Have you ever flown standby? It’s the gambler’s way to travel. On the serendipitous chance that your name is called, you rejoice, grateful that fate has delivered a boarding pass. Otherwise, you linger in purgatory, nervously waiting in limbo, never knowing if your chance will arise.
Wil London knows all about it.
We’re not talking about air travel here, actually. London’s plane ticket is booked. He’ll leave for Tokyo next Saturday as a member of the United States track and field team for the Summer Olympics. He’s on the team. That much he knows.
What he doesn’t know is if he’ll get the chance to get on the track.
Most of the time, an Olympian is assured that he or she will at least receive the opportunity to compete. Medals are never guaranteed. They realize that. But they give it their best shot.
London’s situation is different. He has been selected for Team USA as part of the relay pool for either the men’s or the mixed (co-ed) 4x400 relay. He’s listed as an alternate on the team. He might run, he might not. That’s not exactly the ideal place to be.
But London, 23, is poised to spring into action should he get the call.
“Whatever happens, I’m ready to go. They know I’m ready to go,” he said. “Everything is a possibility. I just wanted to go out there and keep running. Just make sure they keep an eye on me, but also make sure I keep myself in high spirits. I know if I still go out there and win and run fast, if the opportunity comes, mentally I’ll be ready.”
Let’s flip a few pages back in time to the Olympic Trials. London, the former star sprinter at Waco High School and Baylor University, certainly had an opportunity to make the Olympics as an individual qualifier in the 400 meters. He had some things work against him, most notably an unfavorable lane assignment for the final, in lane 9. But he still had a chance.
Ultimately, London finished eighth in the final, in a nothing-to-be-ashamed-about time of 45 seconds flat, just 0.26 seconds behind the final qualifying finisher.
Making the Olympics is what you work for, what you dream about. To fall short hurts.
Then later that night, London received word that he would be included in the relay group. He felt as though his stomach was bouncing on a bungee cord.
“It was probably the most stressful week of my life,” London said. “That right there was the hardest week of my life mentally, not really physically, but mentally. It was just all over the place. One moment you’re great, the next moment you’re not feeling too well.”
London entered the final with the fourth-best clocking after the semifinal rounds. He and his coaches — Clyde Hart, Kenneth Wiethorn and his father Wilbert — assumed that he might end up in something like Lane 3 or Lane 7.
The announcement came and he got Lane 8, but a redraw the day of the race placed London in Lane 9. (U.S. officials used lanes 2-9 for the final on Oregon’s Hayward Field nine-lane track.) For any sprinter, the far inside and far outside lanes are not preferred destinations. In the case of Lane 9, it means you have to set the pace — and keep it — without having a rabbit to chase.
“It’s very hard, because you’re running blind,” London said. “You don’t really see anybody until toward the end. If you see somebody at the beginning of your race, that means you’re already behind, you’re already losing. It was tough. I think it was more frustrating because I had auto-qualified and had one of the fastest times, but I still had the worst lane, besides Lane 2.”
Hart has coached many of the greatest quarter-milers ever to slip into a singlet, including Olympic gold medalists Michael Johnson, Jeremy Wariner and Darold Williamson. He felt like London got a raw deal.
“You’re going to do that on the circuit. The new guy has to earn his way,” Hart said. “Michael had to earn his way, and then once he got established he always had his choice of lane four or five. But can you imagine putting lane eight as a preferred lane, which put a fast guy right inside of him? … If Wil could have seen somebody, Wil’s the kind of kid where he’s going to beat (them).”
Of course, you’ve got to run fast and execute your race no matter what lane you get. London once qualified for the World Championships running out of Lane 1. He still had a chance to make the team in the open 400 — it just didn’t happen. He doesn’t make excuses, and acknowledges that the top three finishers in the race, Michael Norman, Michael Cherry and Randolph Ross, all deserved their due.
“I was running against great athletes,” London said. “That time, the better men won. Better people won that day. It doesn’t make me any less of an athlete or any less of a runner than those guys. It just wasn’t my day that day. I’ve got to take it and learn from it and run with it.”
That type of humility and mature perspective was passed down from London’s parents. This is nothing new. He’s been working and learning and sweating and improving his whole life, and then going through the process all over again.
London, then known as “Little Wil,” won his first 400 race against his cousin at age 9, and he’s been chasing down fierce challengers ever since. He won a slew of medals in the Texas Amateur Athletic Federation’s Games of Texas as a teenager. At Waco High, he finished as the 400 state runner-up as a senior in Class 5A, then the state’s biggest classification. He took part in the Junior Olympics, the Down Under Games in Australia and the IAAF Under-20 World Championships. At Baylor, he swept the Big 12 title four years running.
He has twice qualified for Team USA for the World Championships.
And now he’s an Olympian. From Waco to the world. In fact, London is believed to be the first Waco native ever to make an Olympic team.
“It’s a great opportunity. It’s a great eye opener for me to be possibly the first Olympian from Waco,” London said. “One thing I can tell you – I’m the first one, but I also did it without ever leaving Waco. Being Team Waco, running Team Waco, went to Tennyson and ran track for my middle school, went to Waco High and ran track at Waco High. Stayed here in college and ran track at Baylor.
“Then stayed here for the beginning of my professional career and made the Olympic team. I’ve done everything and never left the city. That’s one of those things I can say that I’ve done. No disrespect or taking away from the greats who did anything in their sport and leaving Waco to do it, because everybody has a job to do. But I can honestly say that I did mine and didn’t have to leave. “
Hart believes London has established himself as the ideal leadoff relay runner based on past performances at the World Championships. In 2019, London teamed with Cherry, Allyson Felix and Courtney Okolo to set the world record for the mixed 4x400 relay in Doha, Qatar. They clocked 3:09.34.
In essence, this is London’s rookie professional season. That’s the way he is viewing it anyway. He wrapped up his All-America career at Baylor in 2019, but raced in only two indoor meets and no outdoor competitions in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Since the Trials, London has given the Team USA coaches even more to consider. He traveled to Stockholm and clocked a season-best time of 44.86, then raced in another meet in Atlanta and won on July 9, putting down a time of 45.08 in less-than-pristine weather conditions.
London realizes he still has much to learn. He intends to keep competing in 2021 beyond the Olympics. As he trains for next year’s World Championships, he plans to work out in every lane on the track, just so he’ll be ready for any assignment. Lesson learned, you know?
For now, he sits in the waiting room. It’s nice to receive a Team USA uniform. It’ll be even nicer if he gets a chance to show it off.
“Going to Tokyo and if I don’t run, that’s going to leave a bad taste in my mouth as far as being hungry and being a competitor,” London said. “I want to run. If I don’t get to run, I think that’s going to fuel the fire to want to go harder next year for worlds and so on and so on.”