A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Ron Bramlett: Getting it All on Film
The 26-year-old Bramlett was born in Frankfurt, Germany because his dad was serving as a soldier in the army, but he was raised in Clarksville, Tennessee, where he attended Northeast High school in the mid-’90′s, graduating in 1997. Although known world-wide as a track star who specializes in the hurdles, Bramlett says that basketball was not his first love as a youth. “My thing was basketball,” he said, “but when you move to a new town it’s hard because [coaches] already have their favorites. In ’95 we moved from Texas to Tennessee. I figured I’d give track a try because it’s an individual sport, you get a chance to show what you can do, and there’s no bench to sit on.” Bramlett specialized in the 400 meters throughout most of his high school career; he didn’t turn to the hurdles until his senior year, and even then, it wasn’t voluntary. “I didn’t wanna do ‘em,” he said. “My coach, Wade White, said ‘You are gonna do ‘em.’ He changed my life by making me hurdle because I’ve found my niche – something I can do better than most people. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have found it.”Getting such a late start in the hurdles did not prove beneficial to Bramlett at first. “I was getting blasted in the hurdles,” he said. So he came up with an idea that would help him to improve his technique and compete better in races. He “borrowed” a hurdle from nearby Austin Peay University, set it up in his backyard, and “stepped over it for like three hours. Just jogged up to it and stepped over it, over and over again.” The self-made drill provided instant results, as his personal best of 16.7 from his first race plummeted all the way down to 14.5 at a small dual meet against a local rival. While his teammates and coaches celebrated his enormous improvement, Bramlett stood at the finish line dumbfounded. “I was like, there’s no way I could’ve run that fast.” But he did. He went on to finish second in the high hurdles at the state championship meet, in spite of the fact that he had about only seven races under his belt. Looking back on that race, he can’t help but laugh. “The tape of that race is so bad,” he said. “I hit every hurdle. Every single hurdle. It’s hilarious.” He also ran on the winning 4×400 meter relay team. Ironically, the fact that he had only run a handful of hurdle races in high school actually became an advantage when it came time to run over the college highs. “It wasn’t that hard for me to adjust to the 42′s,” he said, “because I never ran the 39′s that often.”
From Northeast High, Bramlett took his burgeoning hurdling skills to Middle Tennessee State, where he stayed for two years (although he only ran for one year) before transferring to the University of Alabama. At Middle Tennessee State, Bramlett continued his self-education process in the hurdles. “In my first month of school there,” he explained, “the ’97 World Champs came on TV. I’m thinking these guys can probably run like 13.1 or 13.2 or something crazy like that. Allen [Johnson] is on there, and he runs a 12.93. I’m like, there’s no way he could’ve run that fast. I taped the race and must have watched it a thousand times. I watched that tape so often that it doesn’t even work anymore. But that’s essentially what taught me how to hurdle; that’s where I got the basic mechanics down. In high school, my arms were real wild, I didn’t get back on the ground fast.” Ever since then, Bramlett has devoted himself to studying the event by filming as many races as he can, by having his own races filmed, and by filming practice sessions as well. “If it’s a race where I’m in the race,” he said, “I don’t just look at myself. I look at what everybody is doing so I can see what they’re doing that I’m not doing.”At Alabama, Bramlett ran in the tough SEC conference under the supervision of coach Harvey Glance, who, in his day, was one of the best sprinters the world has ever known. Bramlett gives Glance a lot of credit for his development as an athlete and as a person. An expert in the sprints, if not in the hurdles, Glance didn’t necessarily make Bramlett a better hurdler, but he did make him faster. What Bramlett liked the most about Coach Glance’s coaching methods was that “he really kept me fresh.” Coach Glance knew when to push his athletes and when to ease up on them, so that they were always ready to get the most out of their bodies. For a hurdler in the SEC, having fresh legs was a requirement, not a luxury. “When I got [to Alabama],” Bramlett said, “Terrence [Trammell] was still at [The University of] South Carolina. I remember being in the final when he ran 7.57; I pr’ed and ran 7.67. I thought to myself there was no way Terrence’s record would ever be broken. Then I ran 7.55 the next year, and 7.52 the year after that. That’s why I came to the SEC – if you can win the conference meet, you’re probably gonna be favored to win the NCAA. As a matter of fact, you’ll probably be running against the same guys you ran against two weeks ago. I remember one year, I think it was 2000, four of the eight guys in the outdoor finals were from the SEC. Half the track was SEC.” Bramlett ran 13.54 at the NCAA’s in 2001, his first year of winning the NCAA outdoor final. He finished that year with a pr of 13.43 and a #10 U.S. ranking by Track & Field News. In 2002, he repeated as NCAA outdoor champion, this time in 13.49. He also finished fifth at USA Outdoors with a 13.51, and he ended the year with a pr of 13.35 and a #6 national ranking by T&FN.
