This article appears in the April 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Justin Oliver says his running form was poor when he first started in track. Real poor. Bad enough that you might confuse him with Urkel.
"My form was so atrocious," admits Oliver, a senior sprinter and jumper at Redan and one of the nation's top scholastic track athletes. "My parents make tapes of a lot of my meets, and I can't even watch those tapes. They always talk about them and I just cringe."
These days, Oliver displays excellent running form. And he spends hours breaking down film — well, more recent film — to sharpen it even further.
"I watch hours of tape at a time, anything to get an edge," says the 5-foot-10, 143-pound Oliver, who won Class AAAAA state titles last spring in the long jump, 4x100 relay and 4x400 relay, in addition to placing second in the 400 and third in the 200. "I have the strength. Now I look at technique. I look at when I should be picking it up in a race or when to relax my arms more. I look at tape of other guys, too. It can't hurt to try and copy the form of a guy like (two-time 100-meter state champion and former Stephenson sprinter) Michael Grant."
Fact is, Oliver gives plenty of love to his opposition. He says running against guys like Grant and former Newnan state champ Demiko Goodman helped him get where he is today.
To be more precise, losing to guys like Grant (now a freshman at Arkansas) and Goodman (freshman at Georgia) is what helped.
"The talent I face in Georgia helps me a lot," says Oliver, 17, whose third-place finish in the 200 at last year's state meet was behind Goodman and Grant and whose second-place finish in the 400 trailed only Goodman. "I'm the kind of guy that craves competition. If I [run a personal best] and get sixth, I can't be upset. I just work harder."
That hard work has paid off for Oliver, who transferred to Redan from Southwest DeKalb prior to his junior year. Since he didn't run track as a sophomore because of what he says were philosophical differences with the DeKalb coaching staff, Oliver was a relative unknown entering last season.
He started to forge a reputation for himself last winter when he won AAU Southern Region Indoor Track & Field titles in the 400 and long jump. And last spring, his top time of 46.71 in the 400 was the 11th-fastest outdoor high school time in the nation — and No. 2 among non-seniors.
Oliver's triple-gold performance and ability to hang with guys like Goodman and Grant at last year's state meet then sealed his place among the nation's elite and helped him earn a scholarship to Texas A&M.
Despite all his success, Oliver has remained remarkably down to earth and willing to do whatever it takes to help the team.
"You have to have an attitude to be one of the top-notch kids," says Redan fifth-year head coach Willie Griffieth, 49, a former Florida A&M sprinter. "You've gotta believe that you can do it. He could easily be one of those selfish kids who will only do his own events, but at our state meet last season, we had Justin entered in five."
Thanks to Oliver's considerable contributions (he was the state meet's highest individual scorer with 29 points over five events), Redan won the Class AAAAA team state title with 60 points last spring.
If one thing is certain about Oliver (besides his well-worn VCR remote), it's his versatility. He launched himself 46 feet in the triple jump as a freshman and can now leap 50 feet in the event, and he has also run a 10.79 in the 100-meter dash.
Still, he didn't see a future in track until he dropped his 400 time from 51 to 48 seconds during his freshman year.
"That's when I decided to go ahead and focus on track," says Oliver, whose family moved to Georgia from his birthplace of Virginia when he was an infant.
And once this guy decides to pursue something, he gets serious in a big hurry. Despite never having lifted weights with any resolve before last season, Oliver threw himself into the Raiders' offseason program. He can now bench press 240 pounds and machine leg press 1,110.
In spite of his tremendous time commitment to track, Oliver is gravely serious about delivering as a student as well. Entering this semester, he owned a 3.39 GPA and had scored a 1,230 on the SAT.
"You've got to separate track and school time and give to them both," says Oliver. "I can't afford to do otherwise. You can't afford to have your mind elsewhere."
All the while, of course, he obsesses about his form on the track.
"As far as it's come, it's still something I work on," says Oliver. "I notice my arms swing across my body when I get tired. I've got to stop that. I've got to keep lifting my knees all the way around the track."
According to coach Griffieth, all the pieces are falling into place.
"He's got all the tools — he's got everything you need," says Griffieth. "From the very first time you see him, you can tell he has that world-class acceleration and explosion. And he just works so hard at everything. He's such a competitor. We gave him some tough plyometric exercises to do, and he just grasped them right away. He dives right in and goes with it. I can honestly say I think we're going to see him at the Olympics one day."
Predictably, Oliver isn't about to get ahead of himself.
"The collegiate level is going to be different," he says. "I won't necessarily be on top when I get there, but I'll get better. A good coaching staff will take me to the next level. I don't care about what I do immediately. I know I'll have my time to shine."