Hurdler overcomes season-ending pandemic adversity. The Jovaine Atkinson story
Missing an entire spring season is nothing new for Liberty track and field’s standout hurdler Jovaine Atkinson. Atkinson’s time at Liberty has been a rollercoaster of peaks and valleys, including several injuries that caused him to miss extended periods of time.
After an injury his freshman year caused him to miss the majority of the indoor meets and the entire 2016 outdoor season, Atkinson was nearly at a breaking point.
“Mentally, (the injury) took a toll on me,” Atkinson said. “I had a lot of thoughts in my head. I wanted to leave Liberty. I wanted to stop doing track.”
Now, because of the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent cancelation of all NCAA spring sports, the redshirt senior is missing what would have been his final outdoor season. Another frustration to the dreams and goals he set for himself.
“With how much stuff I have been through with track and field since I have been to college,” Atkinson said, “I am pretty sure the average person would have already quit.”
But Atkinson’s career has been anything but average, and he has never quit, despite many trials during his collegiate career.
Track and field has been ingrained into Atkinson’s life since he was in middle school. Growing up on the island nation of Jamaica, Atkinson attended one of the country’s most prestigious academic and athletic secondary schools, Kingston College.
Atkinson began running hurdles in eighth grade, but two years later, he really started taking his training seriously. He recognized the opportunity to earn a scholarship for track and field.
When Atkinson began searching for schools during his junior year of high school, he was set on coming to the United States, but he struggled to find a school that offered a program for his desired major, aviation. After considering Purdue University and several other schools, Atkinson found Liberty, which offers a top-five aeronautics program in the country and a Division I track and field team. He immediately knew he had found his home.
The star hurdler knew he was coming to the right school for his major, but after some research into the track and field team, he noticed some room for improvement, especially when it came to the hurdle events.
“When I looked up the school and I saw the times and records and stuff that Liberty had for the hurdles, it was kind of weak,” Atkinson said. “I just told myself, I am going to be the one to maybe rewrite the script here.”
Since arriving in the fall of 2015, Atkinson has not only rewritten the script at Liberty, but has secured a place in the school’s record books.
Atkinson has won four total conference championships in the indoor 60-meter and outdoor 110-meter hurdles. He holds school records in both events, including blowing the previous 60 hurdles time out of the water by almost half a second, with a time of 7.64 (previously 8.08, which had stood since 1999).
During the 2017-18 indoor season, his redshirt sophomore year, Atkinson’s success peaked when he went undefeated in the 60 hurdles for the entire season until the NCAA meet, where he finished in fourth place. Atkinson’s effort notched him a spot as a first-team All-American, eclipsing one of the goals he envisioned before coming to Liberty.
Atkinson has not only rewritten the script at Liberty, but has secured a place in the school’s record books.
“I definitely recall that moment when I stood on that podium and I got the trophy in my hand,” Atkinson said. “It is a feeling like no other, knowing that, ‘Wow, you are one of best in the entire country.’”
Atkinson’s career has not been all mountaintop experiences like the 2018 NCAA Indoor Championships, however. Instead, Atkinson admits that there have been “more troughs than peaks” during his time at college.
The first of his low moments came during his freshman year. After getting off to a solid start to the indoor season, Atkinson suffered an injury that caused him to miss the rest of the indoor meets and the entire outdoor season.
Atkinson was able to use a medical redshirt to preserve that year of eligibility, but his inability to participate for several months was hard on the young athlete.
“I had so many breakdowns, and that is because, to me, the sport was everything,” Atkinson said.
Through the low moments of his freshman year, Atkinson realized that his sport had become his identity as he struggled to disconnect his personal value from his athletic performance.
“When I learned to let that go, I would say I have been through a healing process,” Atkinson said. “I have had several injuries since then, and the way I have handled it, compared to my freshman year, is much different. I have shown how much I have grown and matured over the years.”