In 2003, having turned professional after graduating from Alabama with a major in advertisement, Bramlett continued to move up in the hurdling ranks, still trained under Coach Glance, but found the transition to post-collegiate life to be quite a difficult one. “I stuck around [Alabama] for another year,” he said. “Me and [long jumper] Miguel Pate were roommates. It was tough; I couldn’t get any meets, couldn’t get sponsorship. I was looking for a job in advertising and had a couple interviews lined up. I started training in the fall for the 2003 outdoor season. I’d go to a couple meets indoors and run horrible. Then I went to this meet outdoors in Mexico City. I don’t know how my agent got me this meet because everybody else was in the top twelve in the world, and I was something like thirtieth.” He also found out that being a two-time NCAA champion didn’t hold much weight on the international scene. “When you go overseas,” he explained, “they call you a college champion. They don’t care about the NCAA’s. Some of ‘em don’t even know what that is. Every meet, you’re in the worst possible lane – either lane eight next to the fence, or lane one with the slope in it, so you’re struggling to keep up while these guys on the inside [lanes] are running 13.1.” In the Mexico City race, Bramlett broke through to gain a measure of respect among his competitors and meet directors alike. “I got third, but it was pretty much a photo finish between Allen, Duane [Ross], and myself. That’s when I started getting a lot of races. Then I got offered an advertising job, but I was like, I don’t need the job now. But I know if the job offer had come before the Mexico meet, I wouldn’t be running right now.” Bramlett finished fifth again at USA Outdoors, this time in a 13.66, but he ran very well on the European circuit, dropping his pr all the way down to 13.27, good for another #6 ranking in the U.S. and a #8 world ranking by T&FN.After the 2004 indoor season, Bramlett made the big leap of moving from Alabama to South Carolina in order to train with his hero, mentor, rival, and friend, Allen Johnson. He parted amicably with Coach Glance – with whom he still stays in touch and considers one of the most positive influences in his life – as Glance understood that any hurdler given a chance to train with Allen Johnson would take it. “I contacted Allen and talked about coming to Columbia,” Bramlett said. “I came up in April of 2004, kept going back and forth, then decided to move up here in December of 2004. Sylvanues Hepburn is my coach now.” Bramlett now finds himself training with an elite group of hurdlers that includes, besides himself and Johnson, Fred Townsend, Melissa Morrison, Lashinda Demus and Tiffany Ross-Williams. Bramlett explained that Johnson and Hepburn got together once it became apparent that Johnson’s former coach, Curtis Frye, grew too busy coaching the men’s and women’s teams at the University of South Carolina, and that the rest of the hurdlers “gravitated toward Allen and Sylvanues.”
The 2004 campaign proved to be another successful one for Bramlett, as he finished fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 13.33, behind Trammell, Ross, and Johnson. The obvious disappointment, however, lie in the fact that he just missed making the Olympic team by one spot. Bramlett made the mistake of focusing on trying to defeat Ross, believing that with Johnson and Trammell in the race, Ross was the opponent he had the best chance to catch. In the finals, Bramlett ran in lane seven, and “Duane Ross was right next to me” in lane six, with Johnson in five, and Trammell in four. “I was like, if I beat Duane, I’m on the team. So I get a good start, and around hurdle two he just blows by me. We had run against each other all year, and he had never passed me before hurdle six. Then Mark Crear [in lane eight] passed me, then he got snagged at the seventh or eighth hurdle, and I passed him back.” Actually, Crear had the edge on Bramlett going into the final hurdle, then hit the tenth barrier hard with the foot of his trail leg, enabling Bramlett to regain the advantage over him with a furious run-in to the finish. The run-in wasn’t strong enough, though, to catch Trammell, Ross, or even Johnson, who ran an uncharacteristically sloppy race and barely held off the charging Bramlett for third. As Bramlett crossed the finish line, “I looked around and I’m like, all man, I got fourth.”
