MONMOUTH - Derek Holdsworth might be a new face on Western Oregon University’s track and field team, but he’s already establishing himself as someone to watch for.
On Feb. 1, he secured a first-place finish in the 800-meters race at the University of Washington indoor track and field meet, claiming the gold in 1:47.74. Not only did he set a new indoor record for WOU, Holdsworth also set a Great Northwest Athletic Conference record. Additionally, Holdsworth was the only Division II runner to finish the race in the top 10.
“I sat where I thought I belonged, and when I felt ready to move, I moved, and I did it with conviction,” Holdsworth said of his race. “Before, I would get scared and nervous that I wouldn’t make it to the finish line if I move early, and I would wait until the last 100-meters to do something. This time, I moved at 250 meters, got where I needed to be and really pressed, and I remember coming down the straightaway, and you can see the clock on the side, and I’m getting closer and closer and I’m seeing 1:44, 1:45, and I was like, ‘what am I about to run?’ I was so surprised.”
Getting to this point has been anything but conventional for Holdsworth.
“I wasn’t really good when I first started,” he said, chuckling.
He picked up the sport as a freshman in high school in WIlliamsburg, Virginia, initially to get in shape for football.
“I was really bad my freshman year — I ran 69 seconds in the 400-meter race. And, during meets, people were leaving, like I was the last leg of the 4x400-meter relay, and the meet was over and I was still finishing. That’s how bad I was.”
Through the course of a few bad races, Holdworth said he realized one thing: “I hated losing. So, coming into the outdoor season, I had a whole different attitude toward training. I started doing stuff with a purpose.”
That’s when he began to see his numbers drop from 69 to 53 seconds — until he broke his hip in the 400 in April of his freshman year, mere months after getting into the sport.
“I came off the first curve and it just snapped and I had no clue what it was, so I just kept going,” Holdsworth said. “I felt like I went out super hard, but it felt like I was just stuck in second gear.”
After the race, he knew something was wrong.
“It hurt so bad,” he said.
Holdsworth was forced to take two months off from running, but as soon as he could get back into athletics, he did.
“I was debating cross-country or football, and I like the speed aspect of football, but I thought I should probably do cross-country and get strong,” he said. “And so that summer, I started distance running and that was hard. I was not very good at that either at first.”
Holdsworth went on to clinch a top-seven spot in cross-country, win state in the 500-meter race his sophomore year and started running the 800-meter race.
“I ran 2:04 the first time, then by the end of it the year I had gotten down to 1:55,” he said.
His junior year, he ran the 800 in 1:48.
After graduating high school, Holdsworth took three years off before attending a junior college at Trinidad State in Colorado.
There, he discovered he had Sickle Cell Trait, which affected his cross-country training and his running.
“I was training at 7,500 feet, and we were doing a lot of mileage,” Holdsworth said. “So I come from the background of low mileage and speed work to a bunch of mileage and not feeling good all the time, so I really struggled through the first couple months there. I didn’t finish a workout the whole month of October.”
Despite dealing with health issues, Holdsworth continued to prove that he’s in a league of his own.
“Toward the end of October, I had been on oxygen for three days after finding out i had SCT, and somehow I got fourth at our regional (cross-country) meet, and I’m not a cross-country runner,” he said.
Two weeks later he got 21st at nationals.
And although cross-country doesn’t excite him like running an 800 does, he said cross-country was a valuable training tool.
“It taught me how to race,” he said.
Making the decision to come to WOU came after battling issues of eligibility, a year of hitting slower times in his races, and an overall feeling of wanting to quit, said Holdsworth, but when he visited head coach Mike Johnson and WOU’s campus, “everything just clicked,” he said.
“Johnson was asking me questions, like, ‘Does it make sense for you to come here?’ ‘I want to make sure it’s a good fit for you;’ ‘What is best for you?’” said Holdsworth. “That made the whole process easier, because when you have a coach talking about what’s best for you, not what’s best for his team or for him, that means a lot. We would talk a lot. It was almost like he was coaching me before he was coaching me.”
Johnson said he was drawn to Holdsworth’s character.
“I hadn’t adequately researched his background, but I didn’t recruit him for his marks,” Johnson said. “We invited him to join the team because I thought he was a heck of a guy.”
Because of the three years he spent at Trinidad, Holdsworth only has one indoor season of eligibility, and a remaining cross-country season.
“So I’m treating everything like it’s the last hoorah,” he said. “I’ll finish up my classes in the spring and then we’ll look at other stuff.”
The “other stuff” includes a trip down to Eugene in June to compete at the Olympic Trials.
“That’s the big goal, and that’s what we’re planning for,” Holdsworth said.
The Olympic “B” standard for the 800, the standard athletes must meet to even nab a spot on that track, is 1:46.
The Olympic “A” standard, the mark athletes must hit to join an Olympic team, is 1:45.2.
Holdsworth is optimistic about hitting the needed times.
“I don’t doubt that it’s possible,” he said. “We can’t rush it, you can’t rush the process — that’s the hardest part, because I love the instant gratification, but I would rather run slower now and run fast in June.”
Johnson is confident Holdsworth will have the chance to run at Hayward Field.
“There’s no reason to believe he shouldn’t be in the trials and competitive once there,” he said.
“I think he and David (Ribich) both have the opportunity to advance deep into the trials, and once you’re that deep, then you have a shot.”
After the trials are over, Holdsworth has the chance to run one more cross-country season as a Wolf or pursue a professional running career.
“That’s the big goal,” he said.
In the meantime, he’ll finish out his indoor season, with GNAC champions at Boise, Idaho Feb. 21-22, and Nationals a few weeks later, on March 13-14 in Birmingham, Alabama.
“He’ll finish it with the same kind of leadership and cooperative attitude, and energy and competitiveness that he’s already displayed,” Johnson said. “It’s just who he is.”