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August 1, 2017

Drew Windle brings small-school pride to the world stage

It was the final searing hot day of the USATF championships in June and one lap into the 800, Drew Windle, kitted out in Brooks Beasts neon and sporting a mullet-ish mohawk, found himself running dead last in his first outdoor final. But in a bunched up, tactical race, last place wasn’t that far from first. Windle had the entire field laid out in front of him and a trip to the world championships still within reach.

Windle waited and watched Donovan Brazier push away from the field with a world-class surge. One spot gone. He watched veteran Eric Sowinsky chase Brazier, then start to tie up, while Isaiah Harris started charging. That was the move. With about 150 meters to go, Windle covered Harris’ acceleration and flew into an all-out attack in the final straight. He hit the line ahead of Sowinski and behind Harris, snagging the last ticket to London.  

Windle’s race at USA’s represents a big leap forward for an athlete whose career has been defined by methodical progression. He maximized his opportunities in a collegiate program with limited financial resources and ran just fast enough to sign a pro deal with the Brooks Beasts, one the embattled underdogs among elite clubs in the U.S. Now, he’s in the finals days of preparation before the preliminary round of the 800 begins on Saturday, hoping to find his way into the final at his first global championship.

He is at the core of a new generation of dominant American middle distance talent, headed up by bronze medalist Clayton Murphy and closely followed by young phenoms Donovan Brazier and Isaiah Harris. But Windle’s path to the elite echelon of half-miling looks a little bit different from anyone else’s in that group. Despite dominating championship races at the Division II level, Windle entered the professional ranks with a lot left to prove. His performance at USA’s immediately cemented his legacy as a D-II hero and a symbol of hope for small-school athletes trying to grind seconds off their PR’s.

In that final, Windle exhibited the patience that has defined his career. When he showed up at Ashland University, a small D-II school just up the road from his hometown of New Albany, Ohio, he was fresh off a five-second PR in the 800 in his final high school race. From the start, Trent Mack, a young assistant coach at Ashland, focused on a slow, steady progression for Windle.

“I was able to just take a very patient approach in training and I think being able to take that patient approach allowed me to not grow too quickly as an athlete,” Windle says.

drew windle us championships

A lot of Division I guys are pushed to run fast early, increasing the likelihood of getting hurt and burning out. By his sophomore season, Windle and his coaches could go into races with confidence, trusting that “As long as I’m on the starting line healthy, it’s going to be tough to beat me,” he says. It’s a formula that works and he has eight national championships, including six in the 800 to show for it.

Just as he started to outpace his competition at the D-II level, he was confronted with the stark reality that his opportunities run against elite competition would be few and far between. Ashland’s limited travel budget meant that Windle skipped big invites for nearby meets against Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference competition.

As a junior in 2014, he soloed his PR, a 1:46.5 at a meet hosted by Grand Valley State. It stood as the fastest time in the NCAA for about 13 hours, before Edward Kemboi ran 1:45.9 at Iowa State. Windle’s 1:46 remained the second fastest time in the NCAA that season.

Beside the Raleigh Relays and the Millrose Games 1,000m in 2015, Windle’s big meet opportunities remained somewhat limited. He never got to run at any of the Stanford meets or Mt. SAC during his collegiate career.

His stout marks coming out of a Division II program were enough to get the attention of Danny Mackey and the Brooks Beasts. Windle met Mackey at a couple of meets when he was still running for Ashland. He was taken by the attitude exhibited by the Brooks squad.

“I remember telling my mom, if I ever get the opportunity to go pro, this is where I want to end up,” Windle says.

He got that opportunity and signed shortly after finishing his career at Ashland. He packed up and moved from Ohio to Seattle to join fellow non-Division-I 800-meter stud Nick Symmonds.

“I get so sick and tired of hearing people say they need to go D-I to run fast. Drew and I are perfect examples of why that’s just not true,” Symmonds says.

Symmonds quickly recognized the potential in Windle. There was a steady work ethic, an engine that can handle longer-distance training and a taste for winning, which Symmonds knows well.

“Drew’s a winner, he’s a championship runner, and that’s why I get excited about watching him race,” he says. In their brief time together, Windle stood out among all of Symmonds’s training partners in his 20-year career. Former Oregon Track Club teammate Tyler Mulder was another one of his favorites.

In his first year as a pro, Windle found himself with one of the top five times in the country headed into the Olympic trials, but he crashed out in the semifinals. During the 2016-17 indoor season, he was waitlisted for big meets and didn’t get in to most of them. He opted to race at meets like the Husky Classic in Seattle, starting to wonder if he belonged in the pro ranks.

“I went from winning everything to being in this environment where everyone was at least as good as I am,” Windle says.

He turned things around with a solid showing in the 1K indoor at USA’s. Early in the outdoor season, at the Georgia Meet of Champions, he nabbed a PR in the 800, holding off his Beasts teammate Shaq Walker as well as Eric Sowinski.

In the first round at USA’s, Windle toed the starting line alongside Nick Symmonds for the first time, in what would be Symmonds’ final appearance on the track in a US championship. It was a meaningful moment for both of them. Windle found Symmonds before the race and told him he’d always wanted to race him head-to-head.

Windle ran a clean, evenly split race to advance. The semifinal demanded a push in the final stretch, but it was clear Windle was in good enough shape to close races well.

Going into the final, he hoped to channel Symmonds and pull off a tactical come-from-behind race. Symmonds says that Windle has proven he has the ability to run within himself and even-split a race when the field goes out hot.

“If you watch Nick race, he had this way of controlling the race from behind, which is a really hard thing to do,” Windle says. “I don’t think I’ve done that, but it’s something I aspire to. I want in that last 200 for everybody to have it in their heads that I’m still back there and making my way to the front.”

drew windle photo

After watching Johnny Gregorek run a patient race to grab the last spot on the 1500-meter team, Windle’s plan was solidified. He found a quiet corner and said to himself, aloud: Let everyone else mess up, and take advantage of those mistakes. 

“If I can be the last person who’s still hunting, then I like my chances,” he recalled.

He would hunt down everyone in the race except Harris and Brazier but that was enough.  

Windle wants to see all three Americans in the world championship final, but thinks it might take better than a 1:44.6 to get there. He takes a lot of pride in representing the Beasts at Worlds and he hopes to see more of his training partners on the next American team headed to a global championship.

“We’re kind of this underdog, rag-tag group of guys and gals just trying to make big things happen,” Windle says.

He pointed out that, with the exception of new signee Henry Wynne, the club doesn’t include any Division I national champions. It’s also a young group. Aside from veterans Garrett Heath and Katie Mackey, no one on the team is older than 25.

He’s also taking on the role as a resource for athletes making their way out of the lower divisions to try to go pro. He’s been in contact with 800-meter standouts Emily Richards from Ohio Northern and Carsyn Koch from Cedarville, as well as Western Oregon’s David Ribich.

“It’s this big, stressful thing when you’re coming from a smaller school because you don’t know people and your coaches don’t know people. You don’t know pro coaches or agents,” he says. “It’s daunting, and it doesn’t have to be.”

The USA kit does a good job hiding the Division II brand, but for small-school athletes around the country, Windle represents the possibilities afforded by consistency and hard work. From his first season at Ashland to now, he’s been able to cut a second per year from his PR. Those same athletes will certainly be watching when Windle takes to the track on Saturday, taking the first swing at punching even further above his weight.

“He’s just a humble Midwest kid. He’s not going to let one great race get to his head,” Symmonds says. “If he continues to progress the way he has, he has a great shot at making that team [for Tokyo].”

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