When Bramlett checked his cell phone messages shortly after the race, it was full with calls from old teammates, old coaches, family members, friends, old high school friends, and various mild acquaintances, all with the same message: “You were right there! You had it! You were so close!” In spite of all the hullabaloo, Bramlett was quickly able to put the race into its proper perspective. “Those three guys had been beating me all year,” he noted, “so I wasn’t that mad. And four years might seem like a long time, but those four years go by quickly. I’ll be back.” Bramlett’s 13.33 in the final was a bit slower than his 13.28 in the semi-final round, but it was still one of his better races technically. He would go on to better his pr on the European circuit later that summer, running a 13.26 at Lausanne. T&FN ranked him ninth in the world and fifth in the country for the 2004 season. Bramlett joked that if he had beaten out Johnson for the third spot on the Olympic team, not only would he have upset a lot of American track fans, but he might have ended up living on the street. “I had been living with Allen and training with him. If I’d beaten him he’d've put my stuff out on the lawn.”
All joking aside, Bramlett describes Johnson as a very likeable individual. “Actually, I’ve never met a nicer person than him, ever.” Bramlett went on to say that most hurdlers he has met over the years are similarly “cool,” including the ones from other countries. According to Bramlett, having Johnson around makes for a very enjoyable yet very competitive training environment. “He still out-lifts me in the weight-room,” Bramlett said. “He takes very good care of his body.” Another dimension that Johnson brings to the table is his attention to detail, as he and Bramlett, as well as the other athletes in Hepburn’s camp, spend a lot of time dissecting film, looking for ways to shave hundredths of seconds from their personal bests. “We film everything we do, and we look for everything we might be doing wrong. So now, if I run slowly, I know why, whereas before, I wouldn’t have a clue.”
In 2006, Bramlett is looking to come back from a 2005 in which he struggled, although he managed to maintain his ranking status of ninth in the world and fifth in the nation. The major disappointment came at the USA Outdoor Championships, in which he finished ninth in the final round with a relatively mediocre time of 13.58, failing miserably in his attempt to qualify for the World Championships. Bramlett, in retrospect, feels that his mindset going into the meet inadvertently set him up for failure. “I was in a position where I felt like I had to make the team, and that if I didn’t, the whole season was in the dumpster. I think I put too much pressure on myself, and I guess I just cracked. Even in college [at the SEC and NCAA championships], I had never felt like that. Last year I felt like I had to do something that I’d never done before. I pressed, I hit a lot of hurdles, sat on a lot of hurdles.” To his credit, Bramlett did not mope about his performance at the national championships, but went on to have a fine outdoor season on the European circuit, proving to himself that one race doesn’t make or break a season, much less a career. “My approach for the rest of the season,” he said, “was, ‘You’re either ready to run or you’re not.’ I ended up getting a bunch of other races [overseas]. I think I run a lot better when I’m not nervous, when I run the way I do in practice.”
Bramlett acknowledges that he would like to get his personal best down to the 13.10 range – especially when considering the level of competition that exists in the high hurdles now – but he disagrees with the general consensus of what he needs to do to improve. He is most often told that he needs to get bigger and stronger because, at 165 lbs., he is one of the lighter hurdlers on the international scene, but he says he has focused on lifting in the past, and it hasn’t helped. “I would be consistently in the high 13.30′s, 13.40′s, and I would think I wasn’t lifting enough, but in watching films of my races, it was all mechanical errors being made. Everyone else shuffles their feet between the hurdles, whereas I’m running. That’s wasted energy; you can shuffle your feet and move faster. Also, I’d pop straight back up [after clearing a hurdle], so I need to try to hold that forward position and keep my chin in front of me. Last year, every race, I’d try something different to see what would work. Now I’ve got it narrowed down to two or three things. People would come up to me and say you need to get in the weight room, you need to do this, you need to do that, but what I really need is to fix my mechanics. All the weights in the world can’t help if you’re not running correctly.”
