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Former Arkansas Track Star Hurdles Over Obstacles

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Omar McLeod, right, leaps over a hurdle Jan. 17, 2014, to take first in the 60-meter hurdle event with a time of 7.76 seconds.

It was a crisp Tuesday night at the João Havelange Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Here, eight hurdlers prepared for the race of their lives. Each athlete was focused on the opportunity to become a gold medalist.

In lane five was 22-year-old Omar McLeod. McLeod, who recently won the 2016 World Indoor Championships, knew what was at stake. He would either run a clean race or wait four more years to try again.

The competitors waited in the blocks for the gun to go off.

Suddenly, the trigger was pulled, and the world was watching.

Each athlete reached the first hurdle at the same time. The contenders continued to jump over the first five hurdles. It was poetry in motion, as they were remaining side by side.

It was not until the sixth hurdle when McLeod’s performance of fluidity prevailed. He pulled ahead of the competition, and as he crossed the finish line, he was leading the group by more than three feet, the largest margin of a 110-meter hurdles race in Olympic history.

On Aug. 16, 2016, Omar McLeod looked at the leader board for the final results and officially solidified a dream he had aspired to reach ever since he started running; he became the first Jamaican to win the gold medal in the men’s 110-meter hurdles.

Reliving the Golden Moment

McLeod said he tries to calm himself down before every race, but Rio was different.

“I can relive it like it was yesterday,” McLeod said. “When I am in situations like that, I always try to goof around in my head. I know how to calm myself down, but at Rio I just found that it wasn’t working.”

Although McLeod’s nerves were in full force before the race, his anxiety did not interfere with the performance itself.

“At (the) half point in the race, I was playing it safe and just focusing on not hitting a hurdle,” McLeod said. “When I was at the fifth hurdle, something came over me, and I just let go and had fun.”

McLeod finished with an official time of 13.05 seconds. Winning the gold medal enabled him to stand in the middle of podium, something he had visualized ever since he was little.

“It was one of the best times of my life,” McLeod said. “I’ve seen Usain Bolt do it, and I’ve seen Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce do it, but I made that happen.”

Family Matters

Throughout his life, McLeod said he has met many people who have been important and inspiring to him, but one person who left a lasting impact on him was his aunt, Candece Knight.

“The relationship me and my aunt made was irreplaceable,” McLeod said. “When I would call her, she would just make everything better.”

Many athletes will face adversity throughout their careers, such as injuries or falls during races, but for McLeod, the adversity he faced was much more personal. During his freshman year of college at the UofA, he received a phone call his aunt had passed away. Knight died at 28 years old.

“She was sick,” McLeod said. “They said it was her heart. The thing that hurt the most was that I was (in Fayetteville), in my first year of college, so I wasn’t there to know what really was going on.”

When he found out, McLeod traveled to Clarendon, Jamaica for the funeral.

“I remember we would make plans a lot because she was my best friend,” McLeod said. “How I wanted to take care of her and how she wanted to see me (be) a star.”

It was a difficult time for McLeod, and although he lost a close family member, he credits the passing of his aunt to the development of the person he is today.

“She taught me the value of being myself,” McLeod said. “I am just blessed with a childlike spirit, and that will never change. She taught me to embrace that.”

During his Olympic run, McLeod competed  for his aunt and he said he knew she was with him through it all. While McLeod was in the blocks, during the Olympic games, waiting for the trigger to be pulled, he felt his aunt there with him.

“When I was in the blocks, I looked up and saw my aunt,” McLeod said. “I’ve never felt so much joy in my life.”

McLeod has come to terms with the passing of his hero.

“Even though I was hurt, devastated and angry at her for leaving me, I cannot be selfish because she was hurting,” McLeod said. “When you love somebody you want to take away all of their pain.”

Looking Ahead

Currently, McLeod is living in Fayetteville and is training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He said he wants to defend his title, and he uses the target on his back as motivation.

“The pressure is there, and pressure is a privilege because it makes me want to work twice as hard,” McLeod said.

In the future, McLeod looks forward to buying his own home and starting an organization to give back to others. He also wants to settle down and have a family. But, for right now, the next Olympics are what his sights are on.

With four years between Olympic events, staying focused could be an issue. McLeod said his secret to success for staying motivated while waiting for the next big race is simple.

“I just take each day as it comes,” McLeod said. “When you’re doing it for family and the people that love you, it makes it so much easier.”

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