June 7, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
ven though Mohammed Ahmed is redshirting and of no physical help to the Wisconsin men’s track team at the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Championships, Ahmed is spiritually impacting one of his teammates.
“We’re not together per se in terms of competing, but we’re still together,’’ said Maverick Darling. “I’ve learned a lot about getting to that next level from Mohammed over the last year.’’
In preparing for Saturday’s 5000 meters final -- which also includes teammate and Big Ten runner-up Reed Connor -- Darling has been inspired by the example that Ahmed has set as a 2012 Canadian Olympian and a five-time track All-American with the Badgers.
“He’s a very good resource, a great guy; we’re brothers,’’ said Darling, a senior from Ovid, Mich. “Understanding that it takes an extra step, it takes extra drive, I see the determination that he has.’’
And he has been feeding off it.
“I think it’s a mindset,’’ said Darling, the 2013 Big Ten outdoor champion in the 10,000 meters and indoor champ in the 3000; his first two conference titles after four runner-up finishes at Big Ten meets.
“I’m in the best shape of my life right now,’’ he went on. “I’m in a good spot -- ready to race a big race. I definitely think we’re peaking at the right time and I’m excited where things are.’’
Two years ago, Darling earned second-team All-America recognition by finishing 14th in the 10K at the NCAA outdoor meet. Last spring was frustratingly unproductive because he wasn’t healthy.
On not qualifying for nationals in 2012, he said, “Last year was just a lot different than this year. It has been great being one of the guys competing in big races again. It’s nice to get back to that level.’’
Now that he has returned to the NCAA stage, Darling believes the experience that he gained from his 2011 exposure to nationals boils down to “knowing what you’re getting yourself into.’’
|“I’m in the best shape of my life right now,’’ Darling said. “I’m in a good spot, ready to race a big race. I definitely think we’re peaking at the right time and I’m excited where things are.’’
Beyond that, he said, “It’s understanding the competition.’’
Ahmed took seventh place in the 5K last year, which speaks to the event and the depth of the NCAA field.
“At this physical level, most of the people are even,’’ Darling said. “Obviously you have some guys that are much better. But you have to be open-minded that anything could happen.’’
You also have to careful in your approach. “Especially when you’re not doing school at this time of the year,’’ he said, “you don’t have the side distractions and the guys can kind of over-think things.’’
The predominant thinking in Eugene is that Arkansas and Wisconsin are vying for the same prize -- Program of the Year -- an award that encompasses results from cross country and indoor and outdoor track.
Darling has been thinking that way, too.
“It’s a testament to see how far this program has come in the last four or five years,’’ he said. “We’ve had some down periods where we weren’t even competing for Big Ten championships.
“Now, we’re winning Big Ten championships and we’re going for podium spots and getting Program of the Year consideration. It says, ‘Hey, we’re not just a distance program anymore.’’’
The Badgers are so much more. “We’ve got great throwers,’’ he continued. “We’ve got great heptathletes. We’ve got the whole mix and, to me, that shows the quality and depth of your program.’’
It’s a key distinction, according to Darling, a two-time All-American in cross country who helped the Badgers win the national title in 2011. “We’re not just a cross country team,’’ he said, “we’re a track team as well, and that’s something to be proud of.’’
Since his redshirt season in 2008-09, he has been shaping a realistic, rounded vision. “It’s been a process, a journey,’’ he said. “It has been pretty cool to be a part of it and watch it grow as it happens.’’
As far as doing the math on catching Arkansas -- the Badgers need to finish within five places of the Hogs -- Darling said, “You can sit there and add up the points, but that’s not the way meets go.’’
Instead, he suggested, “You just have to go out there and focus on your event. Each person does their own thing. Go do what you can do and that’s all the team can ask from anyone.’’
But he agreed that there’s a unique element to this type of competition.
|Darling and Ahmed ran together en route to All-America performances that powered the Badgers to a third-place finish at the NCAA indoor championships in March. Even though Ahmed is redshirting the outdoor season, the teammates continue to train together.
“It’s a team sport, but it also has the individual aspect,’’ he said. “You can be successful in both. That’s a great feeling when you’re an All-American or whatever and we bring home another trophy.’’
Darling is not alone with these thoughts. “These guys know what’s at stake,’’ he said of his UW teammates. “We’ll do what we can do and if we beat Arkansas, then we beat Arkansas.’’
From this perspective, he’s not over-thinking it. On the contrary, he contended, “It’s a no-pressure situation. Just go out there and do your thing.’’
Have fun, he insisted. It’s part of his motivation. What else drives Darling?
“The desire to get better -- to be a better athlete -- and lower your times,’’ he said. “I’m always thinking about that; always thinking about that next step, Olympic teams, world championship teams.’’
By doing so, he admitted that he has raised the bar by establishing very high and hard goals. “They’re not easy,’’ he said. “But getting to that next level always drives me to run faster.’’
To this end, two years removed from nationals, he has certain expectations for Eugene.
“Top four or five would be a great day for me, especially how loaded the 5K field is,’’ he said. “It’s a realistic goal, a very good goal. I’m really hoping to be in that mix.’’
He has Mo on his side; momentum and Mohammed.