Masheto gears up for Olympics

By Kevin Olsen

With the Olympic torch getting closer to its home in Beijing, junior Gakologelwang Masheto’s journey away from home is just beginning.

Masheto, a native of Muan, Botswana, has been in the United States for less than two years, but he will leave for yet another part of the world this summer. In January, Masheto was named to the 2008 Botswana Olympic team by the Botswana Athletic Association. He will compete as part of the 4×400-meter relay, as well as individually in the 400 meters, in China.

The University of Illinois standout has endured a lot in his life, and now, the Olympics provide him a chance to live out his dreams. His parents were tragically killed in a car accident that subsequently saw Masheto under the care of coach Adam Letham for the four years before he moved to the United States. It was Letham who played a major role with Illinois head coach Wayne Angel in drawing Masheto to Illinois.

“In 1992, I saw the Olympics on television and I told myself one day I wanted to see myself running at the Olympics, so this is a dream come true,” Masheto said. “For a small country such as Botswana, this is something big to go to the Olympics and go there to represent my family and people back home.”

Masheto was originally a standout soccer player when he was younger before making the switch to track. The decision to trade sports initiated a chain reaction of success for the budding star.

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Known to teammates, coaches and acquaintances alike as “Shoes,” this quiet competitor lets his legs do all the talking. On Feb. 8, Masheto, a 400-meter runner, set an NCAA record in the 500 meters at the New Balance Invitational in New York. It was the fastest time in the world this year. The event is not a sanctioned NCAA Championship event, but it is still a collegiate record.

“He’s a very humble individual,” Angel said about Masheto. “He focuses on his academics. He knows how hard and how hard not to train and he just takes things one step at a time.”

The last meet he competed at as an individual was the Big Ten Indoor Championships. Masheto exhibited his toughness in capturing the 400 meters, while nursing a stress fracture in his foot. This marked his fourth Big Ten title in just a year and a half at Illinois. This was nothing new to Masheto, who has been a big-time winner since the first time Angel saw him compete in person.

Angel traveled to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean for the 2006 African Championships after reading about Masheto online and seeing his times. He wanted to “put facts with a face” and witnessed Masheto and his teammates take the bronze in the 4×400 relay. An instant relationship was born between the coach and the star.

“While evaluating, I saw talent,” Angel said. “I thought if we could get him back to Illinois and develop him, he might be something special.”

From there, Angel worked on getting Masheto to the United States, up until his arrival in January 2007.

Masheto got off the plane without a jacket to something he had only seen on television – snow and the cold winter weather of Champaign. Coach Angel was the only person in Champaign who Masheto knew.

“When I first met coach Angel in Mauritius, he told me he wanted me to come to the U.S.” Masheto said. “It was like a dream come true, but at the same time, I was just thinking how it was going to be going to America for the first time.”

It did not take long for Masheto to adjust to running indoors, and he has been a force to reckon with ever since, both indoors and outdoors. Now, he has the chance to compete alongside his countrymen once again at the Olympics.

He will remain in the United States before joining his teammates in Beijing because he does not want anything to affect his training program.

“Going to compete (with) my countrymen is just motivation, especially after not seeing them for such a long time,” Masheto said. “It’s just going to be something good to compete (with) them.”

Unlike the United States, where there are time trials and stages to qualify for the Olympics, Masheto was named to the Botswanan squad solely based on his times.

He is a two time All-American, finishing fifth in the 400 meters at the 2007 Indoor Championships and fourth in the 400 meters at the 2007 Outdoor Championships with a personal best time of 45.41 seconds.

Masheto also placed first in the 400 meters and second in the 200 meters at the 2006 African University Games and reached the semifinals in the 400 meters at the 2006 Commonwealth Games while attending the University of Botswana.

“He’s a natural. He has the natural ability to flow when he runs and he has the right attitude,” Angel said.

“He’s been doing this for quite a while so he understands the rhythm of the race. He understands the tactics. Plus, he’s at a level now, world-class wise, to where he’s run against some of the best, so he knows what to do in a race and he knows how to make it come out to his benefit.”

This year he has been hampered by a stress fracture in his foot but returned to action last weekend as part of the 4×400-meter relay team that finished fifth and currently holds the fastest time in the Big Ten at 3 minutes, 7.82 seconds.

“I think it does wonders in terms of recruitment and motivations,” Angel said about having an Olympian on his team. “It helps kids see they can do that one day if they work hard at it. It also, in terms of other quarter-milers wanting to be here to be able to train with him, helps greatly.”

Before Masheto begins to have visions of the Olympics, though, his focus turns to the Big Ten Outdoor Championships, which will be held in his backyard in Champaign.

At the championships, Masheto will try to repeat as the 400 meters champion. After that, the sky is the limit for the former soccer phenom, now turned track superstar.

“Usually I don’t set goals time-wise, I just want to go there, put a good effort, run my best race and see what happens next,” Masheto said.