Evan Miller’s sprint for a spot on Team USA for the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics came up short — but it was still an experience most athletes can only ever dream about.
The Zephyrhills athlete on June 25 competed in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at the legendary Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.
Miller — a rising senior at University of South Carolina — clocked 21.04 seconds in the first round heat of the men’s 200-meter dash, finishing 23rd overall.
He competed in the same heat against other widely known professional sprinters, including Terrance Laird and Jaron Flourney, among others.
The competition was televised live nationally on the NBC Sports Network.
Miller’s trials mark was a shade off his personal best of 20.50 seconds — which he recorded at the Weems Baskin Relays hosted on-campus at South Carolina in late March. He wound up earning second-team NCAA All-American honors during the season, too.
A last-minute heat and lane scheduling change at trials in Oregon arguably impacted his performance, in some form or another.
Miller originally was slated to compete in heat 2, lane 5, but event officials switched him to heat 3, lane 9 just hours before the race.
Here’s why it matters: The middle lanes (such as lane 5) are viewed as more advantageous in track, as it allows sprinters to visibly pace themselves against competitors in real time, Miller said, “to have someone to kind of push me toward where I’m trying to go, how fast I’m trying to run.”
But being positioned in outside lanes (such as lane 9) is more out on an island of sorts — unable to see if you’re going too fast or too slow against the competition. “You’re just out there, (so) you’ve just kind of got to run your own race,” Miller said.
Miller was one of about 30 sprinters nationwide who either qualified or accepted an invitation, and declared for the men’s 200-meter trials event.
From there, the top three men’s 200-meter finishers at trials earned spots on the U.S. Olympic team — Noah Lyles (first, 19.74 seconds), Kenny Bednarek (second, 19.78) and Erriyon Knighton (third, 19.84). (Knighton is a 17-year-old sensation from Tampa who attends Hillsborough High School and became the youngest track and field athlete to join Team USA since 1964.)
While disappointed with his own trials output overall, Miller relished the opportunity so very few earn — let alone coming off a 2020 track season hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He had plenty of support at the momentous event, as both his parents and sister were in attendance, along with several coaches and teammates.
“All around, it was a really good experience,” Miller said. “It was kind of surreal that I was there with the top athletes in the country. It was just a really good feeling. I was kind of trying to take it all in, but I also couldn’t like believe it at the same time.”
Miller has since flown back to the Tampa Bay area, but may soon head back to Columbia, South Carolina, for the remainder of the summer to take on more in-person instruction from college coaches.
He’s already eyeing the next trials in advance of the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He plans to be a professional track athlete by then.
“I’ll definitely be there,” he said. “This isn’t going to be the last time.”
More immediate tasks, however, include the upcoming college indoor and outdoor track seasons, as well as the 2022 World Championships.
Goals are set on running in the low-20s in the 200, somewhere between 20.1 and 20 seconds flat for the time being.
Miller also is considering adding the 400-meter dash to his repertoire, with the aim of reducing his time in the 200, he said.
Focusing on nutrition will be key to moving forward, Miller said. He noted his calves cramped up a few days before the trials, showing perhaps a sign of dehydration.
Further fine-tuning sprint techniques — from starting block to transition and finish — also is on his mind, to yield improvements.
“There’s a lot of stuff I’ve got to work on,” he said, “so that’s why I’m confident that I’ll be able to drop my time, because there’s still a lot to be done.”
From Zephyrhills to Olympic hopes
Miller has generated buzz athletically since his days at Zephyrhills Christian Academy.
He was better known for his play on the football field, but he took track more seriously following a broken ankle while playing in a 7-on-7 tournament.
As a teenager he eventually linked up with AAU track and high school coach BB Roberts, who runs the Wesley Chapel-based Speed Starz Track Club, and lists NFL and MLB athletes as training clientele.
Roberts, a former track star in his own right at Wesley Chapel High School and Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College, worked to correct Miller’s sprinting form and technique, among other tips.
Miller proceeded to win the Class 1A crown 100-meter dash (10.75) at the 2018 FHSAA State Track & Field Championships, as a senior at Zephyrhills Christian. He also was a member of the program’s 4×100 relay team that won back-to-back state crowns in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
He would go on to qualify for AAU nationals, too.
Miller initially planned to compete in football and track at Warner University, a small NAIA school in Lake Wales.
That was until the more prestigious South Carolina track and field program came calling with an offer from longtime head coach Curtis Frye — who’s overseen over 60 NCAA champions, 121 SEC champions, 20 Academic All-Americans and more than 500 NCAA All-Americans across his 25-year career.
It’s all been a whirlwind for the hometown speedster, from small private school off Eiland Boulevard to joining a blue-blood SEC college program, to much-grander Olympics aspirations.
“I definitely wish I would’ve discovered track sooner, but I really didn’t expect to be able to do all these things,” said Miller.
“The switch from Warner to (South Carolina), that happened so fast, and then, once I got to (South Carolina), I knew, I wanted to be great at anything I do, not just track but anything in general, so I made it work.
“I’m glad I’ve made it to where I am, in such a short amount of time.”
Miller has grown to love the sport over time. It not only feeds his competitive nature, but also forges mental toughness, he said.
Said Miller, “I like to be the best, in anything that I do, but also I started to realize, it’s a very mental sport. You’ve got to be very mentally strong, and that just also helps me with life in general, being able to handle certain situations, having that mental strength to push through anything.
“It definitely helps me push through certain situations, but just everyday training, it just makes me mentally stronger.”
Published July 07, 2021