TEMPE — Justin Robinson is feeling invincible.
After finishing his junior track and field season with Hazelwood West High School in Missouri, the sprinter has decided to travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to compete in a postseason meet at the Great Southwest Classic on June 8, 2019.
Robinson has already registered some incredible performances and he is just 17.
His personal best for the 400 meters is 46.20 seconds heading into the meet in Albuquerque, and Robinson has begun to make a name for himself nationally with a number of first-place finishes at top meets across the country and an international meet in Finland.
But on this day in June, Robinson pushes his body further than anybody his age ever had before.
The clock reads 44.84, meaning no one in history under the age of 18 had run faster than him at the distance. Nobody.
He stands alone.
“Honestly, I really didn’t even know that I set a U-18 world record,” Robinson said, remembering that life-defining moment. “I thought I just broke the meet record. I was just happy with that. Then I saw my coach running down the side of the stadium and jump over the rail, and he grabbed me. I’m like, ‘Man, what’s going on? What did I do?’
“Later on, he told me what happened. I was ecstatic. I was truly grateful, truly blessed as a whole to have the experience that I had. It was a mix of emotions going on. I was happy, grateful, blessed, excited. I was speechless, to sum it up.”
Interestingly enough, Robinson actually recorded his first 44-second race before he even ran his first official 45-second race for the distance. The record still stands to this day.
The trajectory for Robinson was pointing toward the blue, yellow, black, green and red rings that make up the Olympics. Greatness was seemingly ahead for the track and field phenom.
Then something strange happened – Robinson stopped getting faster. Race after race, he failed to run faster than that special day in Albuquerque. Four years passed without a new personal best in his signature event, which feels like an eternity for a young athlete in the track and field world.
It wasn’t until this year that Robinson began to recapture the magic that led to his world record.
The bounceback started, ironically, in Albuquerque – where it all began for Robinson. At the United States Track and Field Indoor National Championships in February, Robinson won the individual title in the 400-meters in a time of 45.40.
Then Robinson ran under 45 seconds for the first time since 2020 when he recorded a 44.54 in the semifinal rounds at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in June. Robinson recorded another sub-45 second race two days later, running 44.51 to finish fourth in the nation in the finals for the 400-meters.
With Robinson’s performances in the winter and spring, USATF selected Robinson to be a member of the relay teams at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary in August.
There, Robinson reaffirmed to himself, and those around him, that he was indeed back on top of the world after helping Team USA win two gold medals, capping off one of the greatest single individual track and field seasons from a Sun Devil athlete in school history.
But the journey to get there was filled with roadblocks in between.
Early days as an athlete
Despite his father having run track and field in college at Norfolk State University, Robinson never gravitated toward the sport growing up. Instead, he was focused on football.
Then an impromptu street race with his older cousin at the family Fourth of July party showed him that maybe something was there.
His cousin, who attended Hazelwood West and was a member of the track and field team, held the title of fastest in the family until Robinson dethroned him.
“He was like, ‘Nah, that’s not a real race, man. You got to come out to a track, it’s not real. It’s just a street race,’” Robinson said.
That’s when Robinson knew he might be fast.
So off he went to Hazelwood West – where fate brought him to Sean Burris.
Burris, who started coaching in the 1990s and has developed national champion sprinters in the past, was out of coaching for quite some time before joining the staff at Hazelwood West. It wasn’t until a friend convinced him to return that he did so.
When he came on campus, Burris knew very little about any of the athletes on campus. He first started to notice Justin not for his actions on-the-track, but rather for his antics off the track.
“He liked to untie my shoes for some reason,” Burris said with a dose of laughter. “He had done that several times.”
After the first few days of practice, the team was talking about what shoes it needed for the upcoming season.
Immediately, the young freshman Robinson – who hadn’t competed in a track and field meet yet – sprung up.
“Justin says, ‘Oh, I know what shoes I need to get,’” Burris said. “And I’m looking at him like, ‘You’re a 14-year-old kid. You’ve never run track. How do you know what you need to get?,’”
“My dad ran track in college,” Justin responded.
That’s when it hit Burris like a bolt of lightning.
“I just looked at him right in the eye – I don’t know what happened – and I said, ‘Is your dad Byron Robinson?’”
“Yeah, how’d you know that?” Justin asked with a perplexed look.
Robinson. Track. Dad. College.
The connections were firing together in Burris’ brain – he was staring at the son of his former college roommate from Norfolk State University.
It was like a script was being written right before their eyes. The two men hadn’t spoken since they were both in college.
