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April 7, 2011

EYEING MORE MEDALS - He's an ACC champion and an All-American, but Tech runner Michael Hammond is setting his sights on a national championship

By: Marc Mullen

In the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the league’s mile event at the indoor championships had been raced 49 times before a Virginia Tech runner crossed the finish line first. In the last three, a Hokie has captured the crown.

In the history of the ACC, only eight men, including 2011 winner Michael Hammond, have successfully defended their first win by besting the field the next year. Ironically, of the seven before him, five had gone on to win the event a third time. And just sitting with the young man for 10 minutes, one easily sees that Hammond exudes the confidence that he will join that group next year.

“Oh man, I think the only way that won’t happen is if I am needed in other events and we need points in another area because that takes precedence over anything individually related,” Hammond said. “Doing it back-to-back was awesome, but three-peating would be really cool.

“I’ve always just competed in every sport, and I’ve always done my best and I’ve always thought ‘No one is better than me.’ That’s just how I’ve been since I was a kid, and that’s just my competitive nature.”

Hammond’s competitive nature took him on quite a thrilling ride through a two-week period more than a month ago. He entered the ACC Indoor Championships held at Virginia Tech’s Rector Field House on February 26 as the defending champion in the mile. He earned his team 10 points with his .09-second victory over Duke’s Ryan McDermott and .46 seconds over Virginia’s Brett Johnson.

Ironically, that was the same day the men’s basketball team was playing the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils across the street at Cassell Coliseum. Now, except every four years when the Olympics shine a light on the sport, track and field athletes do not get the same attention as football or men’s basketball athletes. But that night, the Hokie men walked out onto the court at halftime of the basketball game and were recognized for winning their first ACC men’s indoor team title.

“I am definitely envious when I go to a basketball game or a football game and there are just thousands of fans screaming,” Hammond said. “It was cool, though, after the ACC Indoor Championships. We got to go to the Duke game, and that was awesome because there were probably a bunch of people there who don’t even know a lot about the sport, but they still clapped for us.

“It was all great. Winning the title for Coach [Dave] Cianelli and all the coaches was great. They’ve been waiting almost a decade for this. And then for myself to win the mile and have that add 10 points to our score, I felt like I did what I needed to do to help the team.”

Michael Hammond, a two-time ACC Indoor champion in the mile, earned All-America honors with a seventh-place finish at the NCAA Championships and has his sights set on honors in the 1,500-meter race during the outdoor season.

A week later, on March 5, Hammond and several other teammates headed to South Bend, Ind., to compete in the Alex Wilson Invitational in a last-chance effort to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships. Not only did Hammond qualify by .59 seconds, but also, when he stopped the clock at 3:58.41, he set the school record in the event.

Ironically, the previous record holder and the new one share more things in common than holding a Tech school record – most notably, a high school. Billy Berlin, who set his mark of 4:02.47 in 2009, and Hammond both graduated from Midlothian High School.

“As far as mentors, guys that have helped me to get where I am, I would say, first and foremost, was Billy Berlin,” Hammond said. “He was an ACC champ in the mile and 1,500 meters outdoors a couple years ago. And he actually went to my same high school. We ran roughly the same times in high school, and he was just someone that I’ve been following in the footsteps of and have had similar improvements.”

Following in Berlin’s footsteps no more, Hammond is now the holder of two ACC indoor mile titles, owns two school records (the 3,000 meters as well), and became just the second Tech runner to earn All-America honors indoors with his seventh-place finish at the NCAA Championships.

In College Station, Texas – less than 100 miles from where the 21-year-old Hammond was born (Houston) – he raced the nation’s elite in the preliminaries on March 11 and posted a 4:01.11 to advance to the next day’s finals and have a chance at a dream, an NCAA title.

“In the finals, which is an eight-lap race, I was right there with three laps to go,” Hammonds explained. “I could reach out and touch the leader. I was feeling good up there. And then, you know these guys are the best in the country, and they kind of moved away and I just kind of got left behind.

“But definitely the whole time, I could just taste it, right there in front of me, even though it was my first NCAA meet. I’ve always believed that I have the ability to be the best in the NCAA, but that made it tangible. That made it real. It made it something that I can reach out and take. I know that it’s going to take a lot more work and patience and a lot of miles, but it definitely feels more real. Yeah, before it was a dream, but now, it’s let’s work for this goal.”

The dream of being an NCAA champion could have been in Hammond’s mind since Tech head cross country/distance coach Ben Thomas started recruiting him.

According to Hammond, “As a junior in high school, I ran a pretty quick mile, and that got me some attention. In fact, Coach Thomas at Tech called me. But then, my senior year, I had a good cross country season, and that ended up getting me more national attention, and I got recruited by a good amount of schools.

“But Coach Thomas was the one that looked me in the eye and told me ‘I think you can be not just a good runner, but a great runner, an All-American-type of competitor.’ He just seemed so real and so believing in my ability.”

What Thomas remembers is a high school kid whom he actually first saw running meets at Tech.

“He ran decent times, but when he was a Foot Locker finalist in his senior year of cross country, which only 40 guys make that, he really got noticed,” Thomas said. “I just remember watching him prepare for races. He just had this mindset, this focus, when I was watching him warm-up. Plus, he has the body, and strides, that are just built to run, and that can’t be taught.”

And again, it’s back to the confidence that Hammond displays, even as a 17-year-old when he was being recruited. He even knew his sport, and he paid attention to the Hokies even before becoming one.

“The current phenom at Tech at the time was Tasmin Fanning, and she was doing extremely well,” Hammond said. “She had just recently got All-America in cross country and shortly there after she would go on to the Olympic Trials and do really well there. And watching her on TV was really awesome.

“But I asked [Coach Thomas], ‘Tasmin Fanning, she’s great, do you think in your program I can be that good?’ So, even though in high school, I wasn’t really running, comparatively, fantastic times, I still thought, ‘Yeah, I can be there someday.’ But I wanted a coach that was on the same lines, not saying, ‘I hope I can bring him in here and score points at conference.’ I wanted a coach that also believed I could be as good as I wanted to be, and I definitely got that vibe from Coach Thomas.”

Up next for Hammond is the outdoor track season, and he says that goal No. 1 is to win a 1,500-meter title at the ACC Championships. Then, “I definitely want to qualify for the NCAA meet because outdoors you actually have to run the regional meet and qualify for the outdoor meet.

“I need to take it step by step. But I am definitely thinking at the outdoor national meet, I would certainly like to get another All-America honor and hopefully place higher than I did at the indoors.”

And let’s be honest, does anyone doubt him?