Like he did in Minnesota, R.J. Alowonle is now making history in North Carolina.
Alowonle, a 2012 Park High School graduate and one of the greatest Minnesota high school track and field athletes ever, helped the University of North Carolina men’s 1600-meter relay earn All-America status for placing fifth at the NCAA Indoor Championships on Saturday, March 15, in Albuquerque, N.M.
It was Alowonle’s first indoor national championship meet.
“It was a really, really good experience,” Alowonle said. “The environment was awesome. You’re not only running against the best runners in college, some of them are the best from their nation and in the best in the United States. You’re competing with the best and that’s really humbling.”
The last time a team from UNC placed that high at the national indoor meet was in 1995 when the Tar Heels 1600-meter relay team won the event. The 1995 team holds the UNC indoor record for the event at 3 minutes, 06.36 seconds. Alowonle’s foursome ran it in 3:06.49, just short of the school record and good for second in UNC’s history.
“This is a really special group,” North Carolina assistant coach Steve Rubin said. “They grew up a lot over the course of this season and made themselves into a national force. No one outside of Chapel Hill believed at the start of this season that these guys would run 3:06. Even after Notre Dame, I don’t think they got the respect they deserved nationally. This meet proved that they didn’t just get lucky for one race — they can run with anyone.”
Alowonle, who starts the race for UNC, ran his 400-meter leg in 46.854 seconds.
“Usually the first leg is a little slower, because you have to start,” Alowonle said. “The weird thing about it is that I didn’t use a normal starting block in high school, I’d do a stand-up start, so coming into college it was kind of a transition, because I wasn’t used to having both my hands down at the start and coming up from that angle. But, I worked hard on my technique.”
The road to the NCAA Indoor Championship wasn’t entirely smooth for the Tar Heels’ four man team of Alowonle, Ceo Ways, Sean Sutton and Javonte Lipsey. Injuries plagued the group and they weren’t able to run together until late in the year.
Lipsey struggled with back problems, Ways suffered from two concussions and Alowonle split the peroneal tendon in his ankle over the summer. Alowonle had a procedure done to repair his tendon which put him in a walking boot and kept him sidelined for roughly eight weeks.
“It was kind of a long process of trying to get back healthy,” Alowonle said. “It’s kind of serious, because it’s a weird injury. The options were to wait for it to heal or try to do the procedure that sort of glued it back together. I worked super hard in rehab and did a lot of alternative workouts, like deep water running and medicine ball workouts. I was basically doing two workouts a day to get as much cardio as I could.”
Fully healthy, the UNC 1600-meter relay team competed together on Feb. 22 for only the second time in the season and was lined up against some of the nation’s best relay teams at the Alex Wilson Invitational. The team came in second place with a blistering time of 3:06.93, which ranked second in UNC history at the time. The time was the seventh-best mark in the NCAA this year and qualified them for the national meet.
“From the beginning of the year we had really high expectations,” Alowonle said. “We knew that we could compete with just about every team in the nation.”
Alowonle said Ways is the fastest 400 runner at UNC. Ways ran the anchor leg for the Tar Heels at nationals in 46.348.
“He’s extremely talented,” Alowonle said. “He’s just a freshman, but he’s unbelievable. We’re all competitors, so when you step on the line you’re going to give it your all. We all really stepped up to the plate. That’s the best part about having competitors like them on your team.”
Alowonle said he believes the current group has record-breaking potential in the 1600 relay.
“We were really thinking about it,” he said. “We really want to get it and know that we can. No one graduates from that team. We’re hoping we can get the outdoor record this year and next year we can get the indoor record.”
The University of North Carolina men’s cross country and track and field program is ranked as the 16th best program in the nation in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Program of the Year Award. The Tar Heels now begin the transition from the indoor to the outdoor season.
Last year, as a freshman, Alowonle was the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) champion in the men’s 400-meter hurdles and as part of the Tar Heels’ 1600-meter relay team.
Alowonle said the outdoor track suits him better.
“The main reason is there are no 400-meter hurdles indoors and that’s my main event,” he said. “The indoor track has tighter curves and doesn’t suit my stride as well. Indoor is generally slower because there are more turns and tighter turns. I prefer outdoor a little more, but that doesn’t mean we take indoor lightly.”
While at Park, Alowonle won seven state championships and broke two state records — in the 110-meter hurdles and 300-meter hurdles. In 2012 he was the Minnesota Boys Gatorade Track and Field Athlete of the Year and the USA Track and Field Male High School Athlete of the Year. Individually, he earned seven all-state honors during his time at Park — three times in the 300 hurdles, twice in the 110 hurdles, once in the triple jump and one time for soccer.
In addition to seven state championship medals, Alowonle holds a remarkable five Park High School records — in the 110 and 300 hurdles, the triple jump, the 400-meter dash and as part of the 400-meter relay. The Park and state records were all over 25 years old. In all, he is in the top eight on the Park all-time list in an incredible seven different events.
He said he’s happy in North Carolina, because he really likes the environment, his coaches and his team.
“I’m pretty happy with where I’m at,” Alowonle said. “I’m running 400s faster than I’ve ever ran 400s my whole life, so I’m hoping that translates to when I go outdoor and run the 400 hurdles. I’m hoping my feet will be even faster.”
For video of the UNC men’s 1600-meter relay at the NCAA Indoor Championships go to: http://www.goheels.com/mediaPortal/player.dbml?id=3225106