Right then and there, the two called up Justin’s dad and they all took in the surrealness of the situation. From that point on, Burris felt a special kinship and responsibility to Robinson.
Little did he know, he had a world-class talent on his hands.
Setting down a path
It became pretty clear early on to Burris that Robinson was built differently than your average quarter-miler.
In an early-season meet as a freshman, Robinson split 49 seconds on his leg for the 4×400-meter relay against East St. Louis High School – the school that track and field legends Jackie Joyner-Kreese and Dawn Harper-Nelson attended.
That’s when Burris had to sit down with Robinson’s parents to lay out the big picture.
“The next time we had a home meet, I immediately found his mom,” Burris said. “She was up there in the stands. I sat down with her and said, ‘We got to make sure we take care of him. Make sure he’s up on his greens, getting enough sleep.’ And she was like, ‘Oh, but he’s a football player!’
“I said, ‘I don’t know about the football thing. But I do know about this: I know that he’s going to be special in this if we take care of him.’ She jumped on board. And the rest was history.”
Robinson eventually morphed into one of the top track and field recruits.
One of his first international competitions, at the U-20 World Championships in July 2018 in Tampere, Finland, was Robinson’s big breakthrough on the global stage. At that race, Robinson – who had already popped up on the radar of Arizona State University and coach Dion Miller earlier in 2018 – split a 44.8 leg in the 4×400-meter relay after a dropped baton put Team USA far behind. Robinson got the baton in sixth place and clawed his way up the field to hand it off in third place.
Miller had previously recruited athletes that trained under Burris, so he was familiar with the coach and the St. Louis area.
Robinson came to Tempe on an official visit during his junior season while Miller was the head coach in-waiting.
“When I arrived on campus, Justin was the number one priority for me,” Miller said. “As a coach, sometimes you can’t just recruit off of the number you see and the ranking you see nationally. When we were looking at Justin, I think he only had run 46.5, 46.6 indoors. So I always knew he had a special gift from watching him in Finland.”
It was a “program-changing” signing when Robinson committed to ASU, Miller said.
Once he got to ASU though, his development hit a snag.
Robinson still isn’t sure exactly what happened during that time period when he was unable to run a personal best in the 400-meters. It got to the point where Robinson considered walking away from the sport in 2021 after placing 10th at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
There are a few things he can pinpoint, like adjusting to his body as he grew and coming into a new sprint program at ASU.
It wasn’t like he was “slow” during this time – he was still running the 400-meters in the 45-second range, and he even recorded a new personal best in the 200-meters.
But he couldn’t get back down to the time he ran in June 2019 to set the U-18 world record.
Burris offered a few explanations of his own.
He feels as if Robinson would have hit a personal best in 2020 and 2021 if the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t cause the disruption that it did. The subsequent seasons were interrupted greatly, like most of life.
In 2020, Robinson ran in only one race – an impressive 44.91 win at an American League Track meet.
“It has to do with getting back to basics, rediscovering himself, getting back that confidence that, ‘I’m still the same guy, I can do this,’” Burris said. “Obviously he’s not a 17-year-old kid anymore. It’s a growth thing too. And then him adapting to the new program – it’s completely different than what we do in high school. All of those things together.”
Once Robinson figured those things out, the results began to show on the track.
Everything started to come together again in the winter of 2023.
2023 magical season
February was the first sign that Robinson had turned the corner and was on the way to a productive season. He ran the last leg of the 4×400-meter relay at the Tyson Invitational in Arkansas and the Sun Devils set a new school record in the event with their time of 3:03.09.
At the same meet, Robinson also ran a personal best of 45.87 in the 400-meters.
One week later, the United States Track and Field Indoor Championships were held in Albuquerque, where Robinson claimed the individual title in the 400-meters in a new school record time of 45.40.
His success continued into the outdoor season.
Robinson added a third school record to his belt at the NCAA Outdoor Championships when the 4×100-meter relay team ran 38.54 to break the old record. His fourth, and final, school record of the spring was added when the 4×400-meter relay ran 2:57.78 at the same meet.
That would have broken the previous collegiate record, too – if the University of Florida wasn’t in that same race. The Gators ran 2:57.74.
Robinson had a month off from competition before the USATF Outdoor Championships in early July.
Considering his past two experiences at the national championship level for the outdoor season didn’t end the way he wanted, the anticipation heading into the meet was high.
At the USATF Outdoor Championships, Robinson finished in fifth in the preliminary rounds in a time of 45.22. In the finals, Robinson ran his best race of the entire year, recording a new personal best of 44.47 to finish in fourth place.
