By Jordan Godwin
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
In the 800-meter race, some runners take an early lead pacing the rest of the pack until they crash during the second lap.
Then there’s Jacob Hernandez. The Finisher.
“The way he races says a lot about his character,” said Texas men’s track head coach Bubba Thornton. “He’s the guy that stays the course and usually wins in the end.”
That determination has helped Hernandez bring home the last two national championships, but like most college students, the discipline wasn’t always there.
“Three years ago, I was just out of it, rock bottom,” Hernandez said. “I had been successful in high school, but when I got to college, it was a whole new world – your mom doesn’t cook your meals, you have to wake up at 6 a.m., it’s just tough at first.
"But eventually I said, ‘This is what I want, and this is what I have to do to get it.’”
Hernandez competed at TCU his freshman year before transferring to Texas. Due to NCAA transfer regulations, he was unable to compete for a year.
“Having to sit out and not compete is tough on any athlete,” Thornton said. “Most guys lose some of their abilities to compete, but Jacob’s character and work ethic was always there.”
Since gaining eligibility to compete as a Longhorn, Hernandez has won three-straight indoor conference championships. He has also won one of two outdoor titles, as he prepares for his final Big 12 Outdoor Track and Field Championship in Lubbock, Texas, beginning on May 16.
“This conference has some stiff 800-meter competition, but I’m definitely excited about defending my titles,” Hernandez said.
At the national level, Hernandez’s career has mirrored his racing strategy in that he finishes strong. He failed to qualify for the indoor nationals in 2007, and competed at the outdoor meet but didn’t place. His struggles continued early into his junior year at the indoor championships when he was disqualified in the prelims.
Since then, he has won three national championships.
The first was the 800-meter leg on UT’s 2008 indoor distance medley relay team. The second, and his first 800-meter title, was decided by one-hundredth of a second in a come-from-behind finish at the 2008 outdoor event. His third and most recent title came at the 2009 indoor championships, where he trailed teammate Tevan Everett for nearly three-quarters of the race before pulling ahead for the victory.
“It’s been a huge advantage for me to compete alongside him,” Everett said. “I feed off of his endurance for the last lap because you know he’s going to finish strong.”
Nearing his final races as a Longhorn, Hernandez hasn’t pondered the prospect of losing.
“Wow, I’ve never even thought about it,” Hernandez said. “It would definitely (be disappointing) to have worked so hard and come up short, but the way my training is going, I feel like things will click at nationals. If everything goes right and I still get beat, then there are no regrets.”
After graduation, the Magnolia, Texas native doesn’t plan on hanging up his spikes.
“I’m definitely shooting for (the 2012 Summer Olympics),” Hernandez said. “Things just didn’t fall into place at the trials last year.”
In June, Hernandez placed ninth in the semifinals at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials with a time that was nearly a full second slower than what he posted at the NCAA championships less than a month earlier.
In preparing for the 2012 London Olympic Games, Hernandez will have a source of inspiration that’s close to home. Actually, living in his home. His roommate is former Longhorn teammate and Olympian Leo Manzano.
“I’m envious of his lifestyle because he gets to treat running like a job,” Hernandez said of Manzano. “He wakes up at 8 a.m. for breakfast, runs, rests, eats lunch, and runs some more. He’s not a crazy guy, he likes to have fun, but at the same time, he knows what it takes to be an Olympic athlete.”
Hernandez said that living with Manzano has been beneficial to his own discipline, and acknowledged that Manzano’s lifestyle as a professional runner is very enticing when weighing his options for life after college.
“I feel like if I stay focused and treat it like a job, then all the hard work will speak for itself,” Hernandez said. “But if not, again, I’ll have no regrets.”
And he’s not the only one that believes in his Olympic potential.
“He’s going to be one of the obstacles for guys trying to make that team,” said Thornton, who also served as the U.S. Track and Field head coach last summer in Beijing. “He’s in a perfect situation – age, strength, confidence – everything’s there for him.”