Austin’s Olympic Hopeful
After 10 years of Olympic dreaming and tireless training, Darryl Payne Jr.’s journey may take an unexpected turn.
On a 95-degree August day, Darryl Payne Jr. quietly takes his mark along the track at Austin High School, while band students chant musical scales and a football team scrambles nearby. In a three-second blur of blue shirt and stars-and-stripes socks, Payne bursts down the track.
Payne’s feet bounce off the track with every step, as if his shoes contain springs. Twenty meters down, he turns around and walks back to the starting point, hands on his hips. He launches into a second sprint.
Payne hits the track nearly every morning as part of the hurdler’s daily five-hour training regimen, hoping to represent his country at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. But after a answering a Facebook ad landed Payne in front of camera crews for a televised competition show, track and field is no longer the only sport on 25-year-old’s radar.
Payne may have a new Olympic prospect: bobsledding.
I summon a bit of imagination and the hot red track transforms into an icy course. Alongside Payne’s sprinting body, a long, aerodynamic bobsled shoots down the track.
Hurdlers like Payne recognize that their starting sprints can decide a competition’s outcome. That’s also true for bobsled athletes, who utilize some of the same muscles to build up maximum power and speed, then leap into the bobsled for a twisting ride.
Although famous athletes like Lolo Jones, Lauren Williams, and Herschel Walker crossed over to the winter sport, Payne knew little about bobsledding. But he wanted nothing more than to finally have his Olympic moment.
Payne’s sprint to the screen is a month-long blur: watching a 23-second promo video for a show called “The Next Olympic Hopeful” on Facebook, sending in his numbers, and receiving the news via email a few weeks later.
Sinking into his parents’ sofa in Louisiana, Payne opened the message on his phone and immediately sprang up, dancing madly around the living room.
“My family was like ‘What’s wrong with you?’” he recalls, laughing.
The email contained his two-week summons to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, where he would join 90 other athletes from around the country at a scouting camp in July to train for either bobsled, skeleton, rugby, or track cycling. Trainers selected Payne for the bobsledding group.
Eight winners — one male and one female athlete per sport —will be revealed Aug. 25, when the two-hour T.V. special airs, and compete at the official Olympic Training Camp for the chance to make Team USA.
While the invitation marks the beginning of a new adventure for Payne, it’s more like an unanticipated twist along the course of his decade-long Olympic dream.
When Payne moved to Lafayette, La. in the fourth grade, his family didn’t realize that by settling into the neighborhood — which teemed with young athletes — Payne and his sisters were virtually receiving a year-round gym membership.
Across the street from the family’s small brick house lived Payne’s best friend, Devante Washington, and his two older brothers, who weren’t allowed to watch much television or play video games. “If it was the weekend or summer, we were outside from the time the sun came up to when the streetlights came on, past that sometimes,” Payne remembers.
Kids poured out of every-other house to play games, mostly basketball. Some days, they wrestled on a trampoline or raced from the stop sign to somebody’s mailbox.
From the beginning, Payne was fast.
“He’s always been very quick and can jump very high,” Washington recalls. Payne looks calm and “at home” when running, he says. “It’s blissful to watch.”
In seventh grade, Payne joined his middle-school track team for fun before developing serious athletic ambitions in high school. Also a band enthusiast and aspiring doctor, the teenager determined his first love: track.
When Washington joined Payne on the high school track team, the duo constantly competed during workouts to see who could go harder and last longer. Their four-by-four relay team, led by Payne and anchored by Washington, broke the school record. Payne set regional records in hurdles.
Payne’s Olympic dream began to develop at age 15. Six months away from the 2008 Beijing Olympics qualifiers, the teen decided he wanted to compete. As he watched the Olympics unfold from his living room that summer, Payne let Washington in on his dream to represent Team USA, and persuaded him to join in on his Olympic training.
Payne ended his final track season of high school convinced he still had not reached his limits. After leading the majority of his last race, he ran out of strength. “I know I’m faster, I just have to be able to tap into it,” he told himself.
As Payne threw himself into training, he hoped to conceal his Olympic aspirations until he made Team USA.
First, he set his sights on joining a prestigious track and field team in college: the “golden ticket” he believed would set him up for Olympic success.
Off the beaten track
When Payne moved his things into a dorm at Baylor University, his Olympic dream moved with him — but he still kept it in the closet, hidden behind green-and-gold jerseys.
Payne dove into activities alongside his new friends: playing outdoor games with fellow student-athletes, performing in the school band, and joining a close-knit Christian group on campus. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Payne used his culinary chops to prepare turkey and stuffing for team holiday meals.
But the summer after his junior year, everything changed. Payne decided that in order to keep chasing his Olympic dream, he needed to leave Baylor behind.
Looking back, Payne is confident he made the right choice. “I wouldn’t have made the scouting camp because I was literally struggling to have a job, get good grades, be on the track team at Baylor,” he explains.
At the time, the decision to leave his friends and postpone his lifelong career ambition to become a doctor took its toll. Payne felt pressure from family and society to finish his education and follow the traditional college-to-career trajectory.
Payne left everyone behind and moved to Austin with an old friend, where he enrolled in culinary school, secured a job at a restaurant to pay the bills, and focused on training.“I cried all the time for a week straight,” Payne says. “Every time I thought about it, tears would come.”
Yet as the 21-year-old’s biological clock counted down, Payne firmly believed God was calling him to fully develop his athletic gifts while he still had the chance.
The secret is out
As Payne unpacked his belongings at his new Austin apartment in 2013, excitement mingled with fear — the kind of fear that “pushes you to do your best.” With no coach, Payne trained by himself for six months during the hardest season of his athletic career.
