Senior Travis Mahoney redshirts to continue his pursuit of the Olympic Trials.
Last year men’s track and field team saw its top athlete compete at the NCAA Track and Field National Championships and now is vying for a spot in the 2012 Olympic trials.
Four years ago, a senior at Old Bridge High School in central New Jersey, Travis Mahoney may not have believed this was a reality, especially in an event he had never participated in before.
“Get the heck out of here,” Mahoney said, referring to his humble beginnings in high school athletics. “I think about that sometimes. My teammates bring it up to me and are like, ‘Could you imagine that you would run like this?’ It’s insane.”
Mahoney said he has relatively exceeded expectations during his cross country and track and field career. But during his high school career, Mahoney admitted that he did not always channel his athletic abilities to their full potential.
“I was very immature in high school,” Mahoney said. “I didn’t take it that seriously. I just did it for the fun of it.”
Yet as he approached his senior year, Mahoney said he began taking his athletic career more seriously.
“At the end of my junior year, I started to run a lot better and mature,” Mahoney said. “I started to grow into my body. At the end of my junior year, I ran really well in my last race of the season. I looked back and said I want to see what I can do. I started training more seriously, and I ended up having a great senior year.”
Mahoney’s improvement caught the attention of distance coach Matt Jelley, who was familiar with Mahoney from previously coaching at rival Toms River North High School. During the recruitment process, Mahoney was drawn to Jelley’s coaching style.
“[Jelley] kind of got down on a personal level with me,” Mahoney said of Jelley. “He was very down to earth. Coming from being a high school coach, he still had that focus on the individual. A lot of times you come to college and you’re just another number, Jelley was different like that.”
Jelley was impressed by Mahoney’s competitive nature. For him, Mahoney did not stand out because of his results, but because of his ability to seemingly stay close in every race he ran.
“[Mahoney] continued to develop,” Jelley said. “The thing I liked best about him was that he didn’t win every race, but he was in it and he had this toughness and fire in him. He was killing himself trying and you can’t teach that. When I see that kind of fire in a kid, those are the things I’m looking for.”
“[Mahoney’s] a competitor,” coach Eric Mobley added. “If somebody’s close, he’s going to try and go get him. He’s tough, he’s gritty, and one of the things I really like about him is that he hates to lose.”
Immediately upon entering Temple, Mahoney made a splash in cross country, finishing first in his first meet and receiving Atlantic Ten Conference Rookie of the Week honors.
Mahoney’s real success, however, would come in the steeplechase event for track and field. The steeplechase, a 3000-meter long obstacle race where runners clear 28 barriers and seven water jumps, was something Mahoney had never done in high school.
“I had no idea it was even an event when I came to college,” Mahoney said.
Clearing obstacles while running, however, was something he got used to practicing on his own in high school.
“I would always just do loops and run around the development,” Mahoney said. “Anytime there was a trashcan or a couch out there, I would always jump over it.”
Mahoney expressed interest in running the steeplechase upon learning of the event, and displayed his ability by hurdling a park bench in Fairmount Park while training for his freshman year. After being given a spot in the event, Mahoney didn’t hold anything back.
“[Mahoney] attacked it,” Mobley said. “There wasn’t any hesitation about wanting to do it. When he jumps in to something, he’s all in.”
Mahoney continued to make headway his sophomore and junior seasons, consistently taking seconds off his time in the steeplechase. Yet he turned heads around the country at last year’s Princeton Invitational, where he finished with a time of eight minutes, 41 seconds and 66 milliseconds.
This not only broke Temple’s previous school record, but met qualifying standards for United States of America Track and Field. Championships and Olympic Trials.
With this performance, Mahoney catapulted himself to the national spotlight, despite the race being moved up an hour earlier at the last second, leaving him little time to prepare.
“My teammate runs up to me and says, ‘The steeple’s in 20 minutes,’” Mahoney said. “I had to rush back, strap on my spikes, I didn’t stretch. I had no time to do anything.”
In spite of his lack of proper preparation, Mahoney entered the race with a cool confidence.
“As you warm up, you hurdle a couple barriers before you get to the line,” Mahoney said. “I went down to hurdle a barrier and felt amazing.”
Mahoney carried his breakout success in to NCAA Regionals at Indiana University, where he set the third fastest time in the country with 8:36.10. He made it all the way to the national championship, finishing 11th and earning Second Team All-American honors. Alongside then-senior thrower Bob Keogh, Mahoney became the first All-American from Temple since 1994.
“It was nice to not only be there, but have an athlete who was going to be an All-American,” Jelley said.
Despite making such a historic run, Mahoney was disappointed by his 11th place finish in the finals. His season had been extended by six weeks due to the NCAA championships, and the affects of a longer spring took its toll when the finals rolled around.
“I felt great going in,” Mahoney said of his performance at the NCAA finals. “After three laps I was right there in third place, and then I just hit a wall. As much as I wanted it, my body was physically starting to shut down.”
Mentally and physically drained, Mahoney is redshirting his senior year in cross country to be better prepared to go farther in this spring’s track season. Not only is he hoping to possibly earn Temple a national championship, but Mahoney is also looking ahead to the Olympic trials next June. His 8:36 time will most likely gain him an invite to the trials, which takes 24 competitors around the country, but that won’t damper Mahoney’s competitive nature this season.
“I’ll probably get an invite even if I don’t run faster this year,” Mahoney said. “But of course I want to run faster.”
At the Olympic trials, Mahoney will be up against the top steeplechase runners in the nation and a higher level of competition than ever before. Considering how far he’s gotten from where he started, however, those who know Mahoney said he’ll certainly make a run at it.
“Anytime you get there you give yourself a chance,” Mobley said. “It’s going to be really tough, but [Mahoney’s] a competitor. You can’t count him out.”
Daniel Craig can be reached at email@example.com.