Shortly after running the fastest 400-meter hurdles race of his life — and doing so on his sport’s grandest stage — Brunswick High School alum Luke Campbell’s head was almost spinning as that day’s trip around the track at Tokyo’s National Stadium kept replaying in his mind.
It took him awhile to fully grasp the personal-best time (48.62 seconds) he’d recorded during his semifinal heat at the Summer Olympics on Aug. 1. Ever the conscientious competitor and driven athlete, he was also in his head about the minor mistakes he’d made that might’ve prevented him from running even faster and advancing to the final.
He missed the top eight by three places and less than a second.
But when he returned that night to the Olympic Village, he was met by “a thousand messages from friends and family” congratulating him on his big moment.
Despite not reaching the final, not earning a coveted medal, the whole experience exceeded the expectations of a runner who’d hesitantly gotten his start as a hurdler some 11 years earlier at Brunswick High and never seriously contemplated making an Olympic team until his wildly successful track career at little Division III Salisbury University concluded.
Campbell, 26, was able to seize the moment with a world-class effort despite his 2020 being a wash due to pandemic-related track cancellations and — more pertinent to him — injury recovery that lingered into the start of the 2021 season, threatening his chances of qualifying for Tokyo.
His performance in the semifinals also played a key role in landing Campbell on the 4x400-meter relay team for Germany — the country he represents because his late mother, Anne, was born there. Later that week, he became the first Frederick County athlete to compete in more than one event in the same Olympics when he took the baton to run the second leg of the relay.
Back in Frankfurt, where he lives, trains and works, Campbell called his Olympics “surreal.”
He detailed it all in an email exchange with the News-Post. What follows is the Q&A, with our questions in bold:
Overall, how would you describe your experience?
It was such a surreal experience. It surpassed my expectation of what I thought being at the Olympics would feel like, given the changes made in regards to the coronavirus. It was still great overall and something that’ll always be strongly remembered and often looked back upon positively.
Given the level of competition, did you expect a personal best in the semifinals?
Almost running a personal best in the first round gave me a bit of confidence going into the semifinals. It wasn’t the cleanest race from me, and had a few noticeable errors from me, so I knew that I was able to run much faster when the next came. I think the level of competitiveness also played a role. The times this season have never been so fast and consistent in history; we all knew going into the semifinals that a personal best and something more would have to be necessary in order to make the finals.
How pleased were you with the time you turned in, considering it was such a drastic reduction in your best time?
I was very satisfied. There was a lot of time lost in the beginning of the season, and to be able to improve myself so drastically, shows to me that I have still have room for improvement. It was of course upsetting that I didn’t make the finals, but I’ve exceeded a lot of expectations and accomplished a lot of goals this year, which are going to only motivate and help me at championships to come.
I noticed you clipped a hurdle midway through the semis. How did that affect you in the race, if at all?
It’s hard to say how much time or speed is lost with hitting a hurdle, because it’s different every time, but it was something that I didn’t perceive in the race, and think that it had a minimal effect on the race.
After it was over and you were back at the Olympic village that night, what went through your mind?
I was in a good mood traveling from the stadium to the village. I didn’t truly have time to process the race and the whole experience in and of itself, but I remember I kept playing the race over again in my head, to feel how it felt again ... and to think about what I could have done better, and just everything that led up to it in that day.
When were you able to connect with your family after you competed in the semifinals? What was their reaction when you got to communicate with them?
I connected with them later when I was able to get back onto the WiFi in the Olympic village. There were a thousand messages from friends and family, congratulating and supporting me from thousands of miles away. They were all extremely excited for me.
You are the first athlete from Frederick County to compete in two events in one Olympics. Did you know that? And what does that mean to you?
I recently found out about being the first person to compete in two events, and it’s a cool honor to have, and especially humbling. There has been a lot of great, and successful athletes that come out of Frederick County, and I hope that there will continue to be great athletes, and athletes who may one day see the path that I made and to take it even further.
The track seemed amazingly fast in Tokyo’s National Stadium. How were the conditions for you?
The conditions were overall great. The track is state-of-the-art, and the temperature was fairly high every day. I think this track belongs at the top of the list along with the other great Olympic tracks. It would have of course made the whole Olympic experience a hundred times better when there was an audience, but for me the Olympic spirit was at least there, whether I was on the track competing, or in the stadium watching other events taking place, or in the village seeing the community itself, and that made it all worth it.
Where were you for the men’s 400 hurdles final? What did you think of that amazing race [Norway’s Karsten Warholm smashed his own world record with a winning time of 45.94 seconds in the fastest 400 hurdles race ever]?
I was in the village when the race happened. It definitely is a historic moment for those who took part in that race, and almost mind-blowing to see the development in the sport and the barriers that continue to get broken. It is definitely one of those most competitive, and exciting sport disciplines in track and field and in general, and it’s easy to see why.
Tell me about how you came to run on the 4x400 team. Was that a possibility all along, or were you surprised by that opportunity? When was the last time you ran in the 4x4?
It was decided shortly after that I was going to run on the relay as well. The time that I ran in the semifinals helped prove that I was able to run a somewhat [fast] time in the [4x400] relay if I was to be placed on it. It was decided by the coaches of the relay team, in hopes to run the best possible time with the four strongest 400-meter runners available. I was happy and thankful that I was able to secure a spot. It was one of my favorite events that I did when I competed for Salisbury, the last time being in 2016.
How did this entire experience set you up for the future?
The experience was overwhelming in the sense that it’s something that can’t be topped for another three years. There’s a lot of time in between for people to fall off, and to lose sight of everything that was done in preparation for the Olympic Games in the first place, but it’s only given me motivation however to become the best I can be and to reach [the] next level.
What’s next for you this summer? Do you plan to come back to visit Frederick County anytime soon?
For the moment I’m back in Frankfurt in order to train for the next couple of weeks, before I go on a small race circuit before running my last race for the season at the ISTAF Stadionfest in Berlin.
I’ll probably be heading back to the U.S. shortly after to enjoy a much-needed break before the offseason start.