After making the move, Payne finally divulged the Olympic dream he had been chasing for eight years: “I came out and said ‘Hey my name is Darryl Payne Jr. and I’m training for the Olympic team in 2016.” He posted to Facebook and set up a GoFundMe account.
The decision marked a turning point for Payne.
“I kind of felt that it was a silly dream until one day I was just going to go for it and tell people so I’m not holding myself back in any other capacity,” he says. “So once I did that full force I feel that’s when I took off.”
He began training with coach David Braswell and independently entering track meets. When his efforts still weren’t enough for the 2016 Olympics, Payne was disappointed, but not disillusioned. He prayed and meditated. And he quietly reset his clock for four more years.
“I have four years to give it absolutely everything I’ve got. Everything I did in the season prior to the 2016 Olympics, I gotta double that in these next four years,” Payne says. “If I make the team, it will be the best thing that ever happens to me. If I don’t I’ll know I pushed it to the limit...but it just wasn’t in the cards.”
To the limits
Payne’s schedule leaves little room for sleep.
Nearly every morning, he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and runs two miles before training with Braswell at the track. Then Payne heads to the gym, where he continues his workout and coaches a few of his personal training clients.
At 2 p.m., Payne reports to his job at Geraldine’s as a line chef. He leaves the restaurant around 11 or 12 p.m. and rolls into bed. Then the day repeats.
Meanwhile, Payne adheres to a relatively strict diet: whole grains, beans, vegetables, lean proteins and nuts — plus his peanut butter, jelly and bacon sandwich recovery snack. Sometimes, Payne imagines how a food might taste rather than actually indulging. “I’m weird that way,” he says, grinning. “I can taste the potential in food.”
He admits the whole routine is “pretty intensive.”
Oliver Debayle, one of Payne’s roommates, jokes that Payne doesn’t sleep at all. “Do you even live here?” Payne’s roommates tease him.
The most challenging aspect of training is mental, Payne says. At his first meet last year, Payne shook nervously at the starting line. Overwhelmed by self-inflicted pressure, Payne attempted to sprint the entire hurdling event to keep up instead of trusting his stride.
“My biggest thing I learned last year was to have fun. I just took everything so seriously,” he says.
The athlete is also a genuine goofball, according to Debayle. Payne spontaneously started a “Sunday Shakedown” tradition every Sunday afternoon, when the two crank up the music and dance around the concrete floors.
In the weeks leading up to The Next Olympic Hopeful, the usually-introverted Payne grew more talkative, Debayle says. After years of intense workouts, strict eating, and a schedule short on sleep, Payne eagerly anticipated the chance to “see fruit” from his tireless training.
As Payne and 90 other athletes descended the airport steps in Colorado, a swarm of cameras received them, following them on shuttles to the Olympic Training Center. For three days, the large black boxes captured the competitive action and listened in on athletes’ conversations.
Payne laughs as he remembers the awkward shuttle conversation with his 19-year-old seatmate, trying to force a conversation along while cameras peered over their shoulders.
Payne didn’t mind the cameras. “As kids, we would make videos,” he explains. He and Washington filmed stunts during track practices: jumping over mailboxes or playing “Extreme Leapfrog.” A hurdling episode that ended with Washington lying on the ground made the show, “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
This time, however, the cameras following Payne captured a potentially career-altering competition, rather than the athlete’s comedic escapades.
As Payne stepped onto the campus of the Olympic Training Center, “I felt like I was already living the dream,” he says. Treated like the Olympic athletes already staying at the immaculate facilities, competitors slept in the same dorms, ate identical food, and received access to seemingly endless resources.
Payne’s face lights up, as if he just returned from exploring the athlete’s Promised Land, flowing with top-of-the-line treadmills and sports technology.
“It was breathtaking, seeing all that stuff,” Payne says. “They have a treadmill with 5,000 sensors in it so they can see where you’re putting pressure whenever you’re walking.” Other treadmills are manually powered to match the athlete’s exact pace.
The pool features a world record belt. “That’s pretty cool,” Payne says. “Just getting in the pool and seeing Michael’s record pass me multiple times is intimidating.”
In the gym, Payne asked strength and conditioning coaches about obscure gear, just to see if they kept it on hand. “I asked if they had a [VertiMax] and they just said ‘yeah, it’s over there. You can use it if you want.’” Payne recalls, still impressed.
“It’s like stuff you see on TV, but it’s right there in front of me!”
Throughout the three-day period, Payne and his fellow athletes received training from several mentors, including Lauren Williams, and completed five tests to determine who would be invited to the official Olympic training camp.
Payne gave it his everything, determined to “take it all the way, not leave anything on the track.” While he can’t divulge results, he seems pleased with his performance. “I killed every test,” he says with a smile.
This Thursday morning finds Payne back on the track, where he could have been spotted training two months ago. Payne proudly sports a blue team t-shirt — featuring the iconic five rings and his designated number — a souvenir from his time in Colorado.
Under his new running shoes, Payne’s stars-and-stripes socks symbolize the athlete’s hope to one day represent his country in full athletic uniform. I ask Payne, who is known his “on-point sock game,” if he wore the patriotic socks at the Scouting camp.
“No, I didn’t,” he says. “I didn’t want to be too corny!” (Instead, he opted for one pair with cartoon wolves and another featuring Tupac.)
As I watch Payne run on the first day of August, his Olympic dream is out, but he has a new secret: Is he training for a shot at hurdling in the 2020 Summer Olympics, or hoping to first represent Team USA on a bobsled in 2018?
Payne walks back to the starting point, crouches down, and bursts into another sprint.
Either way, he’s not stopping.