(Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
Freshman Shaquille Walker and BYU signee Tanner Sork will compete in the first round of the 800 meters at the IAAF World Junior Championships on Friday in Barcelona, Spain. The race is scheduled for 12:20 p.m. in Barcelona (4:20 a.m. MT).
For more on Walker, read: BYU freshman wins 800 meters at USA Junior Championships, by Jared Houghton of the Universe.
Prior to coming to BYU, freshman Shaquille Walker had never traveled outside the United States. This week he will represent the United States at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona, Spain, in the 800 meters and later this summer he’ll turn in his track spikes and begin a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Manchester, England.
Just a year ago, neither trip was on Walker’s itinerary. He was expecting to keep himself firmly planted in his home land. But plans have a way of changing.
Committing to BYU, conversion and deciding to serve
A native of Richmond, Ga., Walker did not know much about BYU or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days before he met a few members of the Church in high school.
“There were only three LDS kids at my school,” Walker said. “One of them, a girl, was the kicker on the football team. I became good friends with her and her family and I started going to church with them.”
After a strong track season as a junior, Walker began considering the possibility of running collegiately. His LDS friends encouraged him to consider BYU, which he did the fall of his senior year.
“I took a visit because I trust them so much and out of all of my visits, I liked it the best,” Walker explained. “I committed to come here (to BYU) but at the time I had no intentions of ever getting baptized.”
Those plans soon changed. He developed a strong desire to learn more about the gospel so he attended church and went to early morning seminary on Fridays “because they had breakfast.”
“I started learning a lot about it and realized it was a whole world I knew nothing about,” Walker said. “I wanted to learn more about it and the more I learned the more I felt like it was true.”
This process continued throughout his senior year of high school and his intentions of never getting baptized changed with the seasons.
“There was a day (in the spring) I was supposed to be doing a project for school but for some reason I had this urge to read the Book of Mormon so I went upstairs to read,” Walker said. “It was kind of the night where I had this realization, like a flashing light. I realized, ‘Okay, this is right.’ I called the missionaries the next day and a couple of weeks later (on April 10, 2011) I was baptized.”
Walker’s path to serving a mission parallels his path to baptism. When he was first introduced to the church, he liked the idea of going to BYU but never intended to be baptized. After he was baptized, he told himself that he wasn’t going to serve a mission.
“I felt like ‘there’s no way I’ll be ready.’ I had all these excuses.”
Before coming to BYU in the fall, Walker went on a weeklong hike on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina with other youth from church. He credits a recently returned missionary with helping cultivate his desire to serve.
“He explained how he was so glad he could help so many people and how it helped him and blessed his family,” Walker said. “Just listening to him it, sounded more and more like something I wanted to do. I had never prayed about it because I think I knew what the answer would be. Finally I put my pride aside and realized that it was something that I not only needed to do but something that I wanted to do.”
As the only member of his family, Walker is a true pioneer.
“They (his parents) weren’t very excited about me going on a mission at all at first until they found out it was England. They don’t really know what a mission entails — I don’t completely know — but just because it’s England they look at as more of a vacation so they’re okay with it now.”
Success on the track and punching a ticket to London
As a member of the track team, Walker was quickly able to find a group of friends to help his adjust to life as a freshman at BYU. Adapting to the level of training and the altitude was another matter.
“(Being on the track team) made everything a lot easier. It was a pretty smooth transition,” Walker said. “The toughest part was probably the running. I remember my first day here I had to go on a four mile run. I had to quit and walk the rest of the way home after about 18 minutes. I only got two and a half miles in my first run here. It was a really hard. After a couple of weeks I got used to it.”
Not only did Walker adapt, but he thrived on the track during the indoor season. In his first 800 meter race as a collegiate runner (at the University of Washington Invitational in Seattle), he set a personal record, and did so while beating Lopez Lomong, the flag bearer for the United States at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Walker kept pace with Lomong, a specialist in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, during a slow first lap. No one was on pace to break 1:50.00 but Walker picked sped up and passed Lomong with 200 meters to go and finished in 1:49.99.
“I beat an Olympian in the race and went under 1:50 for the first time,” Walker said. “I was ecstatic. That’s the first time I knew that all the training was paying off.”
It was at that time Walker began considering his chances to qualify for the World Junior Championships in Barcelona.
“I started looking it up and found out I was young enough. After the indoor season I was seeded fourth and was really excited.”
Walker posted two more sub 1:50.00 times during the indoor season and at the MPSF Championships he ran the 800 meter leg of BYU’s distance medley relay team that won the title and set a school record with a time of 9:29.00. He also ran in the 800 meters and took fifth with a time of 1:49.85.
As well as the indoor season had gone, Walker was met with challenges during the outdoor season. After posting times of 1:50.17 and 1:49.84 in his first outdoor races, Walker began to struggle as his times got progressively slower before bottoming out at 1:54.04.
With his confidence low and his excitement for Worlds waning, Walker got the boost he needed by competing on BYU’s 4x400 team at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. He ran the anchor leg for the Cougars and clocked a split of 45.6, nearly two seconds better than his previous personal best in a relay and helped the squad earn second-team All-America honors.
“After Nationals I realized I was more fit than I thought and I rededicated to training for juniors.”
To qualify for the World Championships, Walker had to finish in the top two at the USA Junior Championships in Bloomington, Ind. Seeded eighth prior to the meet, Walker won the third and final heat in the preliminary round with a time of 1:50.97, the second-best time of the day, to automatically advance to the final.
Walker was joined in the final by Tanner Sork, a BYU signee who will compete for the Cougars in 2013. Sork had won the first heat in 1:52.09. Despite feeling sore from the previous day’s race, Walker was able to set the pace in the first lap and pull ahead with 200 meters to go for the win and a personal record of 1:49.39.
“The race started out slow the first 400 so it turned into a kickers race. It came down to who had the most 400 speed. The confidence I gained from Nationals (as a member of the 4x400 meter relay) was definitely playing in my head the last 200 meters.”
Sork also ran strong, moving up from fourth to second on the final straightaway to qualify for the World Junior Championships.
Walker and Sork will compete in the preliminary round of the 800 meters on Friday in Barcelona. The semifinals and final will be held on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Twelve months ago, Walker was not considering a mission and did not think competing in Barcelona would even be an option. Through hard work, inspiration and prayer, Walker is now a world traveler.