For someone who compiled a track and field résumé chock-full of accomplishments, Luke Campbell didn’t initially approach his goal of qualifying for the Olympic Games with supreme confidence.
The Brunswick alum may have graduated from Salisbury as one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. collegiate track and field history three years ago, but making the leap into elite status at the professional level wasn’t exactly a guarantee.
Shaving more than a full second off his best 400-meter hurdles time was difficult enough. And Campbell was also trying to make the Olympics as a German citizen, so that ambitious goal also included relocating in a country more than 4,000 miles away from Brunswick, learning a new language and embracing a different culture.
But approximately two months after moving to Germany in 2017, finding himself competing in a national championship meet and experiencing an adrenaline boost in a big moment, Campbell turned in an unexpected breakthrough performance that showed him he indeed belonged at this stage. All of a sudden, making the Olympics was a reachable goal.
“I just went out there and didn’t really think about the other people in the lanes or the people surrounding me or the crowd,” said Campbell, who won a national championship in the 400 hurdles and then later repeated that national title in 2018 before qualifying for the IAAF World Championships last weekend in Bydgoszcz, Poland. “I just went out there and ran the race I wanted to, and I ended up with a huge personal best.”
His time of 49.40 seconds shattered his previous best of 49.96 seconds, which he posted less than a month before the national championships.
“In the 400 hurdles, you don’t really acquire personal bests that are a half-second faster than your previous [best]. So it was a shocking thing as well.”
Even for someone such as Campbell, who won more individual track and field titles (11) than anyone else in Division III history, that feeling of knowing he belongs among some of the world’s best athletes meant so much.
Last Saturday at the European Athletics Team Championships in Poland, Campbell placed third in the 400 hurdles with a time of 49.24, qualifying him for the world championships, which take begin Sept. 28 and run through Oct. 6 in Doha, Qatar. The IAAF qualifying standard for the 400 hurdles is 49.30.
“It’s been of a bunch of positive experiences that have really given me confidence to keep going forward, to realize my dream and to know that [all the work is] not in vain,” said Campbell, who can compete for Germany because his mother, Anne, was born there.
But after graduating from Salisbury in 2016, Campbell didn’t dive right into postcollegiate competition, choosing to stay near his school and train on a familiar track while working a part-time job as a physical therapist technician at Aquacare Physical Therapy.
As for making a run at the Olympics, the wheels weren’t set in motion until April 2017, when he traveled to Germany and met the country’s 400 hurdles coach, Volker Beck. They hit it off.
On top of that, after Campbell did some research on Beck, he also discovered Beck won the 400 hurdles Olympic gold medal in 1980.
“When I actually found out, I kind of lost my mind for a second, being coached by someone that has a gold medal in my event,” Campbell said.
When Campbell moved to Niederrad — a small town about three miles southwest of Frankfurt — the following summer, he didn’t expect instant success.
His best time as a collegian in the 400 hurdles was 50.36, and when he participated in the Texas Relays — a popular event that annually features a strong mix of college and professional athletes in early April — he only mustered a 51.20.
“Usually, it requires two, three meets to really get into that competition form,” Campbell said. “So I just brushed it off, but it was definitely a disappointing result for me.”
When he arrived in Germany, Campbell knew he’d encounter his fair share of people who “are wondering what your real purpose in Germany is.” For them, he was an unfamiliar face, and he spoke very little German.
He found various applications — Duolingo was his go-to source — that helped him learn the language. When he watched movies on Netflix, he took them in with English audio and German subtitles, and over time, he switched the audio to German.
“At a certain point — you don’t really know when — it kind of just clicks, and you kind of know what everyone is talking about,” Campbell said. “You don’t have to think twice about what you’re going to say in return.”
Becoming more fluent in German allowed him to learn more about the people in his country, and he has grown fond of them in the process.
So Campbell finds himself in a good place, where he can focus on his performance on the track without much distraction.
Campbell and other athletes on the German Olympic team receive funding from the German army, which Campbell says almost views athletes as “sports soldiers.” It’s a far cry from his postcollegiate days in Salisbury, where he’d work between six and eight hours and then focus on his training.
“That’s something that’s also really important for me,” Campbell said.
After his first 400 hurdles national title, he continued to improve, running his event in 49.20 in the semifinals of the European championships last year. His time was one one-thousandth of a second slower than that of the eighth-best performer, denying him a spot in the final. Also in 2018, Campbell ran his new personal best of 49.14 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.
As for the Olympics, the qualification process has changed since the last Summer Olympics in 2016, when athletes simply needed to meet a qualification standard.
For the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, athletes can still meet qualification standards, but they have been significantly lowered for many races. The qualification standard for the men’s 400 hurdles is 48.9 seconds, but competitors may also qualify with a strong world ranking.
An athlete’s five best results across a qualification period from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, will determine the ranking, with some meets carrying more weight than others.
Campbell didn’t talk at length about his chances of qualifying, taking into consideration unknown factors such as unexpected injuries. But he’s seemingly become comfortable in Niederrad, where he can quietly focus on his running without much fanfare.
In his spare time, Campbell likes going to cafes to read. He’ll frequently take walks along the Main River, which flows above the northern edges of Niederrad before cutting through the heart of Frankfurt. And if Campbell wants to visit any of the museums that dot the southern shore of the Main in Frankfurt, they are just a short train ride away.
“In my case, I’m very thankful to be out of the public eye, being able to do my thing but also have my peace,” Campbell said.
On the track, he’s strongly encouraged by his continuous improvement.
“That’s something you always want to see as an athlete, too, just that you can see results and that you’re better and you’re getting faster,” Campbell said. “That’s also a big deal for the mentality going forward the next season and next two seasons, knowing that you’re capable and that you’re continuing to make progress.”