In regards to the higher level of competition in the 110′s, Bramlett points to the recent emergence of Arnold, Liu Xiang of China, and Ladji Doucoure of France as having raised the ante quite significantly from where it was even as recently as three years ago. Also, Johnson has remained consistently at the top of his game, and Trammell, who was already a top-notch hurdler, improved in 2005, lowering his personal best to 13.02. All in all, as Bramlett put it himself, 2005 “was the wrong year not to be rollin’.” To emphasize his point, Bramlett used the Gaz de France meet in Paris in early July as an example. In that race, he finished seventh in what would normally be considered a respectable 13.39. However, the rest of the field was blazing. Doucoure finished first in 13.02, Johnson came in second in 13.04, Xiang was third in 13.06, and Arnold finished fourth in 13.10. Also ahead of Bramlett were Stanislav Olijars of Latvia in 13.29 and Trammell in 13.30. Arnold’s time earned him the distinction of having run fastest fourth-place race in history. As Bramlett ever-so-eloquently remarked, “To run 13.10 and finish fourth is ridiculous.”
As the 110m hurdles has evolved as an event, the world record has only increased by .02 since Renaldo Nehemiah’s 12.93 in Zurich in 1981, but the number of hurdlers who can consistently run sub-13.50, sub-13.40, and even sub-13.30 has increased dramatically. In further elaboration upon that Paris meet, Bramlett says that even Johnson, who has faced great hurdler after great hurdler over the course of his illustrious twelve-year professional career, was impressed with the extraordinarily high quality of the field. “We were taking a van on the way to the stadium,” Bramlett related, “and Allen was like, ‘I haven’t been in a race this hot before.’ He says that was the most loaded race of his career, where there were five or six guys who you knew could go 13.10 or better.” As for his own performance in that race, Bramlett succinctly stated, “I got spanked.” The whole summer, he said, was a difficult one, because, “every meet, you know that one of ‘em is gonna be there. Ladji, Terrence, Allen, Dominique, Xiang. You go into a meet thinking you have a chance to win and then you look around and it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s Ladji.’ Hopefully I’ll get to a point where it’s like, ‘Oh damn, Bramlett’s here.’” In spite of the intense competition in his event, Bramlett says he is glad to be a professional track athlete, and is glad to have chosen the high hurdles as his specialty. “I love it,” he said, “I can’t think of a better job; I just wish it was more stable. But there’s no other event that I’d want to do. I think you can be limited to how fast you can run the hundred, how far you can jump, but in the hurdles you have ten opportunities to improve. That’s the cool thing about it.”
In Bramlett’s estimation, one of the biggest differences between collegiate hurdlers and professional hurdlers lies in the uncanny ability of professional hurdlers to surge ahead, seemingly at will, at or around the fifth hurdle. “When you’re in college,” he explained, “and you’re running 13.4′s, you get to hurdle three and you’re all by yourself. If you’re running 13.4 on the [professional] circuit, you’re getting worked. The weirdest thing is, when you get out of school and you get over there, and you’re racing against guys running 13.15-13.20, you don’t notice them leaving you. It’s like at hurdle five all those guys say, ‘Let’s go.’ Basically, it’s like, ‘Let’s start the race at five.’ No one’s gonna leave you at the gun, but I’d get to five, and it’s like they rev high and they’ve got a turbo. It’s not like they gradually pull away; it’s like a switch.” A good example of what Bramlett is talking about occurred at the Golden Gala meet in Rome in July of 2005, a week after the Paris meet. In Rome, Arnold, Xiang, Trammell, and Doucoure were the big names in the race, but Bramlett, in lane three, beat all of them to the first hurdle and stayed ahead for five hurdles before Arnold, beside Bramlett in lane four, surged to the front and just took over the race as if Bramlett were a mere pacesetter. The other big names eventually passed Bramlett as well, and he finished fifth in what would again, under normal circumstances, be considered a very respectable time of 13.36.
