Leon Atkins wasn’t feeling well on May 24, but he refused to withdraw from a race that could earn him a spot in the NCAA Division I track and field championships.
The University at Buffalo middle-distance runner was determined to qualify for the national championships in the 800 meters. So determined in fact, that he dove across the finish line to edge Michael Todd of Liberty University and earn fourth in his finals heat at the NCAA East preliminaries on May 24 in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I knew that if I didn’t get top three, I’d get the fourth fastest time, and I’d probably go" to Austin, Texas, Atkins said. “I just dove at the end. It definitely could have been a huge factor for me in the race, but my legs had been shutting down on me, and I knew the guy who got fifth also could have beaten me.”
Atkins’ time of 1 minute, 49.87 seconds made him the final qualifier for the national championships.
Atkins will compete in the men’s 800, which is scheduled for 9:14 p.m. EST Wednesday, at the national championships in Austin. He is the first men’s 800 runner from UB to qualify for the national meet, and the first male runner from UB to compete in the national meet in an event other than the decathlon.
The junior also is the first individual event runner to represent the Bulls at the national championships since 2015, when Jonathan Jones competed in the shot put in the indoor and outdoor championships, Mike Morgan qualified in the outdoor decathlon and Ryan Billiam qualified in the outdoor long jump.
“I didn’t know that until Todd (Witzleben, the UB men’s track coach) told me,” said Atkins, who won the MAC indoor title in the 800 in February and finished second in the 800 in the MAC outdoor championships in May. “Going into that race, I just wanted to make it to Austin. It didn’t even hit me when I realized until a few days later, that I was the 12th guy. I did something big.
“UB is looked at as a good field events school, so it’s kind of cool to know that I’m showing the NCAA a little bit about the UB middle distance program.”
— NCAA Track & Field (@NCAATrackField) May 24, 2019
A 400-meter runner at Auburn High School, Atkins enrolled in Cayuga Community College in the fall of 2015, but he didn’t run track. At the urging of Al Wilson, his former high school track coach, the then-19-year-old Atkins began running distances with a local running club and training with middle-school aged kids.
That humbled him. But all the miles he ran prepared him to make the transition from sprinter to middle-distance runner.
“I believe my background and where I came from plays a huge factor in this,” Atkins said. “I always looked at it like a gift. I know what it’s like to be on the bottom and feel like you’re not doing much, and then coming here, I always think back to where I came from, every time I go into my races. I think, ‘We could stay here or move forward.’ I’m always moving forward.”
The 800, he explained, can be a tactical race.
“The first lap of the 800 is a cruise, so it doesn’t feel like a race,” Atkins said. “Once you get to the 600-meter mark, that’s when it feels like a race. Having that leg speed from the 400 helps me, tremendously.”
At the national championships in Austin, Atkins will run in the first heat of the 800 against two runners who placed in the event at the 2018 national championships: Bryce Hoppel of Kansas, who was fourth in 2018 and has the nation’s fastest qualifying time of 1:46.09; and Devin Dixon of Texas A&M, who was fifth in 2018 and has the second-fastest qualifying time of 1:46.16.
The top two finishers from each of the three heats and the next two with the best times qualify for the final on Friday.
“I’m trying to stay relaxed, and I’m trying not to think about things too much,” Atkins said. “I’ll tell myself, ‘I’m here, and I’m one of the best in the country.' Everyone had to run in these races I competed in, and that day was my day. Going to Austin, I feel that I should be one of the best, and I want to prove to myself and to the NCAA that I can compete with the best.”