Any doubts remaining about Robinson, internal and external, were erased with him back in the mix for Team USA.
Because of his performance at the USATF Outdoor Championships, Robinson was selected to be in the pool for the relay teams for Team USA at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest.
“The whole process of making the team, I was extremely grateful and blessed,” Robinson said. “Obviously I wanted to make it in the open (400-meters), I was one spot off. But
I was still excited that I was going for the relay.”
Being part of Team USA comes with neat perks. Nike swag. Flights. Food.
Topping that list for Robinson was being able to rub shoulders with athletes that he admired.
“I hung out a lot with Fred Kerley, Matthew Boiling, Ryan Willie and Quincy Hall,” Robinson said. “Those are the main guys. They took me under their wing, talked to me about things outside of track and about track. It was pretty cool.”
While he was selected for the mixed 4×400-meter relay, which includes two men and two women, the spots for the men’s 4×400-meter relay were still up for grabs.
It was going to be performance-based.
“I really didn’t know,” Robinson said. “I just went out there and performed as well as I could to make sure my spot was solidified. Given those things, you never know what might happen.”
Not only did he perform well, but so did the whole team as the United States set a new world at 3:08.80. Robinson split 44.99 for his leg, earning him a spot on the men’s 4×400-meter relay team.
Four years after he was on top of the world at 17 years old, he was back, considered as one of the four best sprinters for the 400-meters in America – regardless of age.
“It was humbling, exciting; it was a blessing,” Robinson said. “It was so many emotions getting out there, to see how much love and support track gets in Europe. That was my first time in front of a crowd that big. Everybody loves the USA. I was shaking kids’ hands, taking pictures after the meet. It was an amazing experience.”
It was even more exciting for those watching back home.
The moment will stick forever with Burris, who still talks to Robinson multiple times on a daily basis through their PlayStation 5 voice chat.
“Not only was I watching it, but everybody in my neighborhood knows I was watching it, hearing me through my window,” Burris said. “Me and my kids were screaming at the television. We watched every bit of it.”
It wasn’t just those who have guided and coached Robinson who felt a sense of pride watching him perform in Budapest.
He also has made an impact with his teammates, setting a standard for them to aspire to reach. It’s not every day athletes get to train with someone who has a world record, an individual USATF national championship and two World Championship gold medals.
That’s the everyday life of sophomore sprinter Trevin Moyer. The two live together, and Moyer refers to Robinson as “big bro.”
They’ve known each other for less than two years, but have already struck up a bond. He wasn’t surprised while watching Robinson on the TV screen.
“It’s surreal because he’s also my roommate,” Moyer said. “We all knew it was going to happen. We see the way he trains. We see the way he eats. We see the way he carries himself. It was bound to happen. We all knew it. The whole team – the relay teams – we knew it was going to happen.
“He’s an animal. He’s a dog. Every workout, you see everyone’s tired. And you look back, and Justin’s still standing up, walking around, still doing something. His face is going to be on the wall in 10 years.”
For Robinson to emerge from a hole of darkness in this way, to not get sucked in a swirl of despair, is a testament to the type of person he is.
This is someone who never missed a single day of high school practice.
“It takes extreme focus,” Miller said. “You get an athlete like that, who has been on the mountain top, and everything you do, if it’s not faster, most athletes are going to be down in the dumps. And of course he went through times where it was stressful for him because he was king of the hill with a lot of promise coming out of high school.
“One thing Justin really learned is that there are a lot of other guys who are just as talented and everybody’s talent maturates at different times. For him to come back, that speaks volumes to his focus and his ability to move on.”
The whole year has been a lot to take in for Robinson. He went from making headlines to not being in them at all. Now he’s back, turning the attention back to himself with his performances on the track.
Even though he returned to Arizona almost two months ago from Budapest, not all of it has sunk in.
“I still don’t think it has hit me now,” Robinson said. “I’m still going through the process – like people stopping me on campus, track fans.”
Robinson, in humble nature, is sure to thank each person who stops him.
At the moment, Robinson is taking time off from his long summer as prepares for his senior season at ASU. He’s about to start gearing up for the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons, which he is anticipating another long stretch of competition.
It’s an Olympic year. Paris is the goal.
But Burris is thinking further than that. South Africa Wayde van Niekerk’s world record of 43.03 is being targeted.
“I honestly think you could put this on paper,” Burris said. “He’d be the first one to say it – he’s going to break the world record. We’ve been talking about that since he was 16 years old. And he’s going to do it. I know it.”