Shawn Venable came to Liberty in the fall of 2016 to join the track and field program as an assistant coach for jumps and hurdles. Before ever arriving in Lynchburg, Venable spoke on the phone multiple times with Head Track and Field Coach Brant Tolsma about the talent and potential of several of the student athletes, including Atkinson.
Once Venable arrived on campus, he met Atkinson and saw the work he had already been putting in — working with the athletic trainer all summer, doing individual workouts and rehabbing — and was immediately impressed by his dedication.
“Jovaine is one of the most resilient young men I have ever known in my life,” Venable said. “A lot of times athletes never come back from injuries, but Jovaine has gotten injured a couple of times and been incredibly diligent and persevered through those situations and come back stronger.”
Atkinson came back strong from the injury he received his freshman year, posting two record-breaking seasons in a row, but more medical issues came during his redshirt junior year, keeping him out of another entire outdoor season. This time, however, Atkinson responded much differently to the injury, keeping a more positive mindset than before.
Even when he could not compete himself, Atkinson worked with Venable to help encourage and train his teammates, stepping up as a leader.
“As a coach, I have a lot of athletes and a lot of responsibilities and so a lot of times Jovaine would help me coach,” Venable said. “He really did a great job and impressed me … as a motivator and a leader in our program.”
Instead of falling into a rut of negativity like he battled during his first injury, Atkinson used his past struggles to connect with others on his team suffering similar issues.
“I am able to share my story and be an encouragement or a light to other people who are currently going through injuries,” Atkinson said. “I am able to talk to them, … (and) I am able to explain certain things to them and coach them as to how to deal with certain things.”
Atkinson finished up another successful indoor season this year, culminating with his victory in the 60 hurdles at the ASUN Championship meet. March 12 was a big day for Atkinson and Liberty track and field, as the hurdler was named the program’s first ASUN Scholar Athlete of the Year, a bittersweet award that was announced only hours before the news that the NCAA spring season had been cancelled.
Due to the coronavirus, Atkinson will not be able to compete in the spring outdoor season for the third time in his five years at Liberty, but this time, he is completely healthy. Even the disappointment of a cancelled senior season has not gotten Atkinson down though, as he keeps his eyes focused on what is still ahead.
“I just try to look on the brighter side of things, knowing health comes first,” Atkinson said. “As much as I think I probably would have had my best outdoor season yet, I do not know what God has in store. Things happen for a reason.”
Atkinson said he plans to remain in Lynchburg next year as he continues his studies, building flight hours and working toward his Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) rating.
He is not done training, either. Atkinson says he hopes to use his final season of eligibility to run for Liberty one last time next spring. He will also make his goal to qualify for the World Indoor Championships in 2021, looking to compete as a hurdler for his home country in that event.
Venable said he is excited to continue helping Atkinson train, even beyond his collegiate career. Atkinson has been one of the top five hurdlers in Jamaica at different points during the last several years, according to Venable, giving the coach confidence that Atkinson’s ability to compete internationally is a real possibility if he decided to train and pursue that goal.
“I believe Jovaine does have Olympic ability,” Venable said. “He is talented, committed and he works hard and is dedicated.”
Venable made one thing clear—whatever Atkinson decides to pursue in the future, he is going to do it with 100% commitment, and he is going to do it well.
“One of these days, when track isn’t in the picture, he is going to be successful in his career,” Venable said. “He is going to be a successful husband and father.”
Whether in the cockpit of an airplane or on the podium at the Olympics, perseverance and tenacity will be essential to Atkinson achieving his goals. Adversity shaped him and will continue to drive him to push through.
“Things happen for a reason…”Jovaine Atkinson
“I would not take (my low moments) back for anything,” Atkinson said. “I have seen opportunities where (adversity) allows me to grow. I like who I am now as an individual. … When adversity comes my way (now), I know how to handle it.”
Christian Weaner is a Sports reporter for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on Twitter @christianweaner