Tony Lawson, then the Brunswick High boys outdoor track coach, had to do some running of his own back in 2009 after the final school bell rang.
He was trying to chase down Luke Campbell — a lean, lithe freshman soccer and basketball player for the Railroaders who, despite a year as a runner and jumper in the Potomac Valley Youth Association — had decided not to come out for the Brunswick track team.
Lawson wasn’t fast enough.
“He was gone,” Lawson said of his fruitless pursuit. “He wanted nothing to do with it.”
Eventually, the two caught up. And Campbell, following his older brother Robin’s footsteps on the track, agreed to join Lawson’s ranks in the spring of his sophomore year despite the sport not being “a big priority” in the boy’s life.
By the end of the succeeding three years, though, drastic changes had occurred. For instance, by then Lawson had to tell Campbell, no, in fact, he could not take that starting block or that hurdle home to practice in his free time.
By the end of the succeeding three years, Campbell was an early arriver and late stayer at spring practice. Track — and especially the hurdle events — had become Campbell’s main focus. His outlet.
Campbell, 26, is in Japan now.
He made it there after fully dedicating himself at Brunswick. After an unparalleled college career at Salisbury University, where he fell in love with his event. After moving to Germany — where his mother was born, giving him dual citizenship there — to gain a better footing for a run at his dreams. After taking all the right steps toward that end. After losing his mother to cancer in early 2020. After using the pandemic shutdown as a way to heal his injuries and prime himself.
After all of that, Campbell is preparing to run the 400-meter hurdles for Germany at the Tokyo Olympics.
Since Lawson courted him 12 years ago, Campbell’s relationship with the sport of track has nearly done a 180 — from lukewarm to burning passion.
When he learned earlier this month that he’d officially made the German Olympic team, Campbell said — via email with the News-Post — that it was “an indescribable feeling.”
“It was a dream of mine fairly early on,” he said. “In my first year of college was when I really started to appreciate track and field, and the hurdles specifically, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year at Salisbury that I could actually imagine myself taking things a step further and making these thoughts someday a reality.”
When Lawson finally got his hands on Campbell in 2010, hurdling was an obvious fit. Lawson had recognized Campbell’s smooth footwork on the soccer field, his jumping ability on the basketball court.
“But most important, it was his height,” Lawson said of Campbell, who is 6-foot-2. “He’s extremely tall and lean, and so, hey, I figured, let’s give it a shot.”
Lawson remembers getting Campbell comfortable with the rhythm, for instance, of the 110-meter high hurdles: seven steps from the start, three steps between hurdles. The novice figured it out “without a hitch,” the coach said.
Campbell began consistent improvement, then started to take off in several events as a junior.
Then there was a hitch. Off the track.
Campbell’s parents, Anne and Patrick, had split up. Robin Campbell said Luke dealt with the difficulty at home by rebelling in certain ways. Not necessarily getting into trouble, but making poor choices that are often presented to teenagers.
Lawson, who works in law enforcement, got wind of it and wasn’t happy. He found a chance to intervene, pulled up alongside Campbell one day and said, “GET IN THE CAR RIGHT NOW.”
Lawson took Campbell home for a tense meeting with his mother.
Said Robin, “They did a good job of reeling him in.”
From then on, track took on many roles for Campbell. It became a diversion. A comfort. A way to make his parents proud. An accelerant for his hunger to excel.
“It just fueled him to do something great,” Robin said.
In May of his senior year at Brunswick, Luke captured a trio of state championships at the Class 1A meet, winning both hurdles titles and the high jump, an event Lawson said Campbell seldom even practiced.
“Then he went to college,” Robin said, “and it was something else.”
Success was quick and sustained for Campbell at Salisbury, a Division III school, even as he adapted to college life.
He won his first national championship as a freshman in the 110 high hurdles. Campbell essentially didn’t stop winning for the rest of his career. He etched his name into NCAA record books with a record 11 national titles.
During that time, he began to think about taking advantage of his heritage: After college, he could move to Germany — where his parents met when his father was stationed there in the military — in an attempt to represent that country in the Olympics.
The 400 hurdles soon became his exclusive event. He went to Germany in 2017 and linked up with the country’s hurdling coach, former Olympic gold medalist Volker Beck.
While learning a new language and culture as a resident of Frankfurt (not far from where two of his uncles live), Campbell also started to shave his best times dramatically as he went up against elite competition.
“Germany has a smaller track program,” Robin said, “and with that you get more of that one-on-one training — and you’ll get bigger in a small program.”
