For Howard's Oliver, Great Leaps Forward

David Oliver has posted three of the world's top five times in the 110-meter hurdles this season, including 12.95 seconds in May.
David Oliver has posted three of the world's top five times in the 110-meter hurdles this season, including 12.95 seconds in May. (Axel Schmidt - AFP/Getty Images)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008; Page E01

EUGENE, Ore., July 2 -- David Oliver couldn't believe the turn his life had taken. He had graduated from Howard University with a bachelor's degree in marketing for this? He found himself bunking in an Orlando house with three other track athletes, one of whom was sleeping in the living room. They were so broke, they never turned on the air conditioning or used the dishwasher.

Oliver recalls buying five-pound bags of rice at Wal-Mart and pancake mix that required only water, and eating cereal all day long. He drove a rickety 1992 Chevy that sometimes got him to practice without stalling, but usually didn't. And then, once he arrived for his daily training under legendary, old-school coach Brooks Johnson, things got really tough. During Oliver's first practice under Johnson in 2004, the coach demanded nine 300-yard sprints, broken up into three sets.

After each set, Oliver stepped to the side of the track and vomited.

But, Oliver noted Wednesday, he finished the practice.

Four years later, Oliver sat at a microphone midway through the U.S. Olympic trials in track and field, introduced as the one of the top 110-meter hurdlers in the world and the favorite to claim one of three Olympic team slots in a competition that starts with Saturday's qualifying and ends with Sunday's final. Oliver has posted three of the world's top five times in the event this season, including 12.95 seconds in May. That's second to the world record of 12.87 run by Cuban Dayron Robles.

Oliver now lives in a comfortable townhouse, drives a Jaguar and can afford to eat out. (Some Johnson-devised workouts, however, still leave him searching for garbage cans near the track.) At just after 9 a.m., he bounded out of a hotel elevator on his way to Wednesday's news conference and hugged three media officials from USA Track and Field, beaming all the while. "Every day," he said to explain the explosion of energy, "is a celebration to me."

Allen Johnson, the Lake Braddock High graduate and hurdling legend who is seeking a place on his fourth Olympic team, sees a bit of himself -- his old self -- in Oliver, who at 26 is 11 years younger.

"Like me, in his early years on the circuit, he didn't always get his just due," Johnson said. "I assume that's given him a lot of motivation, a lot of drive, so that when he's out there he can't be denied. He's showed the whole world he belongs."

From the beginning, it wasn't a smooth path. It never crossed Oliver's mind that the hurdles might be an event for him until he found some old boxes in his family's home in Denver. Inside, he discovered worn track spikes, yellowed media guides, race numbers and awards.

Turns out, his mother, Brenda Chambers, not only competed in the 400 hurdles, but also made it all the way to the Olympic trials.

The dusty discovery provided Oliver, 12 or 13 at the time, with the first glimpse into her success. As a University of Colorado junior, she won all-American honors and competed at the 1980 U.S. Olympic trials that took place here at Hayward Field. She didn't win a medal, so she didn't figure it was worth mentioning to the three children she raised largely on her own. A single mother, she has worked at UPS for 23 years.

When her son inquired about her career, and the sport, she finally filled him in.

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