May 10, 2016
IOWA CITY, Iowa — It is one thing for a coach to gush about the potential of a freshman student-athlete. It is another thing when the praise comes from a senior captain — particularly when that freshman is gunning for you.
Aaron Mallett was an unknown rookie in 2014. Ethan Holmes was an All-America hurdler, school record-holder, and two-time team captain.
Holmes had more than 50 college races under his belt before Mallett toed his first start line, but the freshman caught up quick, and Holmes saw him coming from a mile away.
“From the day we started doing hurdle technique together, I said to (coach) Woody, ‘This guy is going to be the real deal,'” Holmes said after Mallett raced to the front of the Big Ten with a first-place finish at Musco Twilight XVII.
Mallett will be the top seed in the 110-meter hurdles when the Big Ten Outdoor Championships begin May 13 in Lincoln, Nebraska. It marks the second year in a row he enters the conference meet as the man to beat, and this year it is not close. He finished the Musco race in 13.50, one-quarter of a second faster than No. 2 on the conference leaderboard, Illinois’ Cam Viney, who ran 13.75 at the Stanford Invitational.
“What sets him apart from everybody else is not only is he extremely fast and talented, he has the work ethic,” Holmes said. “He wants to learn why he’s doing the things he’s doing. He wants to know why he’s training a specific way. He listens to his body and is a very well-versed athlete.”
Mallett has his head on straight, and his eyes pointed even straighter. For any racer, to reach your personal-best you typically need to challenge yourself against a fast field. Mallett hit his season-best against a relatively light field at Musco, winning the race by .73 seconds.
“To come out in 13.50 against nobody within a couple hurdles is impressive,” said UI director of track and field Joey Woody. “You have to chase yourself.”
Or as Mallett calls it, “running against a ghost.”
“I imagine myself running against a ghost and I just keep pushing and moving no matter who is around me,” he said. “If no one is around me, I just have to keep moving.”
Mallett has been moving since Day 1, when Holmes first identified him as “the next big deal,” but his pace has steadily improved. In his first Big Ten Championships in 2014, he crashed in the indoor finals and finished in ninth place. Three months later he stayed on his feet and finished sixth at the outdoor conference championships.
By Year 2, things went from moving forward to fast forward. He placed runner-up in the 60-meter hurdles at the 2015 indoor championships, and won his first Big Ten title in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2015 outdoor championships.
He matched the pace as a junior in 2016, winning the 60-meter hurdles at the indoor championships in February. Now, three months later, he is the favorite to repeat as champion in the 110-meter hurdles.
His career progression has paralleled each individual season’s progress — slow start, fast finish.
“I’ve been putting things together at the right time,” Mallett said. “I’m not one of those people to pop off early, so if I keep getting fast throughout the season I’m happy with that.”
The 2016 Big Ten Championships begin Friday at 12 p.m. (CT) at Ed Weir Stadium. The 110-meter hurdle prelims are Saturday at 4:35 p.m. The finals are Sunday at 2:35 p.m. BTN2go will stream the finals live.