Joe Waskom is still not sure he believes what he accomplished.
The Washington redshirt sophomore from Mount Si High School won the 1,500 meters at the NCAA track and field championships Friday night in Eugene, Oregon.
It was the first outdoor track title for the Washington men since 2011, the Huskies’ first running title since 2006 and their first title in the prestigious 1,500 event since 1928.
That it came from someone virtually unknown outside local circles until a few weeks ago, from someone who was performing so poorly a couple of months ago that his coach had a private meeting with him, only adds to the story.
Until a few weeks ago steeplechase was Waskom’s event, so it’s no wonder why he couldn’t have envisioned this feat. But he knew the potential was there.
“In indoor season, I ran 3:56 in the mile, so I knew I could run pretty quick,” he said.
But in April, he wasn’t running quickly, which was a surprise considering he had finished second in the steeplechase last year at the Pac-12 meet.
“At one point in the middle of April, he might have been the worst kid on the team,” said UW men’s track coach Andy Powell.
It reached a low point for Waskom in a dual meet against Washington State on April 22. Waskom was last out of four competitors, finishing 25 1/2 seconds behind the winner and 20 seconds behind the other UW entrant, Sam Affolder.
“We had a dual meet and our guys just knocked it out of the park — everyone ran well except for him,” Powell said. “I waited until the next day and I had a really stern conversation with him. I said, ‘You are either going to get on this train or not. I just don’t want you to miss out on a really great opportunity.’
“And he turned it around, and I am very proud of him.”
Waskom, who said he was sick when running in the dual meet against the Cougars, did turn it around. Not that it was instantaneous.
Two weeks later, he and fellow Huskies Luke Houser and Nathan Green competed in the 1,500 in the noncollegiate Sound Running track meet in Southern California.
Waskom was last of 11 who finished, “but it was definitely an improvement from the dual (against Washington State),” he said.
It was good enough for Waskom to be entered in both the steeplechase and the 1,500 in the Pac-12 championships May 13-15 in Eugene.
Waskom finished fourth in the steeplechase on the second day of the meet, more than 33 seconds faster than he had been at the dual meet against WSU.
He had a bigger surprise the next day, using a big kick to edge Houser in the 1,500-meter final.
“The steeple and the 1,500 is a pretty hard double to do at the conference meet,” Powell said. “He finishes fourth in the steeple and then he came out of nowhere and surprised everyone when he won the 1,500.”
Said Waskom: “I really found my groove at Pac-12s.”
The victory qualified him for the NCAA championships, and he Powell agreed that just running in the 1,500 in the NCAA championships — and not entering the steeplechase — was the best strategy.
It obviously worked out, with Waskom, Houser and Green all advancing through NCAA regionals into the 12-man final last Friday.
Waskom said training with Houser and Green, who had more previous success and faster times in the 1,500, was a big key to his turning things around.
“Just training with those guys made me more confident I could run about the same (times),” said Waskom, whose father, Jim, was a two-year letterman (1987-88) as a strong safety on the UW football team.
Houser, a redshirt sophomore from Woodinville High School, was a rival of Waskom’s in high school but the two are now great friends.
“Without Houser, I don’t know if Joe wins these races,” Powell said. “We knew that those two work together and they finished 1-2 in the Pac-12. Then you have Nathan Green, an 18-year-old freshman, and he is loving every moment of it, following those guys.”
In the NCAA final, the plan was for Houser to make his move with about 650 meters left and for Waskom to follow. The ideal outcome was that the two Huskies would be 1-2 with 200 meters left and then hold on.
“I told (Houser and Green) before the race, ‘We can all do this. We need to be as confident as anyone here, we deserve to be here and any one of us can win this,’ ” Waskom said.
About halfway through the race, Green yelled, “Dogs run better in a pack.”
“I was right next to him, and I was trying not to laugh,” Waskom said. “But once he said that, everyone else in the race, I could see on their faces, were almost panicked.”
Not long after, Houser made his move. Waskom passed Houser with about half a lap left, then held off Mario Garcia Romo by .11 seconds.
Houser was fifth and Green seventh, giving Washington three scorers (the top eight score) and three All-Americans in the event.
And the champion.
“I knew I had to get to the front,” said Waskom, who said he was pretty tired in the final meters. “I didn’t know if I would hold it. But I did, luckily, hold it. And the rest is history.”
A year ago, Waskom did not make it to the NCAA championships, but he drove to Eugene to cheer on his teammates. While there, Waskom walked around the track with Powell.
“He told me that I could be here next year if I completely bought in and trusted him and that is what I did,” Waskom said. “I completely bought in and trusted him through all the ups and downs. I believe in him so much, as do all my teammates. And when you trust someone that much, it usually works out.”
Even during the worst moments this season, Waskom said his teammates were so encouraging that he wasn’t down for long.
And with Waskom, Houser, Green and several other key members returning, the future is bright for the UW men’s track team, which finished 12th as a team.
“I am so glad I could bring this (title) back to the university because they do so much for us,” said Waskom, a communications major who has received Pac-12 academic honors. “We will all be Dogs for life.”