they’re ’fasting’? That they’re going to just have coffee instead of a meal? We didn’t call that fasting, we called that starving.

The things I’ve been around, the stuff I’ve been exposed to at a young age, people can feel traumatic about. But I look back at it now as a blessing. I don’t let it define me. It's a reason I stay humble: no matter where I go, I'll always know where I came from. 

Vernon Norwood at the Seiko Grand Prix

It’s useful when it comes to track and field, where some athletes complain about everything. There are guys who had everything growing up, who still have more opportunities than many can dream about, but they make so many excuses.

Then you see people with nothing and they make it happen in this sport: athletes with no sponsors, people with jobs. They do it because it’s what they love to do.

Later on in life, when I have kids, I know I’ll raise them not to complain. Being in the situation I was in, you realise quickly there’s somebody out there in this world worse than you, so you need to get on it and stop making excuses.

I always tell people: I didn’t choose track and field. It chose me.

In Louisiana, it’s mostly football and baseball that people do so track and field is a small sport. It was only in my junior year of high school that I first knew I had a talent for it. I was playing basketball at the time, but one day the football coach noticed my speed and tried to get me to take up football. I told him it wasn’t for me, so he told me I should run track.

The next year I finished third at my state meet over 400m, running 46-something, but I was disqualified after stepping on the line.

That meet was hosted by Louisiana State University and, because my result was wiped, they were the only big college to take notice of my performance. I went to junior college the next year at South Plains and ran 45.72 for 400m, which got a lot of attention elsewhere, but by then my heart was already at LSU.

Vernon Norwood competing at the 2015 USATF championships

I enrolled there in 2013 and it’s where I’ve been based ever since, long after I turned pro in 2015. My coach, Dennis Shaver, is a great guy, probably the best I’ve ever put in my corner. He’s there to listen, to help.

We have a good time, we get things done but he knows how serious I am when I come to training. I want to get better, to progress, not just as an athlete, but as a person.

Louisiana is unlike anywhere else in the country. There’s a vibe you get from people when you meet them: you can feel like you’ve known them for years. You get the most respectful people and also the most ignorant people, but the ones I always think of are the first group.

My Mom lives about an hour away from me, so I try to see her as much as I can. She always wants me to stay focused, to do as much as I can to help provide for my family. She is so proud when I achieve big things, and nobody can brag as much as my Momma. But she can do whatever she wants – she’s earned that right.

My races don’t always go to plan, but as I get older I’m learning to look at the small victories no matter the outcome. Sure, you might have run faster, but if you walk away healthy, with an opportunity most people didn’t have, and the opportunity to do it again, that’s something to savour. Track and field is all about the long game.

Every time I step on the track, I always feel like I’ve already won. If I never chose this direction in life, I have no idea what I would have become, so no matter the result I step away with my pride, my dignity. Track and field is one of the best things to happen to my life.

When I look back, I don’t think there’s anything I would do differently.

People might be surprised by that because there’s lots I’m not proud of, and without a doubt, there were times when I should have surrounded myself with better people. But I don’t think it would have worked out any better if I went back and changed all that.

I always had an idea of what I would do and I never wanted to do what others did. The path I took is what made me, what got me here. And, honestly, I don’t think I could be in any better place than I am right now.

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