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Blanchette: WSU’s Anderson prepares to cap marvelous career

Sun., June 5, 2011

Washington State University hurdler Jeshua Anderson will be going for his third NCAA championship in the 400 meter hurdles. (Colin Mulvany)
Washington State University hurdler Jeshua Anderson will be going for his third NCAA championship in the 400 meter hurdles. (Colin Mulvany)

The first couple of hurdles aren’t the ones that vex him – the minor intrigue of the staggered start, who might be tracking you from behind or whether you’re making up too much ground too quickly on the runners ahead.

He does not dread the backstretch and the inevitable wind that lives to ruin your rhythm, or the far curve where gearing down seems instinctual but gearing up is demanded. It’s not even the last two barriers, the desperate juggling of fatigue, steps and spacing where the closest races are always won and lost.

But that’s the whole race. Ten hurdles, 36 inches high, once around the 400-meter track. What else is there?

“The thing that really bothers me,” said Jeshua Anderson, “is when the announcer calls my name and goes down everything I’ve ever done – the things I’ve won and times I’ve run. Kind of nerve-wracking.”

Which at least once has moved a rival in an adjacent lane to mutter something along the lines of, “Man, you’ve been here forever.”

But that’s just sleight of celebrity. When you catch a long touchdown pass in your first home football game or win a national championship as a freshman – both of which Anderson did upon arrival at Washington State – the notoriety clock starts immediately, and ink and airtime over the normal four years of college will play like twice that. Even when he gave up football, it seemed less a story and more of a serial.

Not that anyone connected with the Cougars is ready for it to end, as it will this week.

Anderson heads to the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, in search of a third title in the intermediate hurdles, to duplicate an achievement pulled off by Iowa State’s Danny Harris (1984-86) and BYU’s Ralph Mann (1969-71), later a WSU doctoral graduate.

Nor would three in the same event be a first at Wazzu – though that needs some amplification. No Cougar has done it outdoors since distance legend Gerry Lindgren and discus brute John van Reenen more than 40 years ago. None of the Olympic medalists this proud program has produced since – Bernard Lagat, Julius Korir, Gabriel Tiacoh – managed it. Nor did Henry Rono, who set four world records as a Cougar.

Anderson would be shooting for No. 4 had he not been upset last spring by his friendly rival, Johnny Dutch of South Carolina, who used the victory as his launching pad for the pro career Anderson has delayed.

“But if you say he should have won last year, you can easily say he shouldn’t have won the first one,” noted his coach, WSU assistant Mark Macdonald. “That was an incredible race where the only time he was ahead was the last inch.”

He outleaned Auburn’s Rueben McCoy – as it happens, on the same Drake Stadium track he’ll run on this week. He broke the school record in the process, finishing in 48.69 seconds. He now owns the fastest 14 races in the event in Cougar history. He has won 21 of the 26 collegiate finals he’s run, and each of the four collegians he’s lost to he either beat previously or subsequently.

But now we’re getting into the stuff that bothers Jeshua Anderson.

His self-effacement is no sales job. Anderson accepts his gifts, but mindful of the lessons imparted by his parents Timothy and Leslie, brokers no assumptions.

“Humility is important because my talent will not last too long,” he said, “and there’s always somebody out there better, or trying to be better.”

This notion has been driven home at various times in his WSU career. He was the world junior champion in 2008, but didn’t make it out of the semifinals of the Olympic Trials. Last year, he and Macdonald devoted themselves to a strategy – 13 steps between hurdles, all the way around, as pioneered by the great Edwin Moses – only to see it unravel at the ninth hurdle of the NCAA final. Even this year, in pursuit of a fourth Texas Relays title, he was beaten by a pair of Texas Tech runners.

Which may explain why, after he completed a Pacific-10 four-peat last month in a school record 48.13, Anderson was as emotional and demonstrative as he’s ever been.

“Just because he’s a great athlete,” Macdonald said, “doesn’t mean he doesn’t have doubts.”

He has no doubt, however, about this: his fit in Pullman and at WSU.

“But I still don’t know what got me here,” he said. “When I came to visit, there was all that snow and it was 7 below or something. I’m out there in low-cut Chuck Taylors and snow in my socks. But there was something here. I loved the (football) coaching staff – coach (Bill) Doba and Mike Walker were real genuine, caring guys.

“There’s something that always amazes me here and that’s how much support there is. We’ll walk through an airport and get a ‘Go Cougs’ out of nowhere. Even when I quit football, everyone was still behind me.”

His comfort level here is such that he insists, as he interviews prospective agents (“like getting recruited again, but with your money,” he laughed), that he’ll stay in Pullman to train under Macdonald, though his first mission is “finishing up here with something memorable.

“It’s all about staying grounded and working at what I want to perfect,” he said. “There’s no such thing as being perfect. But if I can get close to it, I know something great will come out of that.”

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