In his biggest accomplishment prior to Tokyo, Luke Campbell — who receives funding by competing for the athletic club LG Eintracht Frankfurt and serving in the Bundeswehr, the German army, as what he termed a “sports soldier” — reached the semifinals at the 2019 World Championships.
His time in Germany has seen him cultivate an even closer connection to the event that has consumed his devotion.
“Since I moved back to Germany, I’ve learned to truly appreciate my event, since it has become my life for these past few years,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time since then perfecting my craft, analyzing every step, hurdle and movement.
“I see the art within the event.”
The 400-meter hurdles — part of the Olympics for men since 1900 — is a grueling test of speed, endurance and fluidity of technique. The distance is generally considered the longest sprint in the sport, but there’s also the need for runners to negotiate 10 evenly spaced obstacles. For men, the hurdles are 36 inches high.
“The reason it’s grueling is not just because it’s physically demanding,” said John Grim, a longtime local track coach who has worked with college 400 hurdlers. “The 400-meter hurdles combines virtually every fitness parameter and technical parameter in the sport in one race.”
Mount St. Mary’s track and field coach Jay Phillips says the key to the 400 hurdles is being a strong, fast rhythm runner. But he says that’s easier said than done — because the runner must steer that speed and rhythm to an exact place 10 times to get over the obstacles.
“The ones I’ve seen be most successful do make it look effortless,” he said, “but if you know what you’re looking for, it’s controlled strength and speed.”
Grim mentioned Edwin Moses, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the event, as being “poetry in motion.”
Phillips said the race is like a ballet dance.
The main challenge of it is to maintain that strict rhythm until the end — which can become dreadfully harder and harder after each hurdle. So, the final three can be perilous if lethargy begins to set in and the runner’s steps get off kilter.
“So much can happen in those last three or four hurdles if you can’t keep your rhythm,” Phillips said.
After the final curve, there are two hurdles left. And, “at that point,” Grim said, “they feel 10-feet tall.”
Technical focus is paramount for the duration.
Campbell’s best time in the event is 49.14 seconds. He’s currently the eighth-ranked 400 hurdler in Europe, according to worldathletics.com.
He reached that position this season after an inactive 2020. If track events had been held during the pandemic, Campbell would’ve had to run through what he called unbearable pain due to an edema in his leg and foot. Once he got over that, a torn calf in December shelved him for eight weeks.
Unsure he’d be capable of qualifying for the Olympics, Campbell said it was “a stressful time.”
“[The pandemic] was a good thing in a sense for him because he was injured,” said Robin Campbell, who communicates regularly with his brother on WhatsApp. “He spent that whole year recuperating.”
The calf injury meant Luke needed more time to re-acclimate to his event. When he began competing, though, he was able to start accumulating the points needed to qualify for the Olympics through a ranking system.
There are 40 spots for the 400 hurdles at the Olympics, he said. Rather than making the Olympic team by hitting the qualifying standard of 48.9 seconds, the point values (based on size of the meet, time and place) for his top five performances were added up and compared to other competitors. He said he was ranked 16th out of 40.
“I feel confident going into the Games,” he said. “I’ve shown noticeable improvement each week and am positive that I’m in better shape now than I was a year before.”
He began to envision being in this position years ago, and it’s one his mother pushed him toward supportively the entire time.
Robin said their mother would tell Luke, “Don’t let anything stop you.”
The shared dream
Luke Campbell flew back to Frederick County in December 2019 to spend the holidays at home. But around that time, Anne — who had been battling colorectal cancer for two and a half years — saw her health decline. Doctors said she didn’t have much time left.
Anne had always expressed certainty that her son would reach the Olympic stage. When Lawson ran into her in 2019, she thanked him for what he’d done for her son. And, Lawson said, she was adamant that Luke would make it to Tokyo.
“Like, she just knew,” Robin said.
It was a dream she shared with her son. But he will live it without her, representing the country where she was born, the place he was able to go — because of her — to help fulfill his grandest ambition.
Anne died in January 2020.
“We got to see her in her last moments,” Robin said. “We got to talk to her and let everything out. That helped a lot.”
Luke might not have his mother present when he bows his head for the starter’s gun on Thursday in Tokyo, but he’s adamant about something, too: She’ll be with him every step of the way around the track. Out of the blocks, in between hurdles, over them.
And certainly in that crucial homestretch — when a hurdler needs to somehow keep it all together despite the threat of exhaustion.
Don’t let anything stop you.
“She was truly my biggest fan,” Campbell said, “and I carry her strength and energy always whenever I step onto the track before I race, wherever she might be in the universe.”