Illini of the Decade: #20 Gakologelwang Masheto

His name sticks out. Located on the south wall of the Armory, it is positioned left of Craig Virgin and just above Bobby True.

At 20 letters, Gakologelwang Masheto is the longest name on the massive indoor men’s track and field record board. But most know the Illinois track star by his nickname — “Shoes.”

It’s November 2009, and Shoes — a Botswana native — is bundled up in multiple layers as he sits on the bleachers under the record board that he appears on three separate times.

His attire is much improved from when he exited a plane in a frigid Chicago three winters before with his coat in his check-in luggage.

“I left the plane, I was like ‘Dang,’” Masheto remembers. “Coach (Wayne) Angel was at the airport, I just kind of asked him ‘Is it going to be like this the whole time, or is it going to change?’ … Coming from the southern Sahara of Africa where it’s always hot, and then coming here and finding like, ‘Oh my God it’s something like 20 degrees,’ it’s just a big transition.”

Never having experienced cold like this before, Shoes learned immediately that, in coming to the University, he had traveled from summer to winter.

During his next three years at Illinois, Shoes adapted not just to the weather, but the language, diet and collegiate competition of the United States. And perhaps it was the latter in which he eventually adapted to the best.

A six-time Big Ten champion and two-time All-American, Shoes garnered international attention in the summer of 2008 when he represented Botswana in the Summer Olympics in Beijing. He was the center of attention in college as well, always being looked upon to score points for the Illini in sprinting and middle-distance events.

But Shoes also had a direct impact on those around him.

Senior Yawusa Kinda saw Shoes compete at the prestigious Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, while Kinda was attending Kansas City Community College in 2007. After seeing Shoes race, Kinda knew he wanted to finish his track career as an Illini.

“I wanted (a teammate) who’s much better than me, so I could train harder, just to make me better,” Kinda explains.

Kinda transferred to Illinois for the 2007-08 season and says he knew he got exactly what he bargained for after his first time training with Shoes.

“It was one of my few times always seeing somebody in front of me,” Kinda says. “I’m not used to that, I grew up as the ‘top kid.’”

The performances of the soft-spoken kid from Botswana on the track earned him the respect of his teammates and competitors, says Angel, who coached Shoes for three years before recently stepping down from the position of head coach of the men’s track and field team in November.

“He didn’t have to say what he was going to do; his actions spoke loudly,” Angel says. “And he would encourage people, he would motivate them with his hard work and dedication and commitment.”

But Shoes says he wishes he would have created even more noise with his actions.

During his sophomore year in 2006-07 — his first as an Illini — Shoes earned All-America honors both indoors and outdoors. He followed that with the appearance in the Olympics, which established him as the poster boy for Illinois men’s track and field for his career.

But Shoes fell short of his ultimate goal — a national title — and never received another All-America honor.

“I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to, like time-wise, achievement,” he says.

Shoes had his fair share of bad luck during his career, suffering late-season injuries in his final two outdoor seasons. Then, in the 2009 Indoor NCAA Championship 400-meter race — the one Angel believes Shoes had the best shot of winning — a mental mistake prevented him from even making the finals.

In the preliminaries, Shoes thought winning his heat would advance him to the finals, but in the NCAA Championships, only the top eight overall times advance.

“Indoors (in 2009), I really believe he would have been the man, he would have won it,” Angel said. “It was just in his heat, he won it fairly easy, he backed off and he just miscalculated … I think the big thing on his mind was (that) he wanted to win a national championship. He was the favorite to win it … It hurt him, it hurt me, but you had to move on.”

Angel thinks Shoes, while still disappointed about his lack of a national title, should hold his head high and reflect on the many things people will remember him by.

“I don’t think that Shoes really understands what he accomplished at Illinois,” Angel says. “When you look at that record board, he holds the record in the 600, the 400 and the 500 (meters). I don’t really think he understands what he’s done. I just know he ran fast, he did his best and he enjoyed it.”

While still feeling a tinge of disappointment, Shoes says he is honored by the things he accomplished in college.

During his first year at Illinois, he asked Angel about the significance of being an All-American.

“He was kind of telling me, ‘Man, this is the big achievement in NCAA track and field,’” Shoes explains. “It just means a lot to me, just coming here, getting those kinds of honors. It tells me I’m one of those competitive people.”

Later, as his interview on the bleachers at the south end of the Armory concludes, Shoes looks up.

“Hey, I still have some records,” he comments as he sees his name alongside past Illini greats.

Then he leaves.

Shoes is on track to graduate from the University in May, after which he is planning on leaving the United States to return to Botswana.

But if he revisits Champaign years later, there is a good chance that Gakologelwang Masheto will still have the longest name on the record board in the Armory.