When asked to pinpoint what the super-elite hurdlers are doing at hurdle five that he is not doing, Bramlett wasn’t quite sure of the answer. “I’d ask Allen, ‘What are you guys doing at five?’ He’d be like, ‘We’re just running. What are you doing?’ I guess that’s what I gotta figure out. I have the reputation of getting out fast and getting sucked up. Even Allen says you don’t want that rep, where the other guys know they can catch you.” While Bramlett feels he can drop more time by concentrating on his technique more so than his physique, he admits that he might be able to do a better of job of keeping the pace late in the race if he were to get stronger. “I wouldn’t mind gaining ten pounds or so,” he said. “When the big guys get going, it’s like a big truck going down the hill. They have the advantage late in the race.”
With 2006 being a non-Olympic, non-World Championship year, Bramlett doesn’t have a specific meet to shoot for as a goal, but he hopes to have a big year, to stay consistent, to run a new personal best, and to move up in the rankings. “I’m getting married in May,” he said, “so I got a lot of other things going on, but I’ll still remain focused on track.”
Bramlett says that he is fresher now than he has been in past years, as he is learning to work smart, not just hard, and he is honing in on his technical flaws. “I hurdle two days a week,” he said, “but I always try to argue with [my teammates] to get one more day, especially when I’m trying to work on something. When I see something on film, I need to work on it the next day. So if our next hurdle practice is scheduled for Tuesday, I can’t wait until Tuesday. I have to work on it now.” Bramlett does concede, however, that it is important to strike a good balance between hurdling workouts and running workouts. So when it’s time to run a set of 300′s, “I’ll just get through it because I know I’ll get to hurdle tomorrow.” He warns that “if you’ve been doing a lot of sprinting and not hurdling, then it will affect you when you hurdle [in a race]. If you haven’t hurdled [in practice] for three weeks, when you get to the fourth hurdle, you’re gonna have problems. You’re gonna start runnin’ up on ‘em. When you do a lot of sprinting, you also need to hurdle, and do it when you’re fresh, ’cause everything’s faster in a meet.”
One of the more arduous aspects of being a professional track athlete, according to Bramlett, is life on the road. There’s a lot of down time, a lot of boring hours spent in a hotel room, and television provides little useful diversion when considering that all the shows are in a foreign language. The biggest adjustment, however, has to do with the cuisine. “You get used to the time changes,” he said, “but the food thing, man. . . . And you know which meets have the good food, too. Paris is the worst. It’s my favorite meet because the stadium is the nicest, the people know you, and the track is the nicest. But I’m not feelin’ the food.” To his own chagrin, Bramlett often finds himself searching for the nearest Mickey D’s when traveling overseas. “I don’t hardly ever eat at McDonald’s when I’m home,” he said. “But when I’m in Europe, I’ll ask the people at the hotel where’s the nearest Mickey D’s, and they’ll say you can get take a cab there. So I’ll take a cab, then pay for the food on top of that, so I end up spending like thirty dollars on a value meal. Sometimes when we come in [to a new city] from the airport and take a cab to the hotel, if we pass a McDonald’s, we’ll be counting the miles from the McDonald’s to the hotel to see how far a drive it is. It’s crazy.”
What Bramlett likes most about the professional circuit is the level of knowledge and enthusiasm among the fans, which is generally much higher than that which can be found among the American sports audience. “In ’03 I was in Prague for the Grand Prix tour,” he related, “and I was on the fourth floor of the hotel. I woke up, took a shower, then I leave the room and there’s a little kid by the elevator talkin’ ’bout, ‘Hey Bramlett!’ He couldn’t have been more than ten years old. I was like, ‘What? How’d you know my name?’ He pulled out a picture of me from when I was running for Alabama. He had somehow found out what floor I was on and waited for me to come to the elevator.” A year later, in Berlin, while walking with Coach Glance, “This dude comes up and has a picture of Coach Glance in his folder, from back when Coach Glance had that little afro. He’s like, ‘Will you sign this?’ After the dude left I asked Coach, ‘How did he know you were gonna be here?’ Coach was smiling like, yeah, I’m the man, then he says the dude just keeps photos of athletes that he likes. It was amazing.”
Bramlett hopes to stay in the professional hurdling ranks for another eight years or so before retiring. Hopefully, by that time, he will have made his mark as one of the greatest high hurdlers of all time. Because Bramlett is such a meticulous student of the high hurdles, his career has greatly benefitted from his insistence on getting it all on film. We can all learn from the example he has set.